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Survey of the Use of Russian Language in the Brighton Beach Area of Brooklyn

Yevgeniy Palatnik and Pat DeAngelis

     As we begin our discussion of the Russian community, it is important to take into account various assumptions that need to be made during this analysis. In this discussion, the term "Russian" will reflect its American interpretation, rather than the purely ethnic one. By the American definition, the term "Russian" can be used to categorize any people who migrated to the U.S. from the Russian-speaking parts of the former Soviet Union. This definition discounts the ethnic differences that exist between these immigrants and classifies them according to their native language and country of origin. Nevertheless, it should be noted that the majority of the people making up the "Russian" community are mainly Jewish immigrants from the former Soviet Union. Such distinction, while seemingly significant, must be accounted for because of several facts.

     First, and foremost, the overwhelming majority of these people (about 98 %) speak Russian as their native language, due to the repressive policies of the Soviet government towards Jewish culture and language. Second, immigration for the purpose of permanent residence to the U.S. from the former Soviet Union is strictly limited to people of Jewish nationality. Consequently, the people that most Americans consider Russian, based on their outward appearance and language usage, are really Russian Jews. It should also be noted that "Russian" people live in different areas of New York and our study is a cross-sample examination of this total community with the emphasis on the Brighton Beach section of Brooklyn. This area is home to around 15,000 Russian-speaking immigrants from the former Soviet Union (http://www.census.gov), the largest Russian-speaking community in the United States. In the sections below we will look at various aspects of the Russian community focusing on its use of the Russian language in social, religious, and economic spheres of life.

Languages Used

     The primary language used in the Brighton Beach area of Brooklyn is Russian. This is evident from the displays hung outside the different businesses on Brighton Beach Avenue, the social and commercial hub of the area. The various businesses with signs in Russian include restaurants, nightclubs, book and record stores, grocery stores, pharmacies and doctors' offices, shoe repair shops and furniture stores. There is also a small Latino population in the area, most of them living within a few blocks of Brighton Beach Avenue (http://www.BrightonBeach.com). However, on the Avenue itself there are very few signs in Spanish indicating that the Latino community is not very prominent in the area. The Latino community only somewhat infiltrates Brighton Beach Avenue through some sporadically occurring businesses such as grocery stores.

Education

     Grammar schools and high schools in the area have significant populations of Russian-Americans to whom English is a second language. Many of these students are first generation children of Russian immigrants who use English to learn and study in school. However, as Paul Zeylikman, a student at Lincoln explains, when given the 'opportunity the students will "code-switch" between Russian and English for their daily and social activities both at home and at school.' We spoke to Mr. Tuddy, principal of the Michael E. Berdy public school, and he told us that there is an insignificant amount of children who require classes taught in Russian in his school (http://www.nycenet.edu). He also responded that his particular school did not offer courses in English as a Second Language (ESL). Mr. Tuddy feels that both of these facts signify that children of Russian immigrants are relatively quick, compared to other nationalities, to adapt to the language of their adopted country. He, personally, attributes such progress to the quality of elementary level education in Russia, which he feels adequately prepares these children for entrance into the American educational system, giving them the opportunity to concentrate solely on learning English.

     We also visited Abraham Lincoln High School on Ocean Parkway and came up with different results. The Russian students there are given the opportunity to take the New York State Regents Language Examination in Russian. English as a Second Language (ESL) classes are also offered for newly arrived Russian-speaking immigrants. The large population of Russian students in this school requires that the courses at least be offered, yet principal Martin Kopelowitz explained that many Russian students are as fluent in English as they are in Russian, therefore making many of these ESL courses unnecessary. As in the grammar school, the students use English for their academic lives and their native Russian tongue for most of their social lives. Lincoln High School is an example of a social structure that is sensitive to the needs of different ethnic groups. Although the student body is mainly African-American (68% of the total), the school offers classes in Russian (Paynes and Gonzalez).

Governmental service

     Within the Brighton Beach area there exists the 60th precinct of the NYPD and one of only two Brooklyn divisions of the New York State Department for Motor Vehicles. The 60th precinct currently has four officers of Russian background working there. The precinct also employs two interpreters/secretaries who help the officers to effectively communicate with the Russian-speaking community members. During our visit we spoke with Officer Martinez, of the public relations department, who has been part of the force since 1985. He explained that when he first interacted with the Russian community they regarded him as an enemy. They disliked law enforcement due to negative experiences back in their homeland. Officer Martinez made clear to the community that the force was in need of more Russian-American police officers. Today, he attempts to target youngsters who would be interested in joining, through lectures and school presentations in conjunction with the Brighton Improvement District (BID), a local community group. The BID assists the candidates in obtaining information about the job and provides them with the necessary paperwork and test preparation questions.

     The Brighton Improvement District (BID), also represents the businesses and other local organizations in the area. The group serves as an intermediary between the police and the Russian community. It informs the community about such issues as a rise in crime in the area through flyers and talks and holds lectures on such topics as community safety and crime prevention. The precinct itself does not publish any information in Russian but rather communicates via the BID. The Department of Motor Vehicles office, being a state and not a local institution, is not as sensitive to the needs of Russian speakers. While the test needed to obtain a driving permit can be taken in Russian, the office does not provide any applications or test preparation booklets in Russian. The clerk we questioned made clear that all information and publications were only available in English and Spanish.

Medical services

     The primary medical institution in the area is Coney Island Hospital. The hospital has a large Russian-speaking staff, ranging from doctors to secretaries and translators. Many Russian-speaking medical students work in the hospital as residents due to the high demand for a Russian-speaking medical specialists. The hospital also provides volunteering experience to approximately 60 Russian-speaking high school students for the same reason. The Brighton Beach area also contains dozens of medical and dental offices where either the doctors, nurses, or receptionists, and sometimes all of them, speak Russian. One of these centers in located on West 8th Street right off Brighton Beach Avenue. The receptionist's name was Vera Golub' and she told us that almost all the medical and dental offices in Brighton Beach area have at least one Russian-speaking doctor or dentist. Within the sixteen square block area around Brighton Beach Avenue that we have examined, we have counted eighteen such offices, including ones for pediatrics, podiatry, dentistry, gynecology, urology, ear, nose and throat, and internal medicine.

Religious services

     Within the area examined we have found four synagogues. All these offer services in Russian. Some services are also conducted in English and Yiddish, a dialect of Eastern European Jews (Ashkenazi). The rabbis conducting these services are either native Russian Jews or members of the Hasidic branch of Judaism, who learned Russian to help the immigrants recover the faith they lost due to persecution in the Soviet Union. These synagogues also serve as community centers. They hold English-language and religious classes as well as classes that teach marketable skills such as typing and computer usage (http://www.brightonbeachave.com).

Stores and Restaurants

     Stores and restaurants are numerous in the Russian community. There are a few different types of stores that are especially common. The first are Russian food stores that sell the various kinds of baked goods, cold cuts, bread and canned goods that trace the histories of their recipes to Russia. These stores are owned directly by Russian immigrants and employ exclusively Russian speakers. Their clientele come into the store without any doubt that Russian is the language to be used. Irina Greenstein is a regular customer of these types of stores and she told us how much they resemble home and how they transcend a feeling of nostalgia when she enters them to buy her groceries.

     The second are furniture stores, which serve the many newly arrived immigrants. They also employ people from the Russian community who can comfortably converse with other Russian speakers. Just as numerous as the furniture bases are the pharmacies, which can be seen on almost every corner in Brighton Beach.. These also employ Russian speakers. Restaurants are also common in the Brighton Beach area. It should be noted here that the restaurants in the Russian community are totally different from their counterparts outside of it. Russian restaurants resemble nightclubs with laser light shows and live entertainment featuring traditional Russian dances (http://www.brightonbeach.com). People gather at these restaurants for special occasions and do not go there just to eat, but also to dance. The menus of these restaurants differ significantly, with some offering traditional Russian cuisine, with others specializing in Jewish or Central Asian food. All these places employ only Russian speakers to deal with the solely Russian speaking clientele of their establishments.

Publications and the News Media

     Book and record stores are also one of the central facets of the Russian community. Their products include books, CDs, and videotapes from Russia, with a few products featuring Russian-American, but still Russian-speaking, artists and writers. The many newsstands in the area sell both newspapers published in New York and those published in Russia. The former include "New Russian Word", "Courier" and "Russian Ads", "New Meridian". Their content varies from political analysis of the former to the gossip and anecdotes of the latter. The newspapers brought over from Russia act as ties that bind Russian-speakers to their homeland and are one of the reasons why people living away from the area return to it, making Brighton Beach the cornerstone of the Russian community in America.

Organizations, Clubs and Activities

     On our excursion through the Russian community we visited an old age home, a gymnasium and a Russian Bania (Bath House). The Abraham Residence II houses about 25 (12%) Russians and Russian Jews. We spoke to Mary, the secretary of the home, who said that many of the Russian residents do not speak English. To provide services for them, the home employs eight Russian-speaking nurses. These nurses undertake tasks such as conducting exercise sessions, organizing excursions to Russian plays and celebrating birthday parties each month and also preparing for and celebrating American, Russian and Jewish holidays. We spoke to one of the Russian residents who was also bilingual in English. Her name is Tatyana Pekhova and she told us that she immigrated to Brooklyn nine years ago and enjoys living in the home because there she has found a community where others speak her native language and carry on cultural traditions from her home country. She also explained to us that the nursing home provides the residents with Russian satellite television and that the home's library carries Russian-language books, magazines and newspapers, both those published in Russia and those published in the U.S.. In addition to these services the nursing home also provides English tutors for those who would like to assimilate closer to the American, English-speaking, community.

     We also visited a gymnasium named Nova Gym where the owner named Terry told us about some of the members and their backgrounds. He mentioned that about 35% of the members are Russian, but that he has no need to publish any material or safety warnings in Russian because everyone speaks English. However, when they train together they speak their native Russian. Terry mentioned that the members feel "at home" and there is a men's Russian gymnastics team that practices on weeknights.

     One of the most interesting places we visited was the Russian Bania because such an establishment seems juxtaposed to many Americans. This Bath House is named Za Zaborom, meaning "Behind the Fence." Russian businesses tend to name their stores by their location. (Another example is U Kolesa literally meaning "By the Wheel." This particular establishment is a furniture store located next to Coney Island's famous Wonder Wheel.) The Bania is a combination of a café, steam room, pool, Jacuzzi, hot tub and physical therapy facility. Outside there is a park with lawn chairs and a hut where members congregate to simply chat and fraternize.

     When we talked to the owner, Boris Shtutman, he told us that every member is Russian and jokingly said that only Russians could be members because only they can withstand the extreme heat of the steam room (120 degrees Fahrenheit). He explained that men and women alike go into this room, 'naked of course' and they have wooden branches that they douse in hot water and give each other massages with. It might seem strange to many Americans, but he says that this is a very healthy way of living. We asked to speak to the clientele that were presently conversing in the lawn but we were not allowed to. We learned that attending this Bath House is considered a therapy.

Conclusion

     It is our impression from our conversation with the Russian-speaking members of the Brighton Beach community that a significant portion of them is not very proficient in English. The people interviewed who did say that they were fluent in English were often the ones just visiting the area for nostalgic purposes. The situation is of course different for students, who do have to interact with English speakers in school. Overall, though, the area creates an environment where the knowledge of English is not a vital skill due to an abundance of stores, medical offices, jobs and other necessary services and opportunities that simply require knowledge of Russian. It is therefore uncommon to hear bilingual Russian speakers to be actually speaking English, because they do not want to make themselves look superior to their compatriots who are not quite as proficient in English. This sense of "accommodation" is evident throughout the neighborhood. In any store or office that one visits, if a salesperson or secretary recognizes one as Russian-speaking, he/she will not even try speaking to that person in English and will indeed get offended if the customer pretends that he/she does not know Russian. Such an environment prevents the increase in bilingualism within the Brighton Beach community as the newly arrived immigrants lack the incentive to learn English. This environment also allows us to compare the Russian-American community to a wheel, with Brighton Beach being the center and the spokes representing those immigrants that took the steps necessary to distance themselves from their community without totally abandoning it. These are the people who are most comfortable with both English and Russian. The spokes also represent the ties that bind Russian-speaking immigrants to Brighton Beach and it is still possible, as one walks along Brighton Beach Avenue, to see people visiting the area from as far as New Jersey and Pennsylvania to get a taste of "home."

Sources Used

Board of Education. District School Profiles. 6 October 2001. http://www.nycenet.edu.
Brighton Beach Avenue. 6 October 2001. http://www.brightonbeachave.com.
Brighton Beach. 6 October 2001. http://www.brightonbeach.com.
Paynes, Michael, Orlando Gonzalez. Directory of Public High Schools. New York Board of Education: 1999-2000 ed.
Personal Interviews, Observations and Experience
United States. Bureau of the Census. 6 October 2001. http://www.census.gov.

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