September 5, 2002
The Russian Club
Determined immigrants work to preserve their heritage.
What the Russian Jewish immigrants of Orange County lack in numbers they make up for in passion.
There are between 3,000-10,000 Russian Jewish immigrants in Orange County -- no one is quite sure of the exact number.
Most of these newcomers have only a slight connection to the larger Jewish immigrant community. They may run into each other at the only Russian deli in Orange County or come to a concert at the Russian Club that meets once a month at the Jewish Community Center in Costa Mesa.
But other immigrants make a point to reach out and stay connected.
Some six decades ago, Olga Filatova was a 19-year-old medic in the Red Army, tending to wounded soldiers on the front lines. Later she finished medical school, had a successful career as a physician and eventually settled in Orange County. Ten years ago, she and a few others founded the Orange County organization of war veterans from the Soviet Union. "They voted me in as president 10 years ago and they keep re-electing me every year," Filatova said. "I guess they like me."
There is also, she acknowledges, a smaller pool from which to choose.
"We have about 300 members now," Filatova said. "When we started there were 475, but so many have died. We are old."
Filatova doesn't sound old. Her voice is strong, energetic, full of life. She laughs readily, as she is now, when I ask her how old she is. "I spoke to a man in New York who had written a book about veterans organizations and he asked me the same question. I told him that I was 80. He said that I was just a kid, that he was 104 and writing books. You don't get old when there are things to be done."
The Red Army veterans are an integral part of the Russian Club -- they provide much of the talent at the monthly meetings. There are skits, singers, poetry readings and, once in a while, a performance by an invited violinist or pianist.
"I am very happy in America," Filatova told me. "We have a good organization. We have people in charge of artistic matters, of collecting dues or planning trips. And we have one person" -- her voice lowered -- "who takes care of the funerals. This too has to be done, you know."
The Russian Club has 95 dues-paying members, according to club leader Olga Dubnikova. But, she said, many nonmembers come to the events, which include ballet performances by students who are taught at a nearby ballet school by non-Jewish former Soviet dancers. There is an English-language preschool at the Jewish Community Center, but only two immigrant children go there. From time to time there were efforts to create a facility to teach Russian to the children and grandchildren of immigrants but nothing really worked. Most kids speak very little Russian, even fewer are able to read or write it.
I told Dubnikova that Americans always like to tell me that their grandparents came from this or that Russian gubernia, an archaic term for a geographic division that has not been in use since the 1917 revolution. It is rare for them to know anything else about their heritage.
She laughed, sadly. "Yes, our children will also grow up knowing little about their background, where they came from. There is little we can do about it. We do what we can, but this is America, after all. It would be nice if we could have someone give lectures on the history of Russian Jews, on what was done for us so that we could emigrate. We know so little."
The Russian Club makes an attempt to celebrate the Jewish holidays and will probably have a High Holidays service if a rabbi can be found to conduct it.
"Synagogues? I really don't know how many of us have joined synagogues here. The Russian Club is mostly old people -- the younger ones don't really come here. I don't know if they go to American synagogues."
Dubnikova told me that they had Passover seders in Russian at the center, conducted by Chaim Marcus, a young American businessman from a rabbinical family who had spent several years in the Ukraine. He provided Russian haggadot, matzah and led the services.
"If we want to see a Jewish concert by a group from Russia that is touring California or go to a Jewish museum, we have to go to Los Angeles. Very few come to Orange County. And, of course, there is the question of money. We pay $2 a month in dues, but we also send packages to Russia and make contributions for Israel so that there is really no way we can rent a bus or pay for the tickets for our members."
Dubnikova tells me that the club had placed an ad in the Jewish paper but that the response was very minimal.
"But what about your children? They are all working and making money, aren't they?" I asked.
"Yes, they work, of course, they work, but they pay taxes, they have families, they have expenses, you know," she said defensively.
"But so do the Americans, right? And they give to good causes. Why not the Russians? Why can't a Russian doctor write a check for a thousand or so?" I ask.
"Who knows," she said. "Our people just don't. No one will write a check like that. I know the Armenians take care of their own and the Vietnamese, and even the Iranian Jews. But our people are less willing, they just aren't used to it, I guess."