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Jewish Journal

Gymnast, linguist, jewelry designer: Nikki Gutman

by Danielle Berrin

June 11, 2014 | 12:28 pm

Agoura High School
Going to: Moorpark College

Nikki Gutman remembers one thing from those first two years spent in a Lithuanian orphanage. 

“The only thing I remember is the crib I was in,” Gutman said, falling very quiet. “It was blue and pink.”

When she became old enough to comprehend her own origin story, her adoptive parents, Bobbi Gutman and Dan Steifman, told her that after her birth, she was immediately delivered to the orphanage where she would spend the first two years of her life. 

It was a hard start, with only six caretakers available to the nearly 100 orphans requiring care. Winters were cold. Food was in short supply. And Gutman remained mostly in that crib, hardly ever touched or talked to, still an undernourished 17 pounds when her Jewish-American parents arrived in Lithuania to take her home in 1998. 

[See the other outstanding graduates here]

But her new life in Los Angeles would present other challenges. After being enrolled at the JCC at Milken in West Hills, 3-year-old Nikki kept to herself, always quiet and shy around her peers. 

“Her teacher noticed [that] Nikki stood by herself, didn’t participate in group activities, hardly spoke to anyone and seldom followed instructions,” Elise Aries, who heads the College and Career Center at Agoura High School, where Gutman recently graduated, wrote in a letter to the Journal. “She seemed so non-responsive to questions, her parents [wondered] whether she possibly had difficulty hearing.”

It was something else.

“I couldn’t speak the [English] language,” Gutman explained. “I couldn’t speak any Lithuanian.” 

Gutman remembers wanting to express herself, but she literally had no words: “I knew five words in Lithuanian,” she said. And anyway, it was not as if her American peers would understand them. 

She has since used the Internet to teach herself Lithuanian, and, more recently, she taught herself the Russian alphabet. “I love languages,” she said. “I can speak something if you want …”

Gutman also loves music, fashion design, giving to charity and working with a no-kill shelter that protects stray animals through Petco.  

“TV doesn’t interest me that much. I like to use my talents and creativity; I’m very athletic and artistic and musical,” she said. 

That is an understatement. From 2006 to 2012, Gutman — who plans to attend Moorpark College this fall — was a star gymnast, working 55-hour weeks, she said, in order to hone her skills on vault, high bar and floor. She competed in more than 34 statewide competitions and earned a collection of awards and medals. 

In 10th grade, Gutman decided to call it quits in order to nurture some of her other talents. She joined the Valley-based MUSYCA Children’s Choir and began training twice a week in addition to taking private voice lessons. This summer, she will tour with MUSYCA in Austria and the Czech Republic. 

She also has developed her own line of jewelry and hopes to set up a shop on Etsy.com, an Internet marketplace for handmade goods. “I would really like to study at the Gemological Institute [of America] and learn about the grading of stones,” she said. 

For someone who struggled with language, Gutman has found so many ways to express herself. 

“I have so much freedom here,” she said. 

But she still wonders about her native country, Lithuania. 

“I would really love to go, and visit the old buildings, the farm land, the countryside, the Baltic Sea and the churches. I look at it on the Web. It’s a very small country and a very poor country,” she said. “Oh, and almost all the Jews in Lithuania were killed during the Holocaust and World War II.

“Being Jewish is very important to me,” Gutman explained. “I like being part of something very big, a community.” 

And, adding yet another item to her list of future plans, she declared, “I can’t wait to go to Israel on Birthright.”

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