On a sunny afternoon on August 31, 1992, a TWA flight from Brussels landed at its iconic terminal at JFK Airport. Before we even walked into the building, my family was excited to arrive at our new home. I was eight at the time, and my brother was almost four. We jostled past other customers for the honor of being the first to touch American soil.
A relative then drove us to an apartment on Yellowstone Boulevard and 65th Avenue where my grandmother’s cousin lived. Upon arrival, one uncle pretended that his magic words could roll open a garage door, while holding the remote control behind his back. We were impressionable refugees and believed that in America it was possible to do exactly that. Thirty years later, Siri and Google Home have made it possible.
At the time of our arrival in America, immigrant organizations such as NYANA encouraged my landsmen to settle in existing Jewish neighborhoods such as Washington Heights, Pelham Parkway, Astoria, and Jackson Heights, bolstering their declining Jewish populations. These inner-city neighborhoods were experiencing high crime rates, and within a short time, the Soviet refugees relocated to safer neighborhoods in southern Brooklyn and central Queens where there were larger numbers of people speaking their language.
As immigration history is concerned, NYANA’s office overlooked Battery Park and Ellis Island, which preceded JFK Airport as the city’s main point of arrival for refugees. Many American Jews attended protests for their Soviet brethren, and I remember our neighbors in Rego Park showering us with school supplies and toys, happy that we’ve finally arrived.
I am often asked by students and readers of this newspaper how my family ended up in Queens while most Ashkenazi Soviet refugees made Brighton Beach their Plymouth Rock. That’s because in 1992, my family had dozens of relatives living within ten minutes of Yellowstone Boulevard. They sponsored us and helped us acclimate. In turn, we would later sponsor and host other relatives who later joined us in Queens. We learned English watching Jeopardy and Wheel of Fortune, sampled fast food, attended summer camp at the Central Queens Y (now known as Commonpoint Queens), and visited every state park within an hour of the city. We embraced this country and its values.
Like most Soviet-born Ashkenazim, we did not prioritize religion. To be Jewish was to know a few one-liners, Yiddishisms, have a family meal on the holidays, and perhaps marry Jewish. But if not, as long as the spouse is a good person and preferably speaks Russian, it was okay. On the recommendation of friends, my parents took me to an interview at a kiruv yeshivah, but on that day, I was not cooperating at all.
One teacher advised my mother to place me in a special education class. Offended at the suggestion, she took my hand and walked away, as the rabbi pleaded with her to reconsider. I was then enrolled at PS 139, a good public school with a sizable number of Russian-speaking classmates. You can imagine my parents’ surprise a decade later, when I decided on my own to put on t’filin and keep kosher, despite the lack of a Jewish education. Ironically, some of my friends who attended these yeshivos did not stay on the derech, as the gap between a religious classroom and a secular home was too difficult to reconcile.
The month that follows this anniversary date marks the tenth yahrzeit of my grandfather, and the third yahrzeit of my mother.
Towards the end of their lives, they reconnected with their past. My grandfather served as the gabbai of the minyan at his apartment building, a cluster of elderly Jews in downtown Flushing. My mother’s home was decorated with portraits and sculptures of Riga, and she reminisced about her comfortable old home, job, and childhood friends. At the same time, she was candid about her decision to immigrate. We lost our savings when a bank collapsed. We were stripped of our citizenship because we were not native Latvians; we would have to speak Latvian fluently to attend school and keep our jobs. We did not want to make aliyah, because it was not safe in Israel, and there were more economic opportunities in America, where relatives were waiting for us to arrive.
Perhaps things would have turned out differently had we made aliyah or remained in Latvia. Had we made aliyah, I doubt whether we would have become religious. My Israeli relatives are patriotic citizens, but none of them keep Shabbos. Upon joining the European Union and NATO, Latvia became less hostile to its resident non-Latvians, and it apologized for the Latvian collaborators in the Holocaust.
But then the stolen election in Belarus and the Russian invasion of Ukraine demonstrated that even as we look back, we cannot imagine living there again. Expressing its anger at Russia, Latvia demolished its Soviet war monument in Riga last week, as it seeks to curtail the use of Russian in workplaces and schools. The language, monuments, and ethnicity have become synonymous with Putin’s aggression. For Ukrainian Jews living in America, the alternative history would have placed them in the range of Russian missiles.
Without my parents and grandparents being here, a child’s memory of the immigration experience is mainly visual, lacking the social, economic, and political conditions behind the life-changing move. My children and I cannot fully appreciate the difficulty of their decision and the sacrifices of adjusting to a new country.
Three decades since my family landed in Queens, our biggest challenges involve paying for our daily expenses, keeping the faith, passing it to our children, and making them appreciate and understand that, as parents, we want them to have a better life.
By Sergey Kadinsky