In Search Of Freedom,
A Community Finds A Home In Queens
By BEN ABELSON
and that of the Eastern European countries that neighbor it have a
storied and celebrated presence throughout Queens — a trip into a
store, restaurant, or bar in a Russian neighborhood offers a view into
Eastern European life, touched by a distinctly American flavor.
The story of
Russian immigration begins over a hundred years ago, and culminates in
the mass Soviet emmigrations of the late 20th century.
Transfiguration Church of
Maspeth — one of Queens’ several houses
of worship with
with Russian roots.
Photo by Ira Cohen
Sections of Forest
Hills and Rego Park, and to a lesser extent, Kew Gardens and the
Rockaways, have evolved into mini-Moscows, with Russian language
filling the air, and Cyrillic lettering widely visible on the streets.
However, it is
important to note that all of the immigrants from the former Soviet
Union cannot necessarily be called Russian — many hail from other
former Soviet republics, including Uzbekistan, Lithuania, Georgia, and
these Soviet emigres have loaned a distinct and memorable presence to
the streets of Queens.
The vast Russian
migration to the United States began in the late nineteenth century,
when boatloads of Russian Jews landed at Ellis Island, seeking to
escape the increasing oppression and pogroms that emerged following
the assassination of Czar Alexander II in 1881.
Russian Jews had
always faced an oppressed, outsider status in their homeland, and
their journey to America filled them with a hope for the promise of
religious freedom. Many of the people in this first wave of Russian immigration
settled in Lower Manhattan and Brooklyn — only to later come to
Settling In Queens
Russian-Americans generally thought of themselves as ethnically and
culturally Jewish — not Russian — speaking Yiddish as their native
settled in Middle Village in the early 1900s, and began farming the
surrounding land. During this time, Western Queens was the destination of many
immigrant groups, as the area was generally more affordable than other
sections of the borough. These
first immigrants founded the Sons of Israel Congregation in 1907, and
erected a synagogue at 69-06 75th St. The synagogue and the pastoral,
rural environment of Middle Village began to attract many other
Russians from the Jewish Ghetto of the Lower East Side.
Sons of Israel functioned until 1972, when it merged with
Congregation Ahavath Achim, which maintained a temple at 75-27 67th
Rego Park stores are adorned
with signs in Cyrillic.
Photo by Ira Cohen
Natives of the
Baltic state of Lithuania also had a strong presence in the early days
of the 20th century. Queens’
first Lithuanian parish, the Transifiguration Church, was founded in
1908 on 64th St. The
church moved to 64-25 Perry Ave in 1983, where it still exists today.
began to emerge in Western Queens throughout the early 20th century
Revolutionary Leon Trotsky spoke several times at Urban Hall in 1917,
in the area then known as Winfield.
The building, which was located at 41-50 71st St., burned down
in a two-alarm fire in 1940. The
address — in the
confines of modern-day Woodside — no longer exists, and is now the
home to elevated LIRR tracks.
number of Russian immigrants in Queens increased throughout the 20th
century, the explosion of Russian and former-Soviet immigration to the
borough did not truly begin until the early 1970s, when hundreds of
thousands of Jews fleeing Communist oppression made the borough their
their forefathers, this group of immigrants often viewed themselves
culturally, as Russian. After
years of repression under the Communist government, they had forgotten
their Jewish heritage and traditions, which they would rediscover in
the comparative religious paradise of America.
According to Lali
Janash, a caseworker at the Esther Greenblatt Russian Service Center,
“You know Communism never believed in religion...that’s why all of
the Russians or Jewish immigrants that come to the United States, are
not really affiliated with any religious [sect], they don’t know
A 1912 photo of Russian
Ida and Hyman Gelfand, grandmother
and uncle of Tribune typesetter
Ellin Jaume, was taken shortly
before they fled the country
arrived in New York.
emigration from the Soviet Union was strictly regulated by the central
Communist government. However,
in the early 1970s, the Soviets agreed to allow as many as 250,000
citizens to emigrate, in response to a new trade act negotiated with
the United States in 1974.
emigration was theoretically limited to Jews and Armenians, other
oppressed and disenfranchised groups (Including political dissidents,
human-rights activists, and intellectuals) began to leave the Soviet
Many of these
Russians settled in Central Queens, which, over the course of time,
had become the prominent area for Slavic and Central Asian immigrants.
By the late 1970s, Forest Hills was the second largest Russian
population center in the United States, and the neighboring area of
Rego Park was not far behind.
Many Jews from the
Soviet republic of Georgia also settled in the area.
The numbers of
Queens residents claiming Russian roots skyrocketed during this time
— in the 1970 census 106,874 people in Queens listed Russian or
Soviet ancestry, compared to a paltry 21,072 in 1950.
Over 1,000 Soviet
families settled in Forest Hills between 1973-78, and many more were
to follow. These immigrants were able to integrate themselves in
American life much quicker than their forebearers, thanks to aid
groups like the Service Center for Russian Families (now the Esther
Grunblatt Russian Service Center), which helped new Soviet emigres
learn English, find apartments, prepare resumes, and search for jobs.
jobs, language barrier, acculturation, adjustment, and schools,”
were some of the biggest problems for Russian immigrants from the 70s
onwards, according to Janash, who’s been a caseworker at the service
center since the mid 1980s.
packed into apartments on Queens Boulevard, 108th Street, and Austin
Street, sometimes with as many as 10 people living in a tiny space.
difficulties lay in adjusting to a distinctly different culture and
learning a new language. Although
many immigrants were well educated in Russia, they were forced to take
drastic job cuts in order to make their way in Queens.
Former doctors began working as nurses, and former nurses as
health aides, as they struggled to attain the different American
medical degrees. Engineers
found gainful employment — as janitors — all in hopes of attaining
the American dream.
Many of the Soviet
emigres settling in Rego Park in the 1980s and ‘90s were actually
Bukharan Jews from Uzbekistan and other Central Asian states.
The Bukharan Jews
are an offshoot of Middle Eastern and Persian Jewry dating from the
6th Century A.D., and consider themselves socially and culturally
different from the other East European Jewish sects.
the 1990s, approximately 30,000 Bukharan Jews found homes in
the area of Rego Park, Forest Hills, and Kew Gardens.
Bukharan shops and synagogues — most bearing Cyrillic lettering —
court residents along the length of 108th St., providing a taste of
Uzbek culture to all area residents.
In 1995 and 1996,
70 percent of New York’s immigrants from the former Soviet republics
of Central Asia settled in Queens.
70s, 80s, and early 90s the United States government and Jewish aid
groups sponsored the exodus of many oppressed Russian Jews.
According to Janash, anti-Semitism is still a pervasive bias in
current Russian thought. “There’s a discrimination against the
Jewish...if an employer has a choice between a Russian and a Jewish
person, the would rather hire a Russian, non-Jewish person.”
On one monumental
day in 1989, a total of 1,750
Soviet refuges — 1,356 of them Jews — landed at John F Kennedy
airport in an extraordinary airlift exodus that involved eight
different planes. The
cost of resettling each immigrant was split between Jewish aid
oganizations and the US government.
The collapse of
the Communist government in 1991 brought many new immigrants to the
shores of Queens, as Soviet immigration regulations faltered.
However, the country’s civil unrest also brought worries to
many Russian-Americans in Queens, who feared for the lives of their
friends and relatives.
from the former Soviet countries appears to have slackened.
In the 2000
census, 51,192 Queens residents claimed Russian ancestry although
10,306 people said they had Ukranian ancestry, and 4,164 people said
they had Lithuanian ancestry (the earlier censuses in the 60s and 70s
lumped all of the different Soviet republics under the heading of
“less people are coming now . . . visas from the United States is
issued only to direct relatives.
Fifteen or twenty years ago, anybody could have come.”
reason is because many of the immigrants who had been waiting a long
time to leave the Soviet Union actually did so in the flood of Soviet
emigres in the early 90s.
anti-Semitism is still rampant in the former Soviet Union, according
to Janash. Most of the
legal Russian immigrants that come to Queens today are Jewish victims
of oppression, she said.
the former Soviet Union add to the multi-cultural stew that is Queens.
Although they may favor the Forest Hills-Rego Park area, many
settle in Rockaway, Kew Gardens, and Flushing.
Queens, and America, they have found new freedoms and a new lease