There are no passport stamps, no customs checkpoints entering Little-Odessa-by-the-Sea. But perhaps there should be, for the moment you get off the elevated train in this neighborhood of recent Jewish-Russian immigrants, it is clear you are in another country.
The languages in this seaside corner of Brooklyn are Russian or Yiddish; the signs in the shop windows are as well. One of the few in English advertises "Borscht, with or without sugar," while others, in English alphabet, herald dishes unknown to the American tongue--"Chibureki," "Chanahi." The yogurt proferred at the Gastronome Moscow on the boardwalk is as thick as sour cream; the vodka that follows is served full-up in a juice glass.
Other areas of the city are failing; sections of the Bronx are being bulldozed flat. But here, in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn, there is a feeling of abundance and optimism that extends to the clerks in the bakery shop.
"Is it possible to buy just one rugulah?" a visitor asks, inquiring on Brighton Beach Avenue about a small raisin and honey pastry.
"In this world, anything is possible," the clerk says.
It is not unusual in this city of strong ethnic neighborhoods to turn a corner and fall into another world, but it is of interest how quickly this community has been created and the changes it has brought about.
This neighborhood was already largely Jewish 10 years ago, and many of its residents were immigrants, but it was then a neighborhood of old people. It was, with its just-down-the-beach neighbor Coney Island, among the first communities of elderly people in the country. It was a neighborhood in economic decline, with abandoned stores and businesses; a neighborhood of high crime.
The easing of visa restrictions for Jews in the Soviet Union in 1971 changed that. Roughly 90,000 came to America with 40,000 settling in New York City, perhaps 20,000 or more in Brighton Beach, the largest community of new Russian Jewish immigrants in this country. Many were from Odessa on the Black Sea. They chose this neighborhood because, with the boardwalk and the view of the ocean from the moment you stepped off the "D" train, it reminded them of home.
"They love the ocean, the water," says Jane Orlikov, who runs the Russian-language bookstore in the neighborhood, a store called, although Jane comes from Lvov, The Black Sea. Orlikov is 26, slender, with darkly outlined eyes, bright red lipstick and fashionable high-heeled shoes. She takes nothing lightly--not her appearance, not her success. She is fluent in English though she knew none nine years ago when she arrived with her brother and mother and father. Her brother drove a cab then; Jane worked in a toy factory, putting eyes and ears on dolls. Then she got a job in the shipping department, then she took a secretarial course.
Her husband, whom she met in this country, was a cab driver when they married, like her brother. He did not, however, plan to drive a cab long. He became an insurance salesman and with the money they saved, the Orlikovs opened a bookstore. The site had formerly been a chicken store, Jane says, and smelled foul. Now, she says, he plans to open two nightclubs, one for the older people, one for the young.
"American people always ask us how we can afford to open a bookstore, a nightclub?" says Jane, amused. "We work. Sometimes my husband works with the cab 18 hours a day."
It's a curious thing, the feelings that newcomers, even energetic newcomers, create in a neighborhood.
In Brighton Beach, the community workers, like Pauline Bilus of Project ARI, proudly cite figures that "close to 90 percent become employed in a period of six to eight months at entry-level employment."
Yet many of the neighborhood's old-timers, often Russian immigrants themselves from the great wave before the Russian revolution, feel some resentment toward the new group. They find them noisy. They do not care for their sociable habits of convening on the boardwalks, their partying. They consider them pretentious.
"All these people, and every single one, in Russia, was an engineer," the local joke goes. They often resent the sophistication of the new people, according to Bilus.
"They expect them to get off the plane like they came off the boat, with the sewing machine on their back," she said. "They forget that the world has changed in the 60, 70 years since they arrived. They also say--though Brighton Beach was historically not an extremely religious community, it had more a Socialist Jewish background--that the new people are not really Jewish. They don't understand that in Russia since they left, there were changes--that for instance, for performing a circumcision, you could go to jail."
These feelings of class tension, according to both police and community organizers, are easing. The older people, seeing the newcomers, are learning that there is no shame in accepting social services. The younger, to the enormous satisfaction of the older, are sending their children to Yeshiva and coming to religious classes at the Shorefront Y. Some are even being circumcised as adults.
Most important, according to police, they have "stabilized" a community that was on the way down.
To see this, you need look no further than the Gastronome Moscow on the boardwalk. It was deserted when Michael Fidler rented it three years ago. Fidler had worked 16 hours a day, in a meat plant or anywhere he could, to save the money to open it.
Now, even in the quiet early spring season, there are customers. Fidler stands proudly behind the counter offering vodka, while his wife makes enormous sandwiches--salami on slabs of bread, sandwiches with red caviar. His wife is required to translate often, but Fidler has some English, and in any case a command of body language.
"America, the best country in the world," he says, with a sweep of the hand that takes in the cafe, the boardwalk, the Atlantic Ocean.
Jane Orlikov, a block away in the Black Sea Bookstore, says it differently in the English she learned from the girls at the doll factory.
"In America, my husband says, only in America, can you start with nothing but a good head and end up wealthy."