HIAS myStory Immigration Project-The Generations Project
The “Generations Project” was created to collect the immigration stories from two or more generations within the same family that have emigrated from the Soviet Union to the United States. It brings together the stories of families in the Philadelphia and New Jersey communities. Each generation of grandparents, parents, and children has a valuable lesson to share with the other, and this cross-generational wisdom is recorded and shared. Interviews were conducted by phone, email, or in-person and answers from different generations juxtaposed with each other. The innocent memories of a young newly immigrant child hold poignant meaning for their own parents and grandparents. But, it’s possible that these memories could provoke meaningful conversations among the thousands of other Russian Jewish immigrants who had both an individual but highly collective experience of moving to this country and within the communities where they now live. The “Generations Project” is part of a larger effort called 'HIAS myStory Immigration Project' to collect, record, and publish the experiences of those individuals that have emigrated from the Soviet Union to the United States. It is the belief that all those individuals and stories deserve a voice that is valuable for preservation and education of generations to come.
This is one of those family stories.
Fleyshmakher and Kavesh family
Name: Lina Fleyshmakher
Place of origin: Kishinev, Moldova
First City to call home in the US: New York
Year of immigration: June 26, 1991
Name: Alla Kavesh
Relationship: Aunt, sister of Lina Fleyshmaker
Place of origin: Kishinev, Moldova
First City to call home in the US: New York
Year of immigration: June 26, 1991
Name: Svetlana Harel-maiden name Fleyshmakher
Relationship: Oldest daughter
Place of origin: Kishinev, Moldova
First City to call home in the US: New York
Year of immigration: June 26, 1991
1. Why did you or your family decide to come to the United States?
Mother Lina: We came here in June 26, 1991. The reason we wanted to come was mostly for our kids. We didn’t want them to live in the same society we lived where we were afraid to tell that we Jewish, and you cannot get where you want to be, not because you don’t work hard but because you’re Jewish. So we came here to NY. I had a second cousin here, my father’s cousin; he’s the one who sponsored us so that we could come here- truthfully, [it was due to his wife] as she was very family oriented and very religious. They came here in 1971/1972 because their kids didn’t get accepted into certain schools. The kids were very smart, so she knew that there was no future for them there. She is the one that actually worked hard to get us here.
Aunt Alla: Во первых, мы решили уехать когда поевилась первая возможность. До етого возможности не було, не разрешали уехать не комы. Во вторых, поменялась ситуация и началось отделение Руссий от всего Советского Союза и нестало обсолютно некаких переспектив для детей. Спокойно стало, нас нетрогали но ходили ети, и кричали 'Вон отсюда, убирайтесь'. Не очень приятное було тогда время. Нас некто нетронул то ты некогда не знал потому, что були конечно слухи.
Daughter Svetlana: We came for religious freedom and to make a better life for any future siblings and me. We moved here in ’91, and I was four years old so I do not have any memories from Moldova or our move to the US. My sister was born in the United States.
2. What was your life like when you left your home country? If you were young when you left, please describe any brief memories, family stories, or what your family left behind, good or bad, in their move to the United States.
Mother Lina: You had to get in line to get an apartment, and you can’t get in line until you’re married. On top of that, you have to have a child who is not more than a year. So we finally had Svetlana, and she was under a year so we got in line. We lived in a 3-room apartment, not 3 bedrooms, with my family in one room (my husband, Svetlana, and I), my sister, [her husband], and her son in another room, and my parents in the third room. But, we were luckier than others because we actually had a split bathroom, someone takes a shower and the other person can go to the bathroom. We were married for 5 years before we left, and we still couldn’t own that apartment. We worked. My husband, Yefim, was a civil engineer, but in the last few years, photography was his hobby. It became how he got his earnings. I worked for the sewing company in Moldova as a “технолог швейского производство”. I started actually doing the sewing, and then became the supervising engineer. It’s not like I wanted [to be] this “технолог”. But, because I was Jewish, I couldn’t get into the other colleges. I couldn’t get a higher education. You can only get certain colleges, where you know people who are going to ignore that you’re Jewish.
As a religion, you really couldn’t do anything. We had one small synagogue in Kishinev and really there were no services there. It was more like you come when somebody dies and you say a prayer. We had a great aunt who was like a grandmother to us; she didn’t have her own kids. She was fasting on Yom Kippur, and she wouldn’t tell us why because she was afraid that we were kids and talk about it. So, she would tell us stories, like the Pesach story. So we knew but we wouldn’t tell anybody that it was a Jewish thing. We didn’t know what Kosher means.
Interviewer: Did you know that you were Jewish?
Answer: You do know, it’s written in your passport so they don’t let you forget it. When we came here [to the US], they would ask us what was our nationality. We would say, Jewish. They would answer that Jewish is not a nationality but a religion. To us, it’s what our nationality was in Russia.
Aunt Alla: Я була accountant и я работала в трех местах.
Вопрос: Вы чустовали на себе ограничение?
Ответ: Ну конечно, ты точно знал куда тебе не надо идти, и ты четко знал Узы в который ты некогда не поступиш. Ето практически не скрывалось, в какие Yзы ты не попадеш и какую должность ты не когда не получиш. Например, ты можеш будь замистителем но не когда ты не будеш начальником. Мой муж там еше не работал. Он только закончил [институт] и его сразу [забрали] в армию.
Daughter Svetlana: I know that we had to hide our religion there, and my parents talked about limited resources such as clothing and toys. I know that there were a lot of rules such as regards to their wedding. We lived in a really small apartment in Moldova, and we lived with my aunt, uncle, cousins, and grandparents all in one place.
My mom was a seamstress and my dad worked in a construction business, and he also did photography back then. They said that they did not experience any anti-Semitism but they did have to hide the practice of their Judaism. They knew about the Jewish holidays from family but were not able to celebrate it. My parents had lots of friends back in Moldova, and now those friends live mostly here. My great-aunt on my mom’s side had moved to Fair Lawn, NJ a couple years before and back then, you needed a sponsor to move from Moldova to the United States. I believe we also won a green card lottery and our great-aunt sponsored us to come to the United States.
3. Describe the trip that you and/or your family took to the get to the United States. Did you receive an invitation from a family member or the Jewish community? Did you receive assistance from some organization in order to get here or immediately upon arrival? Please include year of arrival.
Mother Lina: When Gorbachev was in power, he eased up on the travel [restrictions]. In 1989, we were able to come here to visit our relatives. It was my husband, my sister, and I, and we came here [to the US]. We stayed here for about three weeks and we liked everything. We applied for a refugee visa [with the US embassy]. When we came back, we brought a computer with us because our cousin here [US] was working with computers so she was able to get us one very cheap. We sold that computer [in Moldova] and that was the money that we came here on. It was probably a year and a half between us applying and leaving for US. The documents were done through my father. In 1990, my father passed away, a few months before our interview with the US embassy. So, we were really worried that they were not going to let us come. But, when we told them our life story, they accepted us. Through HIAS, we bought tickets, and we paid them back over time later on. Everything went through HIAS.
Interviewer: Did you sell your apartment?
Lina: No, privatization started after we left. We left in June and perestroika started in August . We couldn’t sell our apartment.
We had to give up our citizenship, and we had to pay for it. One hundred dollars per person was all you were allowed to take out.
When you go for your interview with the US embassy, somehow they [government] find out and after that, you have to leave work. They were checking that you didn’t have too much jewelry when we left. We were at the airport for 8-9 hours. The kids were tired so it was an experience. We had a direct flight to JFK and HIAS people met us there. My relatives took my mother and my sister. My sister came with her son. Her husband couldn’t come because he was [still] in the military. HIAS put my family in a hotel on 72nd St., and it was 100 degrees with no air conditioner and there were only 2 twin beds. So, we spent most of our time in the shower. They gave us $25. We had to come to the HIAS office during the day. I remember that there were other people who came with us. It was their first time in America, and it was our second time. So, we were like people who already knew everything. So, we got up in the morning, and you have to eat breakfast. We went to the store, and I explained cereal and milk because we don’t have that in Russia. We were so happy that we at least knew something. We had to go through 3-4 months of English classes at HIAS, and they also give you the cards for food stamps, Medicaid, and per month allowances.
We had to rent an apartment. We found an apartment in Washington Heights, but we had to pay a security deposit, and we didn’t have money to pay. And they [HIAS] wouldn’t pay, until we had an apartment. So, our uncle gave us the security deposit, and HIAS paid him back. Of course, we didn’t have any furniture, just our luggage. We had a very good super in our apartment, and he brought us a king size mattress and a kitchen table with a few chairs and that was our furniture. My husband had some friends here from his town so we borrowed $200 and bought an air conditioner. That was our first purchase here.
Our English was like “dog, mother, and brother”. We could say, “ I want”, but it was much harder to understand what people were saying. New York is a good city to come to because there are a lot of immigrants and everybody who was here, at some time; they or their parents were also immigrants. For example, I worked for an old Jewish couple, cleaning for them, and I didn’t understand everything they were saying. They continued talking to me and eventually you pick it up. So, in combination with this conversation and HIAS English classes, you start understanding people. In Washington Heights, there was a very good Jewish community. They would give us food and clothes.
Aunt Alla: Мы подали [на бумаги] здесь потомы, что мой папин двоюродный брат здесь жил. Так получилось, что его родители умерли рано и его воспитали мой бабушка с дедушкой. Они уехали токда с семдесятых годах из Москвы и он нас вызвал и мы приехали сюда. Мы могли приехать на год ранше но мы задержались потому, что папа умер и мы хотели поставить паметник. Нам помогали [еврейские организаций] Наяна и Хиас. Мы взяли деньги от Хиас на билеты и потом выплатили. Наяна нам помогала безвозмездно. Они нас послали на курсы языка когда мы сюда приехали. Мы жили в Washington Heights. Мой муж, [Rachmiel], приехал через восемь месяцов.
Daughter Svetlana: We moved here in ’91 from Moldova. When we came here, I went to live with my great-aunt in Fair Lawn while my parents lived in Washington Heights and tried to make money. My mom became an accountant and my dad did photography. It was a couple of months that I lived with my great-aunt, but since I was so young at that time, I don’t remember it. This is based on my parent’s stories.
My great-aunt and her family were the religious ones as the rest of our family is less religious. The Rabbi in Fair Lawn helped us out a lot. He helped me to get into a private yeshiva in NJ, and this is why my whole family later moved to Fair Lawn. My great-aunt helped us out as well. I went to a very religious yeshiva in Washington Heights for kindergarten and first grade. The other kids were afraid to share snacks with me because they did not think that my family was religious enough. My parents sent me to this yeshiva because they wanted me to get a good Jewish education and bring it back to the home. My parents immersed themselves into the Jewish community in Fair Lawn, through the synagogue, through the Rabbi, and through my school. It was a very step-wise approach to taking on the Jewish traditions, and they did something more with every Jewish holidays.
Fair Lawn has a very big Russian Jewish populations, it was like “little Russia”. They were friends with a lot of the Russian families, but also a lot of American families that they met through the synagogue. I had more American friends because I met most of my friends at school. The Judaism was always very important to my parents, and here, we just had the freedom to delve into it more.
4. Describe a vivid memory/story/impression upon your arrival or within a short period of your arrival to the United States.
Everything was new; the hotel was very hot when we arrived, so we started walking to the East Side by the river. There was a fountain, and all the kids were playing in the fountain. If you did that in Russia, they would take you to the madhouse, but Svetlana asked, and we let her play in the fountain. It was fun.
Interviewer: How was the transition for Svetlana?
Answer: Actually, she wasn’t intimidated at all. She’s very social. Even when we started HIAS, she started a Jewish community day care. Svetlana had no problems going there but my nephew was having trouble. My mother would tell us stories from the day care that the teacher would ask questions and Svetlana would be the first one to raise her hand even though she didn’t know what to answer. Eventually, she started to learn. The teacher told me that even though Svetlana was only 4-5 years old, she would volunteer to translate for the old Russian people who were coming there. She did not take long to adjust.
Aunt Alla: Мы приезжали в гости к дяди за два года до того как мы уехали так, что мы були немножко знакомы. Трудно сначало було. Когда мы сначали приехали то были поражены и удевлены. [Со мной приехал сын]. Емы було три с половиной. Мы делали ему [здесь] обрезание от еврейской организаций, там не делали в Союзе. Мы ходили в Наяну[еврейскую организацию] два месяза [и учили язык] а потом мы пошли в школу в Бруклине и учили accounting. Все було необычно. Нам було тежело но було много помоши. Ребенка взяли в школу. Ето була еврейский детский сад. Для нас ето бесплатно було. Потом его взяли в ешиву и он бесплатно пошел. Наши родственики были веруший когда мы приехали и мы тоже [стали веруишими]. Ето не случилось 'overnight' но люди нам помогали и учили, показовали кошер нам. Там була хорошая еврейская обшина. Тяжело було потому, что языка не було и чуть другая 'mentality' була.
Daughter Svetlana: I was only four when I arrived so I don’t have any memories from that time.
5. Many people left behind careers, years of schooling, friends before coming to the United States. Describe what you have done here to support yourself and your family in this country. Please make as long or short as you wish. If you moved here after retirement, describe your retirement experience here. If you came here as a child, has your parent’s immigration experience affected your career goals, and if so, how?
Mother Lina: My husband tried to go back into construction. He actually took some courses, but it wasn’t what he actually enjoyed. HIAS gave him some courses. So, he started working as a photographer for a studio in Brooklyn. He worked as a printer during the week, and he was shooting weddings on weekends. As for me, I wasn’t into the sewing thing. I just decided to take accounting classes for a year. When I finished, my cousin helped me find a position as a volunteer in an accounting company. We lived in NY and the company was in West Orange, NJ so I started commuting there. After 2-3 months, they hired me. I moved up in the company from a clerk into the financial department and [stayed for] 5 years. [Then], there was a boom about programming. I started taking programming courses, and I liked it. I found a job with a programming company, and moved there for 2 years, and then with another company. Now, I worked at my current job for 12 years.
When I started my job in West Orange, I was driving [from Brooklyn] and dropping off Svetlana with our friends in Fair Lawn. The bus took her to Yeshiva. Then, I picked her up after work. I commuted like this for a year, and then I told my husband that now, he had to commute since his job was in Brooklyn. We rented an apartment in Fair Lawn…and he found job in Fair Lawn.
Interviewer: How did you get involved with the Jewish community?
Answer: My aunt and my uncle here were already religious. In the beginning, we were not religious, but they would invite us for Shabbos. Svetlana went to Yeshiva, and we realized that if we wanted her to stay in that environment, you have to be in that environment. We decided to try, and we started to keep kosher, one step at a time. The Rabbi in our Shul [in Fair Lawn], he will help you with everything. When you see people like this, you want to be in the same environment and in the same community, and that’s how we started [becoming more religious]. You really feel like part of the family there.
We went back to visit in Moldova, mostly because of my father’s grave. In the beginning, it was very hard with friends [in the United States], especially when we started keeping kosher. You hadn’t made new friends there and at the same time, you already lost your old friends. In Fair Lawn, there’s a big Russian community, even in our Shul. Americans have a different mentality so it’s harder to make friends with them, but we have Israeli friends. I don’t like people with a fake smile and then, they look through you.
Interview: What impact did the transition have on Svetlana?
Answer: She didn’t have any trouble adjusting. But, she probably felt more pressure from us to study so that she could get somewhere [because she did not have the same family resources as native born Americans]. She probably felt from us that we had to work hard to get where we are now. There are some people in America who are born here and aren’t where we are. I have another daughter, Dina, who was born here and is now 16.
Aunt Alla: Мы сначало пошли работать на accountant но работы без коледжа були только entry-level positions. Мы [я и моя сестра Лина] пошли на классы програмирования. I am a web developer now. Когда мы только приехали, ни одной игрушке еше не було и когда я получила первую работу, я купила ему воденой пистолет. I always worried about it [that] he’s so depressed. Но, недавно мы говорили про ето. He doesn’t even remember it. У меня сейчас трое детей-два малчика и девочка. Старший сын, [Basim], у меня закончил на accountant в етом году и у него и мастерс уже есть. Средний сын, [Sasha], у меня только начал учитса в коледже на втором году и в первуй год он бул в Израиле. А дочке, [Elana], моей восемь лет.
Daughter Svetlana: My parents had a lot of family support here because my aunt, my uncle, my grandmother, and my cousin on my mom’s side all moved here with us at the same time. My dad’s parents moved to Kansas a little before we left Moldova. They really never felt like going back, and they have gone back to Moldova only a few years ago just to visit some of their friends. We don’t have any family members left there anymore. I think that my parents were already taking some English classes back in Moldova.
I think it allowed me to come up with any career goal that I wanted because I’m sure that that in Moldova it was a lot more limited what I, as a female, could do. There are no restrictions here on my goals. I also think that seeing my parents work so hard here instilled a stronger work ethic in me. I went to Rutgers for college and majored in biology and psychology. During college, I had three jobs because they expected me to work. They provided me with all the things that I needed but beyond that, they expected me to provide for myself. My sister was born here in 1996. The main difference is that after she was born, my parents worked a lot and my grandparents came to live with us, and take care of her. I think she was raised more leniently because it was my grandparents doing more of the disciplining, rather than my parents who were working at that time.
6. If you could pass on one life lesson about your immigration to the United States to your children or grandchildren who are born here, what would it be?
Mother Lina: If you want something, you can always get it by working hard. We came here with $100 in our pockets, and now we’ve a house, kids in college, a lot of things like jobs that we want. Hard work and determination will get you where you want to be. You have to have determination and goals. Never give up.
Aunt Alla: Восможнасть у них здесь сумашедшая. Я даже не могу обеснить им через, что му должны були пройти. Честно, я стараюсь [ето] моим детям обеснить и нету understanding absolutely of what I am trying to say. Hopefully, my grandchildren will understand me. I guess it’s good that they don’t know what they had to leave behind.
Daughter Svetlana: With hard work and perseverance, you can make your own path in life. I don’t think that I would have the strong connection to Judaism if I were still in Moldova.