My Russian Cousins

This post is part of the JCPA’s “Celebrating New Americans” as part of Jewish American Heritage Month. Our Russian relatives arrived in NYC in the early 1990’s. Our families had been apart for almost a century. They brought their American cousins a reminder of how to live life with optimism and gratitude. By Susan Jensen

“Three sisters survived,” said great Grandpa Label. I was 8 and learning about the Holocaust. Label and his brother Nathan emigrated to the U.S. at the turn of the 20th Century. Four younger siblings stayed behind with their parents. By the time the rest of the family could afford to leave, anti-immigration laws had closed the door to the land of freedom.

Our family sent packages and letters back home until escalation of the Cold War made it too dangerous to be in touch with Americans. From 1948 onward, we were incommunicado with our Russian relatives. We each had no idea where the other now lived or who their descendents were.

In 1990, the grandchildren of Louie’s sisters, married to each other, emigrated to NYC with their teenaged sons. The only information they had about us was the last name Zindman. They had no idea if any of the family still lived in N.Y.C. or still had the name Zindman. HIAS helped for a year while they learned English and found low paying jobs (they both held engineering degrees). For a year, they scoured the white pages in every borough and suburb of NYC, calling everyone named Zindman. Finally, they called Nathan’s son, Burton Zindman, out on Long Island. Did you have a grandfather named Label or Nachman?

Their first Aha! moments in the U.S. happened without us. When they stepped into an American supermarket, gorgeous fruit in perfect piles, no lines at checkout- it seemed Soviet propaganda had been true-the masses couldn’t afford to buy anything. We laughed hearing these stories of their early days in N.Y.C. and felt bad we hadn’t been there when they were scrounging for castoff furniture on the streets.

By the time we met, one son was working for Goldman Sachs and the other was on scholarship at Harvard. They had saved their pennies from lab technician and foreman jobs and purchased a small home in Brooklyn. They were bursting with the vigor of an immigrant, eager to make use of a bounty of opportunity.

We introduced them to open celebrations of Jewish holidays. They had a close circle of immigrant friends, who had each others’ backs in the Kafkaesque nightmare of the Soviet Union and now supported each other in their new American life. Their care with money yet generosity as hosts reminded me of our grandparents . I’d forgotten the American dream still existed, particularly if one was able to discern the difference between wants and needs the way our Russian cousins easily could.

I was in my late thirties, single and lonely. My American world lacked warmth. Visiting my Russian relatives, having them wrap their arms around my waist as we spoke, felt like a venous transfusion of needed affection.

They were outstandingly grateful. “You Americans expect perfection and mourn each imperfect day. We expect nothing –so we are happy with what we get.”

Separated by language and culture, we came together, our blood still the same blood, our hearts connected after almost a century apart. I’d come from a family of optimists and lost my way. Our Russian cousins carried the ancestral template of wholesome vitality. I felt myself resonate with that original mold, shifting back to my real self.

My Russian cousins came here with nothing but the knowledge in their heads and courage in their hearts. No money, jobs or ability to speak English. Rather, they possessed something of infinite value- their neshumah, which they shared so freely with their American cousin.CIMG0534