B.U. Bridge is published by the Boston University Office of University Relations.
Survey of Soviet-born Jewish elders challenges stereotypes
By Hope Green
Alexander Pruzhan emigrated from St. Petersburg, Russia, to America at the age of 61. He has few regrets.
After enduring a lifetime of government-sanctioned anti-Semitism and job discrimination, Pruzhan and his wife, a mechanical engineer, followed their daughter, son-in-law, and grandchildren to Massachusetts in 1990, entering the United States as refugees. The only wrenching part was leaving behind old friends.
"We wanted our grandchildren to be what they wanted to be," says Pruzhan, a retired engineer living in Brighton. "That's why we left the Soviet Union. All of our lives are better now."
Pruzhan is part of a local immigrant population whose experiences form the basis of Well-Being Among American and Soviet-Born Jewish Elders, a doctoral dissertation by sociologist Julie Plaut Mahoney (GRS'01). She interviewed 25 Russian-speaking elderly Jews living in Brookline, Brighton, and the Boston suburbs as her focal group, and 25 American-born Jewish elders for comparison.
Plaut Mahoney asked her subjects about their health, their social interactions, and their religious practice, three factors sociologists commonly use to measure well-being. She completed her research as a predoctoral trainee in BU's Gerontology Center, and in June she led a workshop based on her findings at the center's Summer Institute 2001, where Pruzhan was her guest speaker. Like many of her interview subjects, Plaut Mahoney says, Pruzhan contradicts a prevailing stereotype of elderly Russian-speaking immigrants as dour and pessimistic.
"What I've learned over the last three to four years of working with Soviet-born elders," she told the assembled group of social workers and health professionals, "is that no one has a monopoly on what is true about this population."
Pruzhan is one of an estimated 30,000 immigrants from the former Soviet Union who resettled in Boston and the surrounding area within the past two decades, according to statistics from social service agencies. About 80 percent of these immigrants are Jewish, and 25 percent were over the age of 65 when they arrived in the United States.
Urban ethnic groups and matters of Jewish identity are favorite subjects for Plaut Mahoney, whose father's family left Germany when he was a boy and settled in Ohio. She is also interested in the sociology of aging, but it's not all academic: she has extensive experience with Boston senior-advocacy organizations such as Jewish Community Housing for the Elderly, where she works as a grant writer, and the Multicultural Coalition on Aging. She hopes these organizations will find value in her research.
"I need my work to have legs," she says. "I need it to hit the ground running and be applicable and useful to improving service to minority elders. That's what drives me."
Plaut Mahoney conducted her survey of the Jewish seniors in two parts, a multiple-choice questionnaire and a lengthy interview in which she posed open-ended conversation starters, such as "Tell me about your family," "How do you take care of your health?" "What was the religious atmosphere in your parents' home?" and "How do you feel about getting older?"
"I defined well-being as a survey participant's ability to cope," she explains, "and the process of adaptation and adjustment to life in the present."
One of the first things that struck her about the émigrés was their utter lack of nostalgia for the place where they grew up, raised families, and had their careers. On further reflection she was not so surprised. To illustrate her point, she showed workshop participants a New Yorker cartoon depicting a man with hat and cane and two children standing at the edge of a harbor. "The country Grandpa came from," the man says, "was a stinking hellhole of unspeakable poverty where everyone was always happy."
Many of those Plaut Mahoney interviewed recall their parents telling them about the pogroms (raids on Jewish villages in the late 19th and early 20th centuries) and World War I. In their own lifetimes they witnessed World War II, the Holocaust, and decades of totalitarian government.
Keeping this in mind, she says, "helps you put their experience in perspective."
Many survey respondents told Plaut Mahoney they were more content now than at any other time in their lives. They belong to community organizations, attend English classes, and take computer courses so they can communicate with old confidants by e-mail. They also travel widely to visit their elderly friends who immigrated to other parts of North America.
"The word I use in my dissertation is buoyant," Plaut Mahoney says. "They are so happy to be living out the last 20 years of their lives in relative calm. This contrasts quite strongly with the stereotypes of Soviet-born elders as critical, depressed, and aggressive, as well as atheist. I just heard tremendous gratefulness in the interviews."
Respondents said that their access to health care is greatly improved in the United States. Plaut Mahoney did not attempt to assess their mental health, although many appeared to have symptoms of depression. Among this population, she notes, "depression is not recognized as an illness, but rather an inability to pull oneself together." And there is no Russian translation for "social worker."
But it was the survey's third area of inquiry, religion, that generated the most provocative answers. Under Soviet rule, entire generations grew up knowing little about Jewish history, holidays, or customs. Plaut Mahoney was curious to see what her interview subjects might make of their sudden religious freedom in America. She found the question especially intriguing given that so many of them settled in towns with multiple synagogues.
"It's a special situation when somebody has a strong ethnic identity but very limited religious knowledge," Plaut Mahoney says. "Here are people at a time in their lives when they might get some sort of benefit or solace from religion, but many of them don't have a lot to draw on."
Often it is the grandchildren of immigrants, many of whom attend religious school on scholarships from Boston-area synagogues, who revive the family's interest in Judaism and long-forgotten holidays. As a sociologist Plaut Mahoney finds this phenomenon striking.
"One thinks of transmission of knowledge about culture and ethnicity trickling down through the generations, but what I see is it's trickling up," she says. "That is really a different way of thinking about the transmission of information than we're used to."
Plaut Mahoney hopes that her research will help social workers and housing administrators better understand the needs of their elderly clients. Her interview subjects, for instance, said they found it comforting to attend a communal sabbath meal in their apartment building.
"They say it's very meaningful for them to participate in religious activities that have been done the same way for thousands of years," she says. "It goes a long way toward combating loneliness and isolation, and religious ritual is something you can add for very little money in a communal housing setting. So there's an example of research that can be translated immediately into policy."