Plummer Park in West Hollywood is an epicenter of Russian culture in Los Angeles. In the afternoon, dozens of men sit at benches and tables, speaking Russian and playing cards. Inside the Great Hall, immigrants from the former Soviet Union sing songs in their native languages and dance. But last Monday amid this bastion of Russian cultural activities, another group of immigrants from behind the iron curtain had undertaken a quintessentially American activity—they read and discussed F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby.”
A dozen native Russian speakers, who make up roughly a fifth of West Hollywood’s population, sat around the table. Most of them were senior citizens who had come to the United States late in life, and now discussed the novel’s main characters.
“I like Gatsby,” said Raisa Chertok, who emigrated from Belarus in 1992. “He is a person who built his life working very hard. He had a real dream. He’s not from a rich family. And when he met Daisy he decided somehow to make money in order to reach her, to marry her. He understood without money he could not do it. ”
Sofia Komskaya, a Russian teacher from the Ural Mountains who came to the United States with her family in 1995, disagreed.
“It was a false dream,” she said. “You can’t get wealth in order to get love.”
Throughout March, West Hollywood residents have been revisiting Fitzgerald’s great American novel. Fitzgerald spent the last years of his life in West Hollywood, and as part of the Big Read 2010 program, the city has offered discussion of “Gatsby” led by authors and English literature professors, and walking tours of Fitzgerald’s old haunts. The Conversation Café English class, however, might seem an unlikely setting for a discussion of the novel.
When Komskaya set up the Conversation Café English class in 1999, she and most other members of the group spoke very little English. To help the groups of emigrants, she recruited English-speaking volunteers to join the class.
“I tried to find everywhere English-speaking seniors,” Komskaya said. “Even when I went to the movie theatre and noticed that some woman sat by herself, I talked to her about our group.”
Komskaya found a few volunteers, but not enough, she said. Working with the Plummer Park activity office, she managed to secure a teacher from Fairfax Adult School. Two years ago, however, as the economic crisis began to set in, funding for a teacher dried up, leaving Komskaya to lead the class herself. By this time, however, her English had greatly improved. She would bring in articles from the Los Angeles Times for the group to read. Still, the class had never read a book in English.
“It was Andrew Campbell (with the City of West Hollywood Cultural Affairs Division), who asked me if we want to participate in the Big Read,” Komskaya said. “I said, sure we can do it, I can’t promise we would do it perfectly, but it’s a great challenge for us and a great opportunity.”
Campbell provided the group with copies of “The Great Gatsby,” including Russian translations, which some members of the group read before moving on to the English version. Komskaya also made up handouts about the novel to help move the discussion along, asking questions about the characters, the 1920s, and the book’s title.
Ray Mitchell, who has volunteered with the Conversation Café since its inception 11 years ago, said she could hardly believe the group members’ comprehension of the story.
“When I started, they would read Dear Abby, and ask for meanings of words, simple things like that,” Mitchell said. “‘Gatsby’ is not the easiest book to pick up and understand. But some debated with each other, some agreed, it was just amazing.”
“Gatsby’s dream was like the American dream, sometimes you can reach it, and sometimes, no, it’s far, far away and you can only dream it,” Chertok said. “It’s like the green light across the water. It seems close but very far at the same time. Some achieve the goal and some do not.”
All of the members of the group, though, had found their way to Plummer Park from much farther away than the green light across the water in the book, and their understanding of the novel, in many ways, represented their own understanding of the country they had adopted as their own.
Like many other members of the group, Chertok is Jewish, and listed the prospect of religious freedom as one of the main reasons that her family decided to come to the United States.
“Before Perestroika, it was always difficult for us Jewish people,” Chertok said. “I came here with my whole family when I was 60 years old, and the main goal of our family was that our grandchildren could choose. I feel free in this country. I’m an elderly person, but for my children and my grandchildren, it’s a dream to be here. They work hard, and help their children achieve their goal. There are no obstacles in the way for our grandchildren. This is the most valued thing in this country. If you try hard, nobody will interrupt you.”
Komskaya, too, came to America in hopes of finding religious acceptance, and said she feels a freedom here that she had not experienced at home.
“We are Jews, and I had a lot of bad moments in my life because of that,” Komskaya said. “No matter what I accomplish in my career, I always felt like a second class person. But in this country, I don’t feel like I am second-class citizen even if I speak English poorly. I watch TV all the time, American channels. My children and grandchildren are always laughing at me because they say, ‘grandma, you have to stop torturing yourself with English, read something in Russian.’ But I feel as an American.”
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