Op-Ed: Immigrants Balance Survival and Morality in Russian Brooklyn

Op-Ed: Immigrants Balance Survival and Morality in Russian Brooklyn

February 15, 2012 at 4:00 am

Truth: People want to see themselves onstage. It’s why I respond to stories about working class folk. It’s why a movie like “Sugar” (about a Dominican baseball player recruited to play in the U.S.) or “The Lost Boys of Sudan” (a documentary about two Sudanese refugees coming to the U.S.) can reduce me to a puddle. The stories of immigrants struggling to find acceptance in the new world is my story — my parents emigrated from the Soviet Union in 1975, settling in Brooklyn.

A second truth: many immigrants don’t respond well to criticism of their own culture. They say the airing of dirty laundry ought to remain a private thing.

In my play “Russian Transport,” an immigrant family struggles to efficiently run a car business. Trouble ensues when an uncle visiting from Russia pulls the family into an underworld of organized crime that includes human trafficking.

Many Russians do not want to see a stereotypical depiction of their culture. Neither do I. In ‘Russian Transport,’ I explore one family’s struggle to reconcile survival with morality.

According to a recent report from WNYC, “the number of arrests in sex trafficking cases in New York City increased more than five times to 50 in 2011, up from 9 in 2008.” The report identifies Brighton Beach, Brooklyn — which has a huge Russian Community — as one of a handful of immigrant neighborhoods that remains an active hub in the trafficking of “mostly women and young girls between the ages of 10 and 30.”

In telling this story, I chose to explore the criminal element within the Russian community in an effort to understand how one can apply the slippery morality of the corrupt, old world to a free society. The majority of immigrant families (mine included) don’t engage in the activities I dramatized. Yet when a human trafficking scandal such as the one described above, or a Holocaust reparation scam is uncovered in Brighton Beach, our community does not seem particularly surprised. This cynicism is bred from growing up in a nation wherein corruption is endemic.

Writer Erika Sheffer's parents Edith and Yuri Sheffer on a bench in Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn in the early 1980s. Photo courtesy of Erika Sheffer.

My family was part of a wave of Jewish refugees who got out of Russia before the fall of communism. Originally from the Carpathian Mountains of western Ukraine, my parents grew up speaking Hungarian at home, and Russian everywhere else. Hungarian was the language of my grandparents, and with so few Russian immigrants in the States when I was young, my brother and I never learned Russian. Having experienced the oppression and anti-Semitism of a totalitarian state, my parents did not consider themselves “really Russian,” and because they were Jewish, neither did the Soviet Union.

Erika Sheffer, approximately age 3, near the waterfront in Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn. Photo courtesy of Erika Sheffer.

After the fall of communism, my father’s family began to trickle over. Cousin Misha slept on a fold-out bed in our dining room for three months. Next came my Uncle Fyodor, who stayed for six months. They were followed by Aunt Mariya and her daughter Zhanna. I was about 13 when I was first exposed to my dad’s side of the family, and I couldn’t help but feel they were “really Russian.” Unlike my parents and grandparents, they had lived in the Soviet Union for their entire lives. Some of them did not even speak Hungarian. Also, they had gold teeth and blue eyes.


In "Russian Transport," the arrival of Uncle Boris (Morgan Spector), far right, threatens the future of a Russian-speaking immigrant family working hard to achieve the American Dream. Misha (Daniel Oreskes, left) becomes concerned when his son Alex (Raviv Ullman), center, is seduced by Uncle Boris' lifestyle. Photo by Monique Carboni.

Living with these strangers who were my close relatives made me realize that though my parents may not have identified as Russian, we were not American either. Like many children of immigrants, I walked the line between two distinct cultures, which allowed me to observe each.

The adult characters in “Russian Transport” are much like my parents, and come from a society where striving for a better life and expressing opinions freely ended in a jail sentence. Acknowledging their reality allowed me to create sympathetic characters who operate under a set of rules different from my own.

Diane, portrayed by Janeane Garofalo, scolds her son, Alex, played by Raviv Ullman. Photo by Monique Carboni.

Most Russians do not want to see a stereotypical depiction of their culture. Neither do I. In “Russian Transport,” I explore one family’s struggle to reconcile survival with morality. This battle is not unique to Russians, but is an essential aspect of the American class divide. How much harm are you willing to inflict on others, in an effort to support your own?

While dirty laundry might get aired in the process, the freedom to discuss these ethical dilemmas openly was part of the reason my parents and so many others chose to make a life in this country. As the first person in my family born here, I’m taking full advantage of that right.

“Russian Transport” is playwright Erika Sheffer’s off-Broadway debut.