The Tale of Dina Brown
A woman who risked everything to create a better life in the United States
essay written by Ben Brown
This paper details the circumstance, nuances, and hardships of Dina Brown’s immigration experiences. It portrays not only her living situations in Russia, Israel, and the United States but also the political situations of these countries when she first arrived at each of them, their dominant attitudes towards immigrants, and the best and worst aspects of each from the perspective of a newly arrived immigrant. Finally, this work details Dina’s current domestic situation and evaluates how she has acclimated to the United States.
This is the story of a woman who endured tragedy, loss, and isolation on an arduous trek to the famed land of opportunity-the United States of America. Her name is Dina Brown, and she has lived under the Communist, dictatorial regime of the Soviet Union and the fledgling bureaucracy of the newly formed state of Israel. She has unwillingly served in Communist youth organizations and was on the verge of becoming an officer in the Israeli military. But most importantly of all, she has sacrificed everything—her future, friends, jobs, and passions—in order to journey here to the United States, and after all that, she claims: “…I think that was really the best decision of my life…” This is a compilation of the events leading up to, involving, and following this decision.
Dina Brown was born in Moscow, Russia on March 18, 1955. She belonged to a wealthy, urban family, whose income was supplemented by her grandfather’s dealings in black market fur. Though her mother was a doctor and her father was an engineer, without Dina’s grandfather, the family would barely have been able to survive the month; and even with these supplemented earnings, living accommodations that today would be considered comfortable were not attainable. This is due to the unique economic structure of the Soviet Union under which professionals such as doctors and lawyers are paid only a minimal salary. Those who make the most money are either high profile politicians who work for the Soviet party or merchants who deal in the black market and can evade heavy government regulation and taxation. Dina claims: “…when I was born we were living in a communal apartment with twelve other families…even though we had the money…[different] living arrangements were not possible…” So, the economic aspect of her day to day life could at best be classified as adequate, for phenomena like single family homes and constant heat and air conditioning were not available in Soviet Russia. However, from an educational standpoint, Dina Brown’s childhood was superior to most of what can be found in the United States even today. She states: “We went to school 6 days a week instead of 5…and though we only had 10 grades I think we covered more curriculum than is covered in the United States in 12.” This rigorous education consumed most of her free time, for she had almost no time to spare for social interactions and games, instead going to school, coming home and practicing piano, and then doing homework until she went to sleep. Though her childhood was a very focused and studious one, it would serve to provide her with knowledge and skills to become an accomplished and upstanding United States citizen.
However, outside of Dina’s life, the Soviet Union was neither a friendly nor nurturing place for a child to grow. The KGB, the Russian secret police, lurked around every corner, never hesitating to incarcerate anyone who was a suspected critic of the government. Though the nation masqueraded as a Communist state, it was in fact a dictatorship, under which citizens had very limited rights. Also, the Soviet Union did not welcome followers of any religion, especially Judaism. Mrs. Brown elaborates: “…some universities placed quotas of 3 Jews per year…and certain people got arrested for attending a synagogue…” Though there was no official or overt discrimination because Communism preaches equality for all, there was still very widespread covert anti-Semitism. For example, Jews were not permitted in various public areas, and often if others found out that someone was Jewish, they would terrorize them in any way possible, from robbing their homes to kidnapping them to lighting their houses on fire. These tensions were so prevalent that when Dina was prompted about her religion or nationality she would always lie, for there was no way to discriminate between those who could and could not be trusted. On the whole, Mrs. Brown grew up in an atmosphere of latent fear and tension that would not be relieved until her relocation to Israel.
Mrs. Brown left Russia for many of the reasons above. Her family grew weary of the constant conflicts with the government and tired of having to hide their religious affiliations. Once, in fact, their family was openly confronted by the government, for Dina’s mother was a very involved activist in the underground Zionist movement in Moscow. She retells the story of her mother: “…she almost got arrested once [for] either marching around the synagogue in Moscow or something similar, and she was also distributing some underground literature…” It was the cold and unaccepting nature of the government that drove Dina’s family from the Soviet Union, for they would have rather forsaken their wealth and reputation rather than endure the constant persecution of Jews and suppression of the rights of speech, religion, and press that were available in so many other parts of the world.
Another reason for Mrs. Brown’s departure from Russia was her mother’s Zionist affiliations. Mrs. Brown describes her mother’s convictions in response to a query as to why her family went to Israel instead of the United States or Europe: “Well my mom was a Zionist…so the other options didn’t really exist for her…” Zionists believe that at some point in their lives, Jews should make the pilgrimage to their holy land—Israel. Dina’s mother, Ela, had collaborated extensively with others who shared this view in Russia, and this motivated her to advocate the immigration from Russia even more fervently in the hopes that once the family agreed she could persuade them to move to Israel; and this is exactly what happened.
Dina Brown’s journey from the Soviet Union to the United States was a long and difficult one. When she went to Israel, she left almost everything behind in Russia—her friends, belongings, wealth, and most importantly, her budding career as a professional pianist. She recalled somewhat forlornly that she had only recently been accepting to a very prestigious and selective performing arts high school which would have insured her admission to the Moscow Conservatory, the premier music school college in Russia and one of the best in the world. However, she continued her music education in Israel, but acclimating to the new country and accepting the fact that she would not fulfill her potential as a musician was a heavy blow that Mrs. Brown did not adjust to quickly. This burden was rendered even heavier when she was forced to learn a new language—Hebrew—in a matter of only a few months in order to complete her high school diploma on time. She then attended the Jerusalem Academy of Music and obtained a bachelor’s degree in the performing arts, specializing in piano performance. However, during the summers between her first and second years at the university she served her mandatory terms in the Israeli army. Mrs. Brown recalls the experience: “It was basically 50 girls all living together in the same barrack...learning how to use guns and waking up at 5 AM every day…which is not exactly my idea of a good time.” After fulfilling her duty to the Israeli military and graduating from the music academy, Dina Brown married and had a son. She then settled down, helping to support her family by holding private piano lessons and continually trying to make contacts in the Israeli music community to attempt to create a path to a more lucrative career. However, this would all change once she completed the final leg of her journey to the United States.
It was not the logistics or physical journey from Israel to the United States that was difficult for Mrs. Brown. When asked about this, she responded: “No, it was not hard for me to enter the United States because my parents were already living there…so I was given a visa through family affiliations…” Though this aspect of the relocation may have been easier than most others, the emotional complexities of this life-changing decision would affect the rest of Mrs. Brown’s life. The move to the United States was a very complicated affair because her husband was extremely reluctant to go. He firmly advocated staying in Israel, and though she convinced him to go with her, their marriage ended soon after and her ex husband left the United States to return to his home country. In addition to this setback, Dina’s parents, her financial and emotional safety net, also returned to Israel due to financial complications with the U.S. government. This left her completely alone in her new apartment in West Hollywood—friendless and without family in a foreign country to which she had only recently emigrated, having to not only financially support herself but also her young child. Dina details another one of her fears: “I was afraid that I would not be able to economically support myself…that’s the main thing that goes through your head when you move to a different country…whether you will be able to provide for yourself and your family…” Therefore, Mrs. Brown was not only forced to cope with the frightening aspects of starting anew in a completely foreign country, but she also had to simultaneously fight to keep her family together.
Mrs. Brown’s first impressions of America were that of wonder and astonishment. “[It was] like heaven…” she reminisces. Mrs. Brown fell in love with the United States for many reasons: for one, she immediately admired the large, well-kept structures and the seeming efficiency with which everything flowed compared to the labored and almost primitive atmospheres of Israel and the Soviet Union. She also admired the high degree of appreciation for higher end culture such as the performing and visual arts, which were lacking in Israel. However, most importantly, she was in awe of the atmosphere of freedom that pervaded the country; she claims: “I would never have received as many opportunities [in the Soviet Union or Israel] to…establish myself economically as I have in the United States.” The US was the first place the Mrs. Brown had lived where all you needed was talent and hard work to achieve a decent standard of living, for in Russia the dictatorship stifled most social mobility, and Israel was such a new and developing country that it simply could not offer an amount of opportunities anywhere near that of the United States. As soon as Dina Brown stepped onto US soil, she sensed that this would be the place where she would spend the rest of her life.
Once Mrs. Brown arrived in the United States, she was forced to adjust to situations which she had never even conceived she would encounter. The most immediate of these adjustments was a culture shock. Both Russia and Israel had been home to cultures that were very integrated and family oriented; several generations often lived in the same house together and neighbors were often part of a makeshift extended family. So, when Mrs. Brown came to the United States to find that it is very individualistic and based upon nuclear families, she experienced a great sense of loneliness and alienation. She claims: “That’s probably the only aspect that [the United States] lacks…that Israel and Europe has…since the individualism of the United States lacks a certain amount of warmth and…social fabric.” Dina also had to deal with the English language and all of its difficult nuances such as grammatical rules with several exceptions, homonyms, and idiomatic expressions. English is especially rich in all of these, rendering becoming fluent in it as a second language extremely difficult. Dina recalls: “…to this day I still need to think twice before processing something like ‘you’re pulling my leg’ or ‘he let the cat out of the bag’…”
However, adjusting to the lifestyle of the United States brought far more pleasures than difficulties. Once here, Dina experienced a level of accommodation and luxury that she had never previously conceived. She remembers: “Even the number of television channels was overwhelming…it just wasn’t available in the places that I’d lived…” For the first time, Mrs. Brown indulged in a single family home, heat and air conditioning available any time, and grocery and department stores which carried nearly everything that one needs in one convenient location. She had never before lived in a country that catered so much to the consumer, and this was a very pleasant surprise for her. Also, Mrs. Brown utilized the extensive educational opportunities in the United States to begin her career in computer programming. When asked about her economic situation in the US, she repeatedly emphasized that had she not arrived here, she would not have experienced nearly the amount of success or comfort that she does today. Finally, Dina also enjoyed the general politeness with which most people treated one another in the United States, for in Israel social courtesies such as “please” and “thank you” were often disregarded, and etiquette guidelines such as proper eating and mannerisms that are so prevalent in the US were not deemed so important in Israel.
Though Mrs. Brown had made many tough decisions before, she had never encountered a dilemma quite like the one regarding what to teach her children. There was no doubt that she was enamored with the United States and its culture, for she claimed: “I worked very hard to assimilate into the American culture…so my children could experience its fantastic benefits…for their entire lives.” However, Dina also felt a strong attachment to her Jewish heritage and Russian and Israeli roots. Therefore, she decided to raise her children in a mainly secular American family setting which included bits and pieces of her heritage. For example, both of her children attended Hebrew school for an average of five years and had Bar Mitzvahs, the Jewish rite of passage which marks the growth of children into adults. They also celebrate the Jewish holidays and attend services at their local synagogue several times a year. Also, both children have extensively studied Russian and Israeli history and are somewhat familiar with both the Russian and Hebrew languages. They are also constantly immersed in the Russian and Israeli mentalities and cultures when they encounter their grandparent, great uncle, and other relatives who were born in these countries. Therefore, though Mrs. Brown raised her children as Americans, she never let them forget their origins.
Now, Dina Brown is the chairwoman of the doctoral program at Argosy University in Santa Ana, California. She lives in Irvine, California with her husband and younger son, but her older son and parents live close by as well: her son in Dana Point and parents in Laguna Beach. She has achieved everything that she ever wanted—love, happiness and stability, and she has fully integrated into the United States society, establishing not only domestic and economic stability but a large social network of friends, affiliates, and colleagues as well. Though she occasionally misses Israel and Russia and often becomes nostalgic about the environment which she grew up in and the influences which shaped the early years of her life, she never for one second regrets her decision to come to the US. When asked about her immigration experiences and her journey to America, she still claims: “I think that was really the best decision of my life.”
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