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COVER STORY : FROM UZBEKISTAN : For the future of their children, an immigrant family leaves their friends and relatives, homes and jobs to start a new life.

June 19, 1992|PAUL CIOTTI | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Picture a Russian Jewish immigrant in New York City at the turn of the century, wrapped in a black shawl, living in a six-story walk-up redolent of steamed cabbage and boiled beef, stringing clothes out the window, looking down on side walks teeming with rag peddlers, fishmongers and the daily chaos of the street.

Now imagine a Soviet Jewish immigrant living in Encino in 1992, wearing pink lipstick and a blue and white lace-trimmed blouse, in a two-story Spanish-style apartment complex with a central courtyard and swimming pool.

"Everything is so beautiful in America," says Stella Grichanik, 26, sitting at the kitchen table in her two-bedroom apartment on a recent warm afternoon, offering a visitor fruit, tea and pastry while her 5-year-old son sits on the carpet playing Nintendo on the color TV.

What's beautiful?

"The houses, the streets, the ocean, Universal Studios."

What did you like about Universal Studios?

"I liked everything."

King Kong?

"I said to my son, 'Don't be afraid,' " she laughs. "But I was afraid."

Grichanik has clear white skin, pink cheeks, a touching naivete about most things American and a grave persona that can suddenly turn delightfully girlish when something amuses her. Having only been here since November, she is still uncritically enamored with everything L. A.--the view of the city from the hills at night, the swimming pool at her apartment complex and the cartoons her son watches Saturday morning on TV ("We had not such beautiful cartoons in Uzbekistan," she says in her endearingly fractured but forceful English).

Eager to try everything American, Stella recently tasted asparagus (she pronounces it as-per-AH-gus), which she liked, and avocado, which she did not. She even speaks affectionately of the 20-year-old Peugeot that her husband, Alex, bought for $30 and spends all his spare time working on.

Most of all, she likes the friendly attitude of Americans. When she walked her son the five blocks to kindergarten at Nestle Avenue School in Tarzana, she discovered total strangers would smile and say hello. "Why are they doing that?" her son would ask. "What did they say?"

It is very different from Uzbekistan, chimes in Stella's 54-year-old mother-in-law, Rita Grichanik, who lives nearby with her husband, Isaac: "The people in the Soviet Union don't smile. They have a lot of problems."

And, if the truth be told, so do the Grichaniks.

Coming to the United States in 1992 doesn't have any of the grueling hardship or mythic resonance of three weeks in steerage on a rusted steamer--the Grichaniks flew to New York on Delta Airlines from Frankfurt, Germany. But the emotional pain of leaving behind other family members, as well as one's home and profession, to start at the bottom in a strange country is wrenching nevertheless.

"I cried a lot for my parents," says Stella Grichanik, who, as soon as she arrived, sent the necessary affidavit to the Immigration and Naturalization Service to begin the two-year process of qualifying her parents, Vera and Gary Aleksandrovich, and younger brother, Anatoly, to immigrate as well.

You miss your parents?

"Of course," Stella says. "My parents are very nervous. I can't sleep at night worrying about them."

An estimated 45,000 Jews from the former Soviet Union are expected to arrive in the United States this year, up from 28,000 in 1991, says Ellen Glettner, refugee resettlement grant administrator for the Jewish Federation Council of Los Angeles. Most stay on the East Coast, especially New York, but of about 2,500 immigrating Jews who came to Los Angeles in 1991, about three-quarters settled in the area around West Hollywood's Plummer Park, while 600 or so, including Stella, her son, her husband, and her mother- and father-in-law, made it over the Hollywood Hills to live in the San Fernando Valley.

"I like Encino," she says. "It is more beautiful than West Hollywood." Another reason: the sponsors of the Grichanik family, her brother- and sister-in-law, Alex and Mila Shainksy and their sons Pavel and Jan, immigrated to Encino from Uzbekistan two years ago.

Unlike immigrants from some other parts of the former Soviet Union, the Grichaniks didn't come here to escape resurgent anti-Semitism or economic hardship. On the contrary, Stella Grichanik says, she enjoyed life in Uzbekistan, an ancient Islamic country located 1,800 miles from Moscow, east of the Caspian Sea and near Afghanistan.

In contrast to the bare shelves of Moscow and St. Petersburg, the bustling open-air black markets of the Uzbek capital, Tashkent, were (at least until recently) bursting with melons, cucumbers, apples, pears, oranges, meat, sour cream, cottage cheese and honey. It was more costly than the rationed state stores. On the other hand, "you didn't have to stand in line," Stella says.

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