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MUSIC : Keys to Survival : Gifted pianists from Russia are learning to play the organ so that they can find work at synagogues.

February 19, 1993|MICHAEL ARKUSH | TIMES STAFF WRITER

In Russia, Elena Gorokovsky taught piano to the best music students and performed in concerts.

"I had a real job," she said.

In America, she gives five private lessons a week and is struggling.

"I thought coming here would be easier," said Gorokovsky, 36, of West Hollywood. "This is not what I expected."

But for her and eight other Russian Jewish emigres, there is renewed optimism that the land of opportunity will finally deliver. The pianists are learning to play the organ in hopes of getting work at a synagogue.

"We are all very good professionals," said Gorokovsky, who arrived in the United States in 1987 and holds a master's in piano from a music conservatory in Odessa.

Added Marina Bykhovskaya, an assistant teacher at a nursery school, who came here in 1990: "I'm a musician. Music has been my life."

Gorokovsky and Bykhovskaya are among nine pianists participating in a free series of workshops funded by the Jewish Community Foundation in Los Angeles and Temple Beth Hillel in North Hollywood. The program is geared to training the professional musicians to play the organ and familiarizing them with sacred Jewish music.

Since December, cantors and choir directors have taught the students how to adapt their piano skills to a synagogue organ. On Sunday, as part of their graduation, they will perform in a free concert of cantorial music at Adat Ari El congregation in North Hollywood.

The program was conceived by Temple Beth Hillel cantor Diane Dorf and Neal Brostoff, a producer of Jewish music concerts. Over the years, they had met emigres who haven't found work that matched their musical abilities. Most give private lessons, but unlike in Russia, they have trouble making a good living with their music.

"There is no mechanism for placing people as music teachers," Dorf said. "It's very disconcerting that they have to find jobs on their own."

To remedy this, the sessions, held almost weekly, focused on teaching the students how to play music they've never seen before, Dorf said.

The students have also become familiar with the schedule of a Reform or Conservative Jewish worship service. (Orthodox synagogues don't use organs.) The workshops helped the pianists connect with the heritage that they submerged in a nation that, under Communism, barred most religious observance.

"They lost their Jewish identities in Russia," Dorf said. "They were forced to assimilate to fit in."

Some were even ashamed of their Jewish background. Gorokovsky, who grew up in Kiev, remembers being apprehensive when she brought non-Jewish friends to her grandmother's home. Her grandmother often spoke Yiddish.

"I was embarrassed," Gorokovsky said. "We were living undercover. Everybody knew we were Jewish, but I wanted to show people I was Russian first."

Despite their efforts, there is no guarantee that the students will be able to find work at synagogues in the near future.

Brostoff said there is nothing available right now, but expressed hope that later this year, perhaps for the Jewish holidays in September and October, the pianists will acquire part-time work as substitute organists. Even working for a few weeks can make a big difference.

"It's really supplemental," Dorf said, "but they can make a few thousand, and that's not bad for a few days a week."

Furthermore, the workshops, publicized in local Jewish newspapers and circulated through word of mouth, have generated inquiries from people who need pianists.

"Whatever work we can get them will be wonderful," Dorf said. "Weddings, parties, Hebrew school choirs, anything."

Where and When Location: Temple Adat Ari El, 12020 Burbank Blvd., North Hollywood. Hours: 7:30 p.m. Sunday. Price: Free. Call: (818) 763-9148.

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