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Fulbright Scholar Helps Baltics Create American Studies Program

September 16, 1993|DENISE HAMILTON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

POMONA — The first Fulbright Scholar ever to visit the newly independent Baltic nations arrived in the dead of winter, bearing tales of welfare mothers and the Federal Reserve.

George Eisen, a 50-year-old professor who teaches sociology at Cal Poly Pomona, spent January through June at the University of Tartu in Estonia, where he helped local scholars create the region's first American Studies program.

The Baltic Center for North American Studies, which opened formally in May, is an interdisciplinary program that helps students understand the histories, cultures, societies and economies of the United States and Canada.

For Estonian students whose points of reference until recently were Moscow and Marx, the program offers a unique window into American life as well as opportunities for scholarly and cultural exchange. Interest ran high during the spring semester, when 50 students signed up for a class taught by Eisen that explored U.S. government, culture and race relations.

Eisen was born and raised in Budapest, Hungary, lived for years in Israel and is now a tenured professor at Cal Poly Pomona and an adjunct professor at the University of Connecticut. His background makes him acutely aware of the benefits of such academic cross-pollination, especially as the nations of the former Soviet Union struggle to establish market economies and democracy.

The professor chose Tartu over Prague, where he was also offered a Fulbright, because although he thinks Prague's architecture and bridges make it the most beautiful city in the world, Estonia is "where history is being made at this moment."

History notwithstanding, Eisen found he had to tread cautiously at first in Tartu, where some Estonian professors suspected that an American Studies program would bring Western cultural imperialism.

Things had come full circle since the Cold War Communist days when all things Western were forbidden and thus desirable, especially jeans, Johnnie Walker and rock 'n' roll. By early 1993, many Estonian academics worried that their centuries-old civilization could be snuffed out by the decadent popular culture of the West, Eisen said.

One colleague told him: "Why are you coming here to teach us this? We already have too much of it." The professor added that too many people were trying to tell Estonians what to do and that he was worried about the fate of Estonian culture.

Eisen gave a savvy response that managed to flatter his hosts while piquing their interest. "I explained to them that Estonia had been conquered for centuries and that people still speak Estonian and have their strong culture, so they don't have anything to worry about."

Caught between three cultures and identities himself, Eisen says he can understand their concerns. He believes Americans have a tendency to ride in on their white horses, dispensing wisdom to the natives and alienating them in the process.

"Here we are now, riding into Somalia and trying to solve a 3,000-year problem," he scoffs.

In the six months Eisen and his daughter Sivan, 11, lived in Estonia, Scandinavian investment in the country boomed, traveler's checks came into use and tensions between ethnic Estonians and ethnic Russians smoldered as national leaders debated whether to grant citizenship to Russian residents who were the tiny nation's erstwhile conquerors. His wife and two other daughters remained in the United States.

Russians make up at least 30% of the nation's 1.5 million residents and tend to be warmer and more garrulous than the more reserved Estonians, Eisen said.

Eisen was embraced by a third group--the tiny Jewish community of Tartu that is struggling to pull around itself the tattered shreds that remain of a once-flourishing religion and culture.

Thousands of Estonian Jews perished in the Holocaust, leaving only about 3,500 today. About 130 live in Tartu, but most hope to immigrate to Israel. To them, Eisen taught Hebrew each Sunday morning at the Jewish Cultural Center.

One night, Eisen was invited to a family Seder, the Passover ceremony. Elderly members wept when he intoned passages from the ceremony in Hebrew, which the older people thought they would never hear again and the younger people had never heard before.

"It was a terrible reminder that Judaism, like all religions, had been against the law to practice there for more than 50 years," Eisen said.

The Cal Poly professor learned as much as he taught. He found that bread cost 20 cents a loaf but coffee fetched $2.50 per pound--which put it out of reach for most professors, who made about $70 a month.

He learned that most Estonian homes have saunas--the warmest room in the house where children are often born and old people breathe their last gasp.

He luxuriated in the long spring days, when the Northern sun doesn't set until midnight and rises again at 3 a.m.

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