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Giving Up On America

Valery Itzkevitch Arrived Here From Eastern Europe With a Job and a Dream. But He Neglected to Read the Jewish Immigrant Script.

January 27, 2002|BENJAMIN SMITH | Benjamin Smith is a former Baltic correspondent for the Wall Street Journal Europe

Last year, Scott Spolin got the opportunity to repay an old debt. The chance came in the slim, 25-year-old form of Valery Itzkevitch, who walked into Spolin's law office one sunny afternoon. What Spolin saw in the young man from Eastern Europe was a chance to share his own family's immigrant success story.

The two men sat together in Spolin's spare office--the guest neat and formal, with a black suit and elegant, creaky English; the host compact, casual and blunt. The older man was struck by Itzkevitch's story: He was a Jew from Riga, the capital of Latvia, a lawyer who wanted to learn American law, and a father who wanted to bring his wife and son to America.

Spolin, 56, is a partner in the small, prosperous business law practice of Spolin, Silverman, Cohen & Bartlett. He was born in Los Angeles, and his parents were born in Chicago. His favorite grandfather was Morris Spolin, a Jewish sheet-metal worker who came to Chicago from what is now Latvia in 1908. The Spolin family's trek from East to West and from working class to professional is a familiar one to American Jews. "Maybe this kid's grandparents lived next door to my grandparents' parents," Spolin marveled to himself.

Half an hour into their conversation, he offered Itzkevitch a job. For Spolin, it was a privilege. Ninety years after his Latvian grandfather struggled in a new land, the grandson had a chance to ameliorate the suffering of another immigrant family from Latvia. "It's the same country, it's the same immigration, it's the same America," Spolin said to himself.

More than 3 million Jews have come to the United States in the last two centuries. They arrived in waves, the most recent being the flood of Soviet Jews that started as a trickle in the 1960s. More than 45,000 Soviet Jews came to America in 1992 alone, according to the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society. Since the early '70s, about 120,000 Soviet Jews came to Southern California, many to West Hollywood. But the wave was cut short in the '90s as the former Soviet Union turned into a set of more or less democratic societies, and American immigration authorities no longer assumed that Jews automatically met the asylum criterion of a "well-founded fear of persecution."

"In the days of the communists, it was hard to get out but easy to get refugee status," says Jonathan D. Sarna, professor of American Jewish history at Brandeis University. "After the Communists fell, it was easier to get out but harder to get refugee status."

All Morris Spolin had needed to come to America was a one-way ticket and a strong back. Soviet-era refugees needed only the will to start from scratch. But if Valery Itzkevitch wanted to come to America, he had to find a job and keep it. His future would depend on fulfilling Scott Spolin's expectations.

I met Valery Itzkevitch the day he formed his secret plan to come to America. We were both living in Riga, and on that evening in February 2000, we had each driven out to a dreary suburb to attend the birthday party of a prosperous young Russian-Jewish banker. About 20 boisterous young men and mostly silent young women toasted the guest of honor around a long table laid with cold meat and syrupy cranberry vodka.

The couple across the table from me seemed different from their friends. Itzkevitch was slightly built and reserved. His wife, Maya, looked and acted as if she came from a sunnier place; she had olive skin, glittering dark eyes and a loud, biting sense of humor.

Halfway through dinner, Itzkevitch told me he had done something whimsical: British Airways was offering tickets from Riga to Los Angeles for just $299, and he had bought one for a two-week vacation. What Itzkevitch didn't tell me, or his friends, or even his wife that evening, was that he saw the trip to America as a chance to escape.

At first glance, the 25-year-old lawyer seemed an unlikely emigre. He wasn't a beleaguered shtetl Jew who had to settle for manual labor, like Spolin's grandfather. His story hardly matched the pathos of famous tales of the Jewish emigre, an archetype that reached its peak in Abraham Cahan's 1917 novel "The Rise of David Levinsky," before its reduction to an animated mouse in Steven Spielberg's "An American Tail." In Cahan's classic book, the hero leaves Russia broke and hungry. His mother has just been killed in a pogrom. He arrives speaking only Yiddish, and rises from street peddler to textile magnate.

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