It started with a few phrases like “Ve grusne?” (“Are you upset?”), “Pashli s’mnoi” (“Come with me”) and “krasivaya” (“You are beautiful”).
Jean Santo started out with those essentials as she slowly learned to converse with Russian-speaking Alzheimer’s patients at the Jewish Home. With 17 of them on her floor, Santo felt compelled to learn their language.
With that humble beginning 18 months ago, Santo, who serves as the Jewish Home’s recreation director, has gone on to study Russian in earnest, and now she’s feeling quite horosho (good) about her abilities to communicate.
“Most of the people don’t know they’re in America,” says Santo. “They wonder why we don’t speak Russian. One woman started yelling at me, ‘You’re speaking to us in another language.’ I thought I should be able to answer that.”
Now in her fourth year on staff, the Cherry Hill, N.J., native says there are plenty of Russian speakers at the Home, from nurses to social workers. But in her capacity working with Alzheimer’s patients, Santo felt strongly that she shouldn’t be left out.
“Here you are,” she says, “a senior, probably not practicing Judaism. The adjustment of coming to a strange land, finding yourself in a structured environment, and a very Jewish-identified facility — it’s extremely vital to have people who can ease that.”
To master Russian, Santo went digital. She found a Chicago-based tutor on craigslist.org and started studying. Once each week, the two would converse for an hour in Russian through their computer microphones. Santo also worked with software that converts her computer keystrokes to Cyrillic script.
“The grammar is unbelievable,” notes the 25-year-old Santo. “The same word changes in every sentence you use it in. I make a lot of mistakes, and the residents — who think I’m a native speaker — get mad, saying ‘You should be ashamed of yourself.'”
Director of Residents’ Programs and Services Mark Friedlander admires his staffer, not only for taking on the difficult Russian language, but also for committing herself to Jewish seniors and the Jewish community in general. Santo is not Jewish.
“That’s what makes it more amazing,” says Friedlander. “To have Jean take this on and embrace Jewish culture, not being asked, she can truly meet the needs of every resident on her unit. It’s phenomenal.”
After more than a year of practicing, Santo has progressed way beyond rudimentary words and phrases. And she’s already seeing a big payoff.
“It’s easier when they get upset to calm them down,” she adds. “Being able to explain what I’m doing is a comfort. I can recite poems they learned in grade school and I’m learning Russian songs. So typically, I know all the curse words.”
A clarinet player, she’s also formed a klezmer band she calls the Klezmer Ketzels, which entertains the Jewish Home residents often.
Foreign language teachers agree the best way to lock in verbal skills is round-the-clock sink-or-swim immersion in a native-speaking environment. The fearless Santo will do just that when she heads to St. Petersburg, Russia, next month. Of her 10-day summer sojourn, she says, “I’m excited to speak with people and see how much I can hold my own.”
Once she returns, it’s back to the old rabota (that’s “job”). Only by then she expects to be much more fluent. And just to be sure, Santo says she will routinely rent Russian films and cartoons.
And she has one other ace up her sleeve when it comes to daily Russian language practice.
“I have a cat I yell at in Russian,” says Santos. “Her name is Koshka.”
“Koshka,” of course, is Russian for “cat.”