The only tangible things that tie me to my Russian ancestry are the faded black-and-white photos of an unsmiling and gravely serious-looking couple. My great-grandparents, Shimon and Shifra, came to the States separately as children. I never met them, but my mother would recall their sternness, how they seemed to be of the “Old World,” while she was a young Jewish girl growing up in sunny, glistening 1950s Los Angeles.
The shadowy darkness of the relatives with worried brow and dull babushka could not contrast more with the scene I encountered at the Jewish Family and Children’s Services’ 10th annual Émigré Community Gala on Jan. 29. The gala raises funds for emergency financial assistance, children with special needs, support for the elderly, and youth scholarships — all social services provided by the S.F.-based JFCS.
The event, held in a grand ballroom of the Westin St. Francis in San Francisco, was swarming with beautiful women in flowing-colorful ball gowns, fur throws and glittery jewelry. Men wore crisp suits and shiny shoes. The mood was jovial, celebratory and, overall, fun.
During a wine reception and silent auction, guests nibbled on Blowfish Sushi and Tsar Nicoulai Caviar, sipped wine and champagne, and enjoyed a classic live jazz band. Clusters of people spoke rapidly and excitedly in Russian.
Next, in the main ballroom, we were seated at circular tables laden with dishes — chilled cucumber and avocado soup, fresh vegetables, blintzes and tiny challahs. It was beautiful and almost overwhelmingly glitzy. But then something happened that reminded me of the importance of the night.
Following a joyful Havdallah by Rabbi Peretz Wolf-Prusan, JFCS associate director Gayle Zahler introduced a video presentation about the history of the organization. The video chronicled 160 years of JFCS help and 10 years of émigré galas with old photos and interviews with key players. It showed newly immigrated Jews finding a place, a community, and people who’ve benefited over the years from the program. It was a great reminder of why we were there, why the organization is so important.
Following the video, KGO radio talk show host and author John Rothmann and human rights activist Natan Sharansky gave impassioned speeches. During Sharansky’s talk, “A Vision for Jewish Peoplehood,” the former Soviet refusenik discussed a need for young Jews in the world to have pride in their culture.
In between speeches, we danced. We danced the hora, and we danced to live Russian music — along with popular-culture hits — performed by Bremen’s Band. Later, singer-pianist Vanessa Carlton, whom you may remember thanks to her monster 2002 hit “A Thousand Miles,” filled in for Russian-born singer Regina Spektor, who fell ill. When Carlton took the stage she told the crowd how much it meant to her to be there — she, too, is of Russian-Jewish descent.
It was a wonderful end to a wonderful evening for me. While others stayed late into the night and danced to other performers, I dragged my tired self home, reflecting in the cab ride back to my Alamo Square apartment on what I’ve missed all these years, never really knowing the Russian culture of my family. But now I have a good idea of where to start: with the last living great-aunts and great-uncles of my grandparents’ generation, my octogenarian relatives still living in the Fairfax District of sunny L.A.