[lg policy] Show Tunes and Sinatra, With a Russian Accent

Harold Schiffman haroldfs at GMAIL.COM
Mon Nov 5 15:32:12 UTC 2012

Show Tunes and Sinatra, With a Russian Accent
Todd Heisler/The New York Times

The Learning English Through Singing Group is a much-anticipated bright
spot in lives that might be darkened by loneliness.

Published: November 4, 2012

Their voices — hoarse from age, but jubilant — coalesce in song for one
hour every week, issuing tunes that include Broadway hits and Frank Sinatra
classics, and patriotic fare like “God Bless America.”

And even as the music fades between songs, mouths keep moving, reverting to
smiles or shouting requests for encores.

The chorus is made up of Russian-speaking immigrants, from age 64 to 82,
who moved to the United States in recent years from a smattering of
republics in the former Soviet Union.

For the members of the chorus, the Learning English Through Singing Group,
these sessions are a much-anticipated bright spot in lives that, at their
ages, can be darkened by illness or loneliness.

“If an immigrant comes to the tunnel and doesn’t see the light, it’s very
difficult,” says Valentina Kharenko, a trained musician who teaches English
as a second language and who leads the singing group. She said her primary
goal was not to teach English, but to unite friends.

“I have been observing adaptation of immigrants for many years and I can
say that it’s very difficult to adapt,” said Ms. Kharenko, who grew up and
attended a university in Ukraine. “Even if the person becomes a citizen and
passes the exam, sometimes, many people are too shy to adapt into their
environment, and they have several problems.”

The group is one of numerous programs supported by the Edith and Carl Marks
Jewish Community House of Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, a beneficiary agency of
UJA-Federation of New York, one of seven organizations supported by The New
York Times Neediest Cases Fund. The mission of Marks JCH is to address the
needs of the neighborhood’s large immigrant population, offering programs
for young children and teenagers, providing job training and placement for
the unemployed, and fostering a welcoming environment for older adults.

Last year, the director of administration at Marks JCH, Inna Kuznetsova,
created the singing group, which usually draws 17 to 20 people per session.
“I found that some seniors have difficulty learning language,” Ms.
Kuznetsova said. “I just wanted to find a creative way to help them learn
and have fun.”

Ms. Kuznetsova created a DVD of 60 songs, complete with on-screen lyrics,
which the group listens to first, before singing to the accompaniment of
Ms. Kharenko’s piano. The group is also provided with lyric sheets and
members are encouraged to study the words on their own, in conjunction with
English classes offered through Marks JCH.

One of the choristers, Nailya Derzhimanova, said she had a profoundly
emotional moment when she discovered the message of “Sunrise, Sunset” from
“Fiddler on the Roof.”

“I’d heard it lots of times before, but never knew what it was about,” Ms.
Derzhimanova said. “The lyrics are very intellectual. After it was
translated, I applied everything to my family, and began to cry.”

Connections within families are another of the program’s goals. “Our
singing class is the bridge between the elder generation and the younger
generation, through music, through words, through communication,” Ms.
Kharenko said.

She said the generational misunderstandings that can result from not
speaking the same language and not having the same topics for discussion
created a tragic gap.

“Through the songs, we speak about the problems that occur,” Ms. Kharenko
said. “And the elder generation understands better what is happening with
their grandchildren, and they adapt to the behavior of grandchildren.”

Recently, the New York City Council’s discretionary funds, which supported
the cultural programs for elderly people at Marks JCH, were drastically
reduced, threatening the future of the singing group. So that the group
could continue, $500 in Neediest Cases funds were used to pay for 12 weekly
sessions, which Ms. Kharenko says are invaluable to the health and
well-being of the participants.

“The environment is very warm, very flexible,” she says. “It is
rehabilitation after disease, after illness. Many of them are very ill —
diabetes, cancer — but they leave that in the hall. One woman was in the
hospital and told me she thought she’d come to the class and ‘Valentina
will cure me.’ I was so touched.”

Ms. Kharenko says she tries to bring out a person’s inner child, so
sometimes she encourages people to dance.

Sofiya Babakhodjaeva, usually one of the first to leap to her feet, seizes
the opportunity.

“We are all very young,” she says. “Here, we say we are 18, not 80.”

NYTimes, Nov. 5, 2012


 Harold F. Schiffman

Professor Emeritus of
 Dravidian Linguistics and Culture
Dept. of South Asia Studies
University of Pennsylvania
Philadelphia, PA 19104-6305

Phone:  (215) 898-7475
Fax:  (215) 573-2138

Email:  haroldfs at gmail.com

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