Ethnography, classrooms and social networks in the Russian Jewish immigrant community of North East Philadelphia

Jeanne Johnson Newman, University of Pennsylvania


This study uses the writer's second language classroom as a beginning point for an investigation leading into a variety of interconnecting social networks in the Russian Jewish community in North East Philadelphia. Russian Jewish individuals who are members of three generational immigrant families were selected out from classes conducted from April of 1990 to March of 1992 for inclusion in the study. Group and individual interviews with representatives from each of the three generations, in addition to the investigator's observations of various social and family functions were used as the basis to generate data for analysis. Findings specific to the immigrants' classroom acquisition of English suggest that use of the first language as a tool to learn the second language is especially appropriate for this group which has experienced and internalized the Soviet educational style of cooperative learning. Also examined and exemplified are language attitudes, maintenance efforts, and various second language acquisition tools employed by the participants as they struggle with the fit between their former lives and their futures in Philadelphia. Language maintenance efforts vary within each age group according to their individual need to interact with English speaking people. As a general rule the younger generations expend more effort on English acquisition due to their continuing educational and employment needs. The motivation leading these families to emigrate proved to be a combination of the repressiveness of the Soviet police state, economic conditions and social conditions including anti-Semitism, poor health care and the fear of radiation poisoning following the Chernobyl disaster. Cultural retention efforts in these families is broad based, and in some ways can be viewed as cultural re-awakening rather than as retentiveness. The success of Soviet secularization of Judaism has led to my conclusion that the first generation immigrants cannot become practitioners of a religious style of Judaism, yet they self identify as ethnic Jews. They are interested in learning their Jewish traditions, as they aspire to this level of involvement and belief for their children.

Subject Area

Bilingual education|Multicultural education|Linguistics|Minority & ethnic groups|Sociology|Cultural anthropology|Families & family life|Personal relationships|Sociology

Recommended Citation

Newman, Jeanne Johnson, "Ethnography, classrooms and social networks in the Russian Jewish immigrant community of North East Philadelphia" (1993). Dissertations available from ProQuest. AAI9413883.