By Michael Miner

Russian Jews Keep the Presses Rolling

Why did Helena Esman come to America? “I have this last name,” she said. “I

didn’t feel safe. I was threatened.”

Last year she was working for a TV station outside Saint Petersburg. “There were some people. When you are on TV and everybody sees you on the screen, they would call sometimes. They would send letters sometimes. Especially when Zhirinovsky appeared on the scene–and when perestroika appeared, strange as it might seem.” Perestroika brought, in reaction against its liberal new ways of thinking, Pamyat (“memory”)–a movement of belligerent, nationalistic, rabidly anti-Semitic thugs.

“And there were some personal things,” she went on. “I was making some investigations of our revenue department, and that was also kind of hard, because of those newly born businessmen and the gangs that cooperate with them. It’s kind of scary these days.”

The small daughter she was trying to raise alone tipped the balance. The daughter deserved a future, and Esman decided to get out. “I was preparing myself to be doing some more simple job, like, you know–like anything that would be possible to make a living. I was ready to clean, to be a cleaning woman. Or baby-sitting or anything.”

She was in her early 30s. These would have been the prime years of her career. “Aw well,” she said.

Esman joined what is loosely called the third wave of Russian-Jewish immigration to the United States, driven by the collapse of the Soviet Union. Because this wave has raised the number of Russian-speaking immigrants in the Chicago area to 100,000 or more, Esman hasn’t had to scrub floors to survive. The wave created both a demand for information and the means to satisfy it. She works in Highland Park as an editor for a new weekly paper called 7 Dney (“7 Days”).

Some circumstances create journalism as inevitably as others create general stores or corner taverns. 7 Dney is one of several local papers and magazines this highly educated community has founded to inform itself. Among the others are Shalom, which is published by the Friends of Refugees of Eastern Europe and explicitly promotes Judaism and Jewish principles, and the more secular Svet (“Light”), Moya Amerika (“America of My Own”), Reklama (“Advertisement”), and Dlya Zas (“For You”).

Esman’s boss, Alexander Khodos, came to Chicago in 1991 and started out delivering pizzas. He told me he’d been a dental technician before he left Russia. He’d wanted to be a doctor. But you were Jewish? I asked. “Yeah,” he said. In 1992 he founded Reklama, and when Esman reached Chicago he hired her. But he wanted to run a newspaper with more editorial substance. He sold Reklama to a partner and last August launched 7 Dney. He brags that he has correspondents in Moscow, Saint Petersburg, and Minsk, another in Israel, and four covering America. He claims to have built a free circulation of 32,000 in metropolitan Chicago, while also distributing his paper aboard Aeroflot and Air Ukraine flights to Chicago from Moscow, Saint Petersburg, and Kiev.

“We target all ages,” he said. “The older people, they want to read more about Russia. But younger people, like their middle 30s and 40s, they want to read more about Chicago, America, what’s going on here. Of the people who emigrated from Russia, 70 percent of them are Jewish, not in a religious but an ethnic sense. Ten percent of them are religious. All the rest are not.”

Khodos went on, “It’s really complicated for us. It’s three different cultures. It’s Russian culture, it’s Jewish culture, and it’s American culture. And we have to melt everything inside of us.”

Which can be unhealthy? I asked.

No, he said. “If you’re taking the best from every culture it couldn’t be.”

What is the best? I wondered.

“The best of Russian culture? It’s Russian literature. It’s Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky. It’s Russian music. It’s Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff. The best of Jewish culture is a little different. It’s something in our blood. It’s our grand-grand-grand-grandfather. It’s when you come into the synagogue and listen to the prayers you feel goosebumps on your skin. It’s the food for your soul.”

And what of American culture? “It’s optimism,” he said. “It’s the possibility to do anything if you’re in the right mood. It’s the spirit. It’s buildings, it’s music, it’s books, it’s people. Trying to understand this, trying to feel like Americans feel is a real challenge.” Russian Jews are pessimists, he allowed, who on meeting ask each other, What’s wrong? Optimism isn’t easily acquired. Khodos supposes it will take a generation of children growing up uncomfortably different from their parents.

All of which gives 7 Dney and the balance of the Russian-language press deeply serious matters to write about, on behalf of a readership that’s both dependent and responsive. There are far larger newspapers in Chicago that should be so lucky.

Trib’s Front-Porch Monopoly

Are they delivering this wacky thing in your neighborhood?” The note was stuck to a copy of Chicagoland Express by the coworker who left it on my desk. I examined the contents. The brightly colored first page offered an interview with Steve Martin, an old Bob Greene column, and a column of household hints, among them a way to make your raisins plumper. Inside I found food tips, fitness tips, a half page of lovelorn personals, and other ads.

The whole paper was six pages long.

“Brought to you by Precision Home Delivery, a wholly owned subsidiary of the Chicago Tribune,” said page one.

This was my first encounter with Chicagoland Express. But yes, it’s being tossed on doorsteps in my neighborhood. And in yours. And, Precision Home Delivery reports proudly, in 99 different zip codes. If this bright new weekly is as unfamiliar to you as it was to me that’s because you too decided in a weak moment to subscribe to the Tribune. Chicagoland Express goes only to nonsubscribers.

There’s one part of the package I haven’t mentioned yet: the glossy FSIs, or freestanding inserts–the only conceivable reason you wouldn’t chuck this fine product in the wastebasket.

Among these advertising inserts is a weekly package of coupons produced by Valassis, a national company based in Detroit. Because the Tribune delivers the Valassis insert to its subscribers and Chicagoland Express delivers it to half a million nonsubscribers, the Tribune Company now offers Valassis and its clients something resembling blanket coverage of metropolitan Chicago.

To some faithful readers coupons are an even more vital component of the Sunday paper than the comics. A year ago Valassis was placing its insert in both the Tribune and Sun-Times. You’re buying too much duplication, the Tribune argued; go with us exclusively, and our Precision Home Delivery will see to it that your coupons also reach everyone else you’re interested in.

The owners of the Sun-Times tried desperately to hang on to Valassis, offering to drop its insertion rate by 80 percent and put the FSIs in every American Publishing Company paper in the country. But the Tribune prevailed, and Valassis disappeared from the Sun-Times’s already sinking Sunday paper last fall, at a cost to that paper of hundreds of thousands of dollars in annual revenues and immeasurable market appeal.

Holding up its end of the bargain, the Tribune launched Chicagoland Express last September. Now Jeff Elliott, general manager of Precision Home Delivery, dreams of legitimacy. “I’d like to see it go more toward a kind of community paper,” he said. “Now the only thing that could be construed as local news is Bob Greene’s column. I’d like more local news. Maybe a story in Oaklawn about the school district there. But who knows?”

Wacky? Only if you measure journalism by looks and content.

News Bites

The Tribune’s concert and theater reviews have moved again, though not to where they belong, which is the morning after. For full details on the latest misadventures of the paper’s once-handsome ArtsPlus page, check Hitsville in Section Three. Here I want to note that the new Tempo coverage of concerts and theater openings will show up a day late at best, but the reviews will be available the next morning on America Online.

Speaking to Tempo editor Rebecca Brown, I wondered if this courtesy was a healthy development. Was the newspaper willing its traditional self into irrelevance? “I’m sure everyone’s a little unsure what that means,” she acknowledged. “But the Tribune is more than ink on paper now. That’s a direct quote. I’ve heard it myself three or four times.”

One more small piece of evidence against situational ethics, submitted by an incessant Richard Roeper watcher in McHenry County:

Roeper, last July 12: “I don’t want to see Susan Smith executed in any fashion–not because I’m uniformly against the death penalty, but because I don’t think she deserves to die so quickly….At last report Smith still was hoping to be put to death….Well, I don’t care what Susan Smith wants. When she gave a confession to authorities, she has surrendered any say in her own destiny. She doesn’t get to make important choices, not in this lifetime….I’d see to it that she lived to be 100 years old. Let her have a long, long life, just the woman and her demons locked in a small cell with as few privileges and luxuries as we can legally allow.”

Roeper, January 8: “You can’t help but feel sorry for Guinevere Garcia. But that doesn’t mean she shouldn’t die as scheduled on Jan. 17. By her own admission, Guinevere Garcia put a plastic bag over her infant’s head and killed her….After serving 10 years for the murder, she got out of jail. Only a few months after that, she killed George Garcia….[Now] she wants to be left alone to die….If Garcia is not executed she’s looking at another 40 or 50 years on the planet….Maybe it’s time to let this woman control her own fate.”

The life of the late Chicago magazine columnist Henry Hanson will be celebrated by friends at 4:30 Friday, January 19, in Preston Bradley Hall of the Cultural Center. The magazine’s Maryanne Johnson will sing “Who Put the Chic in Chicago?” accompanied by Stanley Paul, who wrote the song with Hanson for a Chicago anniversary party in the mid-80s.

The ditty is distinguished by a long list of names of just about everybody Hanson ever had a drink with in his life and by a take-no-prisoners rhyme scheme: “Blue songs come out of Chicago. / Farm boys come in from the farms. / Hoodlums light out for the coast’s glow. / Algren and Bellow spin yarns…. Windy, wild chic in Chicago. / Our flag with the stars unfurled. / Lincoln Park Zoo where the apes grow. / Gleaning worlds fairs for the world.”

“He was sitting here writing this thing,” Paul remembers. “He took it so seriously. Tears were going down my face. He just loved it. He said, When are we going to write another song?” o

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Randy Tunnell.