Language is a core element of culture, but as many immigrants have discovered, it’s hard to maintain if you do not have community and structure. The history of the Berkeley Russian School is the history of a group of families who made this discovery but were not willing to let go of their language and their culture, weaving a thread between generations.
In 1995, Yelena Glikman had one of those awful moments that end up having a profound effect on others. She was reading Pushkin in the original Russian to her 7-year-old son when he innocently looked up at her and said, “What language are you reading in?” Thus was born the Berkeley Russian School. It started with 5 families meeting in each other’s houses. Within one academic semester, the school had doubled — 10 families! By this time, the school was too big to meet in individual homes so they rented space in the JCC in Berkeley and Mrs. Glikman became the school’s director. They added Literature and Music to the academic offerings in addition to Russian Language. The school changed locations many times as the school continued to grow, even adding a second campus in Walnut Creek.
In 1997, Berkeley Russian School started a tradition that has lasted to this day: a New Year Celebration. In Russia and throughout the former Soviet Union, New Year’s Eve or Novyi God is the biggest holiday of the year. It is celebrated by all religions and multiple ethnic groups. During the holiday, family and friends gather and spend the evening together eating delicious food and giving each other small gifts. Some towns create entire ice villages full of hills to slide on, ice sculptures and mazes made of ice bricks. The kids rule the ice village during the day, but adults go there to play during the night of New Year’s Eve. While Berkeley Russian School could not replicate ice villages, they could bring much of the warmth and joy of that holiday to the families attending the school. Over the years, the New Year Celebration has become an event that the children look forward to. They show off their skills in skits, songs, and plays and they get gifts from “Ded Moroz” or Grandfather Frost. His granddaughter, “Snegurochka,” is usually in attendance, helping her grandfather deliver gifts — Russian books, toys, and a few candies — to each of the children.
One discovery that Mrs. Glikman and the teachers made at the school is that 4 to 5 year olds seemed to get the most benefit from the classes. The classes piqued their natural curiosity and they particularly loved music, art and dance. With this solid foundation in playful expression, the children would slowly graduate into more traditional academics. They were learning language arts, drama, and history all in a setting that enhanced their regular education.