NEW YORK – California’s 7th congressional district, which lies just east of the state capital, Sacramento, can make history on Tuesday: Igor Birman, a Moscow-born Jew who immigrated to the Bay area with his family when he was 13, is gunning for a chance to be the first member of Congress born in the Soviet Union.
If he wins the Republican nomination, he will face off in the general election on November 4.
Birman’s parents brought him, his younger brother Eugene, and his grandmother from Moscow to Albany, California, in 1994. Birman became a US citizen at age 19, a moment he describes as his proudest.
Twenty years later, there isn’t a trace of an accent in Birman’s voice. He speaks freely about the life he remembers in the Soviet Union. As a Republican who has been endorsed by numerous Tea Party-affiliated groups, is vocal about his opposition to policies such as the Affordable Care Act, better known as Obamacare.
“I see us [America] now as being on a very wrong path,” Birman told The Jerusalem Post. “That same American dream that my family found is now denied to families not only like mine, but to families who are American by birth.
I’m watching the US government stand in the way of prosperity.”
Jenny Beth Martin, chairwoman of the Tea Party Patriot’s Citizens Fund, one of many Super PACs that have endorsed Birman, said he is “very committed to having more freedom in America, not less. He’s able to look at politics from the standpoint of someone who’s seen and lived in places where there is less freedom, and can communicate what it’s like to live with less freedom.”
Birman remembers living with that “less freedom” very keenly. He recalled his grandfather being fired from his job because wouldn’t join Communist Party. His mother was repeatedly told that if her last name weren’t Jewish, she would have been promoted at her job as a computer programmer.
“Stuff like that you don’t forget,” Birman said. “I remember demonstrations with signs ‘Russia for Russians,’ ‘Jews get out,’ and the demonization of Israel and by extension, anyone of a Jewish descent.
“This was a regime that attempted to control every aspect of the lives of its citizens,” he said. “We couldn’t learn Hebrew, we couldn’t learn what Judaism was about, we couldn’t worship without our parents being in fear for their jobs.”
Igor’s mother, Emily, 56, and brother Eugene, 27, recalled with pain when Eugene was excluded from a prestigious regional music competition because of his Jewish-sounding last name.
“The day before the competition, his violin teacher told us, crying, that Eugene could not play,” Emily said. “They would have to substitute him because of his last name.”
Eugene was very young at the time, but has not forgotten.
“Such rather ugly moments seem blurry compared to what it would be like to hear such words now,” he wrote in an email. “Persecution, anti-Semitism, xenophobia in the Soviet Union (and surely Russia today) were so ingrained into society that one was effectively compelled to accept them as a fact of life, even for me as a six-year-old whose only desire was to play the violin,” he wrote.
Eugene is now a successful concert violinist and composer with an international career.
“Freedom,” said Igor, when asked what his family’s motivation was for emigrating.
“We wanted to be able not only to have an identity and practice our religion, but also to be able to flourish and have a future regardless of our background or beliefs. My parents, they were not communists and they had the wrong background.”
After what Birman described as an interminable flight from Moscow, the family arrived in Albany, outside San Francisco.
“Our mother always sends out text messages to my brother and I to congratulate us on our move to the United States, as if we still need reminding!” Eugene said. “None of it seemed real for a six-year-old; I didn’t know where America was on a map even, at that age. I just knew it was very far away and my life would never be the same.”
For Igor Birman and his mother, their first memories of America were of strangers smiling at them, something never seen in Russia.
“We went to Safeway [a supermarket],” Birman said, “and for first time, I got to see this abundance that I’d never seen before. I remember waiting in these long lines [in Russia], hours long, with my mom, sometimes with Dad, for basic staples. That’s what defines your life. If you’re not in school, you’re waiting in line for sugar, bread or milk.
Bananas I would get on special days, like my birthday. I don’t think I touched a pineapple until I came to America.
And now you’re spending time not waiting in line, but deciding which of the many types of bread to buy, and bananas are in piles that cost pennies.
“This is an abundance available to everyone,” he said.
“That’s a sign of free society.”
Early on Birman wanted to be a doctor, but he became keenly interested in politics in college at the University of California, Davis, near Sacramento at the age of 16.
He went straight to law school at Emory University in Atlanta, intending to practice in campaign finance law. “I was fascinated with how accessible politics is [in the US],” Birman said.
“Everyone can get involved, even immigrants.”
Birman was originally a Democrat. “You don’t really meet a lot of Republicans in San Francisco,” he said, and joked, “I knew that Berkeley was full of same socialists I had already left behind.”
He spent the first year or so of his political activities in college as a Democrat, but changed affiliations when he heard a women at a state party convention in San José giving a passionate speech in the defense of the Cuban healthcare system.
“She was advocating for a similar system in America, which was the same as the healthcare system as we had in Russia” he recalled. “And it occurred to me that either she’s in the wrong room, or I’m in the wrong party. She was definitely in the right room, and I was definitely in the wrong party.”
In 2009, after practicing law for a few years, Birman became chief of staff for Rep. Tom McClintock, who is still the congressman for California’s 4th district.
Birman said he decided to run for Congress when he saw “that the country was desperately on the wrong track.
We’re going down same road I’ve already been down and that I watched my parents risk their lives to leave.”
“We couldn’t imagine something like this,” Emily Birman said with pride. “It’s hard to believe that a refugee, a boy who came here when he was 13 years old, after 20 years in this country achieved that much and is running for Congress.”