By Paula Katinas, Brooklyn Daily Eagle
When Alec Brook-Krasny arrived in the United States for the first time in 1989 after growing up in Russia, he actually spoke more Italian than English.
Confused? Read on. It’ll all become clear.
This is the story of how Brook-Krasny, a New York State assemblyman, made his long journey from Communist Russia to a seat in a state legislature of the greatest democracy in the world.
Brook-Krasny recalled his life and career to the Eagle over lunch at Chadwick’s Restaurant on Third Avenue.
The reason he was fluent in Italian and not English when he first came to the U.S. was simple.
“I lived in Italy for 10 months after I left Russia. I had to wait for the U.S. government to approve my visa,” Brook-Krasny said in between bites of his tuna sandwich.
He lived in Torvaianica, a beach town on the Mediterranean, and worked on a fishing boat, pulling in the nets after the nets were filled with fish. He still keeps in touch with his old boss.
While he enjoyed his time in Italy, Brook-Krasny knew it was a waiting station, a stop on the road in his journey to his ultimate destination: the United States.
“I dreamed of coming here since I was 14 or 15 years old,” he said. “I always had the feeling you could do anything here if you worked hard. This is a country of leaders. If you are willing to lead, you can be successful.”
Brook-Krasny was born in 1958 and grew up Perkovka, in a suburb of Moscow. He was a Russian Jew in the Soviet Union, an atheist country in which the government made life hard for Jews.
“My family was courageous,” he said.
He looked up to his grandfather, Nochim Katunelson.
“My grandfather was a rabbi. And he was proud of being a rabbi. He liked to help people. People from all over would come to him for help,” he said.
The family listened to the Voice of America on the radio.
“We always knew that the official Communist party line was just propaganda. The government would say one thing, but we knew it wasn’t true,” Brook-Krasny said.
The Communist Party bosses “pretty much left my grandfather alone. They knew that all he wanted to do was to help people,” Brook-Krasny said.
Part of the reason for the hands-off attitude on the part of the government bureaucrats might have been the fact that one of Brook-Krasny’s uncles was a Communist Party member.
Still, even with that connection, the young Alec Brook-Krasny knew better than to ask the government for a visa to travel abroad to the U.S., or to Israel.
“I saw what happened to people who did that. You would apply for a visa to go to Israel, which is what many Jews in Russia wanted to do, and you lost your job. You lost your apartment,” he said.
Brook-Krasny went to college and earned degrees in engineering and economics. He eventually landed a job in Moscow working for a government agency that oversaw the production of refrigerators.
It took two strokes of luck to get Brook-Krasny his ticket out of Russia. Mikhail Gorbachev came to power and introduced reforms, including a new Soviet policy in which the government loosened its grip a little. Brook-Krasny decided that this was his chance. He applied for a visa.
Years later, during a diplomatic reception, Brook-Krasny had a chance to meet Gorbachev and told the former Soviet leader that he left the country during his reign.
Gorbachev told him, “Yes, we lost a lot of good people like you,” the assemblyman recalled.
The second stroke of luck had to do with Brook-Krasny’s apartment. At the time, he was in his late 20s and was living in a large apartment in Moscow. A government bureaucrat wanted the apartment, so Brook-Krasny’s visa application was fast-tracked.
“You normally waited years for the visa to be approved. I waited only a couple of months,” he said.
His dream of leaving Russia came true because a government bureaucrat had a case of real estate envy.
“So much of my life has been a matter of luck,” Brook-Krasny said.
Brook-Krasny recalled getting on the plane and thinking, “I’m never coming back here again. I’m starting a new life.”
His new life started on the Mediterranean. He arrived in Italy and literally walked from one beach town to another until he found a place to live. “I am an optimist. I always believed that things would work out,” he said.
In Torvaianica, an old man rented him an apartment.
“I told him, ‘I have no way to pay you rent.’ He asked me if I had ever worked on a fishing boat. I told him I hadn’t done this,” Brook-Krasny recalled.
He was willing to learn, however, and the old man gave him a job on one of his fishing boats.
“I was making $5 an hour. I thought I was rich!” he said.
The same man later reduced Brook-Krasny’s rent by half.
Ten months after Brook-Krasny arrived in Italy, his U.S. visa was approved. He flew to New York, landed at Kennedy Airport, and headed for Brighton Beach, a community with a large and growing population of Russians.
He held down a variety of jobs in Brooklyn, including working as a delivery man for Flowers by Boragi, the Third Avenue flower shop.
Within six years, Brook-Krasny became a successful entrepreneur. He was also married with a family.
“I wanted to have a big party for my daughter’s birthday. She was young. I realized that there was no place to have a children’s party, so I decided to build my own place,” he said.
In 1995, Brook-Krasny created Fun-O-Rama, a children’s party place with rides and games. He was named “Entrepreneur of the Year” by a leading business magazine.
“America is a great country. If you are a good manager and a good leader, you can go far. You don’t have to know the right people. You don’t have to come from a family with money. It’s all up to you,” he said.
Before long, Brook-Krasny was being cited for his business skills by local elected officials, including Howard Lasher, an assemblyman. He supported Lasher’s re-election campaign, got a taste of politics, and liked what he saw. When Lasher asked him to join the local community board, Community Board 13, he accepted. Brook-Krasny’s natural leadership skills came to the forefront while he was on the board. Local residents started coming to him for help.
Brook-Krasny realized that he enjoyed helping people and decided to enter politics. In 2000, he challenged the local assemblywoman, Adele Cohen, in the Democratic primary. Cohen got him knocked off the ballot. Undaunted, he mounted a write-in campaign. He lost, but his effort drew a great deal of attention.
A few years later, he met U.S. Rep. Jerrold Nadler, whose district includes parts of Coney Island. Nadler encouraged him to run for Assembly again. By this time, Cohen had left politics. In 2006, Brook-Krasny ran for the seat and won. He represents the 46th Assembly District, a district that includes parts of Brighton Beach, Coney Island, Dyker Heights and Bay Ridge.
Looking back on his election to the state legislature, Brook-Krasny praised his friend, Councilman Domenic Recchia Jr.
“His father was dying at the time and he still found time to help me and support me. It was a terrible time for him. But he was so generous. I cry when I think about it,” Brook-Krasny said, his eyes filling with tears.
“I don’t think of my job as a big job. What I like about it is being able to help people. I also love the friendships I have made with other elected officials. There are a lot of good people in government,” Brook-Krasny said.