“But you can’t start. Only a baby can start. You and me- why, we’re all that’s been. The anger of the moment, the thousand pictures, that’s us. This land, this red land, is us; and the flood years, and the dust years and the drought years are us. We can’t start again.” – John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath (76)
I was born in the last six months of an era. That summer the air was tense with anticipation and when the first winds of fall came they brought with them change
. Come December, the Soviet Union would become a thing of the past; a story before bedtime of a place far away, a place my family could only return to in memory.
My Great-Uncle had escaped to America by way of Italy in the '70s and my father had been waiting for the right moment to join him. For Jewish families like my own, the dissolution of Soviet power meant we were free to carry out the plans we had long dreamt of: leaving the country legally. So we began to draw up the papers needed and sell our belongings off in secret. Secrecy was crucial to the whole operation because it was common for a family set to move to be robbed and beaten upon their neighbors discovering their departures. They did not take kindly to the opportunities of others and like the pawnshop owners and used car salesmen in Steinbeck’s novel, they had little regard for what a family had to endure to obtain money. Our last day in Russia was marked by this event when a group of bus drivers surrounded us and demanded our money. As luck would have it, my father is a large, intimidating man with a talent for straightening out the misguided and we managed to escape money in hand. If we had lost it then, we'd be losing nearly 2 years of work selling good that amounted to nearly 1,000 American dollars. Privatization was slow to come and in the years following the collapse of the Soviet Union selling off goods was still very difficult. My parents sold most of our things on the black market in the local schoolyard. They got very little for it, but not because they were cheated like the families escaping the Dustbowl; but because, a good's worth in Rubles paled in comparison to the value of the dollar.
With us we packed things of sentimental and cultural value: a large, expensive green carpet, beautiful china, books that we could not live without, all of our family albums. My mother took her knitting supplies in case she could earn some extra money making woven goods. Each of us had a bag and a suitcase. Our group consisted of me, my mother, father, brother, grandfather, grandmother, and uncle from my mother’s side. The rest of our extended family would go on to live in Israel and other parts of the world. My grandparents, who were not well, wanted to stay behind; however, like the Joads’, my father insisted we leave together.
We had no idea what awaited us, but we knew what we were leaving behind could not be worse. We had heard of the great prospects and success that awaited anyone who wished to work for it and that overpowered our fear of the unknown. We imagined just as Grampa that “come time we’ll have a bunch a grapes in our han’ all the time, a nibblin’ off it all the time” (91).
We arrived in New York on December 2, 1994 and spent that night sleeping on the floor of a Jewish Center in Brooklyn overlooking the Belt Parkway. The next couple of years would prove to be the hardest and most interesting of my life thus far as my family assimilated into everyday life in an entirely new world.
Ma: “Up ahead they’s a thousand lives we might live, but when it comes, it’ll only be one.” (Steinbeck, 108)