Tolouse-Lautrec, At the Moulin Rouge, The Dance
I’m in a crowded plush bar in Midtown Manhattan. The conversation is flowing as freely as the drinks. I am here probably for some work function, not exactly voluntary but not necessarily not enjoying myself either.
At some point I hear an innocuous question from someone who doesn’t know me well: so where are you from? It’s New York. Everybody is from somewhere even if it’s Yonkers (a suburb 15 miles away, but still decidedly NOT New York). The question is as innocuous as whether it will rain tomorrow.
But for me, it’s a decision point: do I say LA or Russia? There is nothing in my language, appearance or demeanor that would suggesting LA is not the answer, and yet it doesn’t feel authentic. And nine out of ten times, I go with Russia. Inevitably, I see a slight look of doubt and confusion on the questioner’s face. “But I grew up in LA,” I am quick to point out to alleviate the confusion – which I did after I got there at thirteen. “But you are Russian?” “A Russian Jew,” I say.
We move on to other topics. But if my interlocutor reflects on my answer for even a second, he undoubtedly would question why I would bring up my religious affiliation, a topic much more personal and private than where I am from and generally reserved for more intimate conversations than casual chit chat that just transpired.
For that, we travel across miles and years to a small flat in Moscow in 1981. I am 6 and crying inconsolably because I was just informed that I will never see one of my best friends again. She’s moving to the United Stated (where the hell is that?). And that leads to the biggest talk of my life with my father that I vividly remember thirty-five years later.
The talk is prefaced with a disclaimer that all the information I am about to receive should never ever be discussed with my friends or with anyone, ever, at the risk of putting my family in danger. I am too young to understand at risk of what but intuitive enough to get that this is to be taken seriously.
That’s when I find out that we are Jewish, that we have been trying to move the United States for the past three years (it will be another seven before that actually happens) and that makes us otkazniki (refuseniks). All of a sudden I am not crying because one of my best friends is leaving, I am NOT crying because I have just grown up fifteen years. The conversation will be followed by a more detailed explanation of what’s a Jew – exploration that continues to this day – reading of Bible Stories because procuring an actual Bible is not possible, and a trip to a Moscow synagogue.
Later I will learn the stories of my father not being accepted to college of his choice despite making the grades, not being able to advance his career despite having good scientific results; the story of my infant sister dying and the system that did more harm than good in not trying to save her; the story of how the macabre system that required permission from parents for a grown woman to leave the country, which resulted in me ultimately leaving USSR with my father not knowing if I would ever see my mother again; and all kinds of other stories of persecution and a generally rotting system that put ideology and bureaucracy above people. There will also be visits from foreign “tourists” trying to connect and help Soviet dissidents trying to leave, and knocks on the door in the middle of the night. When we finally left, we were stripped of our citizenship because the act of leaving constituted a betrayal of our country.
When we left we left as Jews, not Russians. When we arrived to America, we arrived as Russians. But identity is a funny thing, right? I strongly identify as a Jew while still discovering what it really means for me and remaining staunchly secular. Due to all the horrible things my country of birth has done to my family and continues to do to countless other families, I would love nothing better than to disavow it and pretend that I grew up in LA. But Russia is the place I was born, it is place where I learned I was Jew, it was the place I was closest to my father. My music playlist still betrays me as a Russian with a combination of bad 90s Russian pop and the bards of 60s, 70s, and 80s. I can still occasionally be found in Russian restaurants savoring the food and pretending to make fun of everything and everyone around me but ultimately enjoying myself.
It’s a sense of being an insider and an outsider simultaneously. And isn’t that the sense that defines being an American? You belong here but you are of somewhere else.