When I was fourteen years old I understood that I might never return to Moscow and live at home with my parents. While I had lived the bulk of my life in Moscow, at the start of high school I was going to assimilate into the American system of education and the world of American teenageism. I was excited.
I was tired of Moscow, of the gray depressing winters, of the Communist smell, of the frozen, non-smiling faces. I was tired of being jealous of a passerby who was a tourist because I knew he or she was going to leave soon. I was tired of the country of pretense – Russia pretends it’s not Communist, yet attending rallies against the Government is unheard of and dangerous. Recently, my friend’s Russian Facebook account “Vkontakte” was shut down because she referred to Putin negatively.
Russia pretends that the whole era of Perestroika did not happen. Since the country established a few shopping malls that sell products from GAP, Apple, Abercrombie, Subway and McDonalds, it thinks we look as modern and westernized as Europe and the United States. But the plain truth is that we are not Europeans, we are not Americans.
I remember telling one of my friends many years ago, “Do you know that my parents had been living in Israel like a normal religious family? If only they wouldn’t have accepted the invitation to come to Moscow for a year, I would have grown up in Israel like a normal frum girl!” Oh, how I used to wish that that was my reality!
When I met people in the States, I would introduce myself this way: “I happened to have spent fourteen years in Russia, but I was born in Suffern, NY, so I am an American citizen. No, I am not Lubavitch. You don’t have to be Chabad to live in Russia. Yes, I do speak Russian. Well yea, it’s awesome in America. No, we don’t have elephants walking on the streets. Yea, we do have Coca Cola. Ha..ha.. No, we keep Shabbos without worrying about the KGB.” In all my answers I attempted to show Russia as equal to Manhattan. We even have Smart Boards. Yet, whenever I land in JFK, I am enveloped in the sensation of freedom that leaves me when I land in Domodedovo. Why is that?
Four and half years have passed. I am sitting in a small Aeroflot seat, staring out the window at the endless Russian forests. For the first time, I’m not cringing at the flight attendant’s Russian accented “Welcome.” For the first time, I am not comforting myself with the thought that in less than two weeks I will be on the flight back to New York. For the first time, I feel something calling me. Something I have never felt before in this particular geographical location.
This new paradigm shift struck me as I was leaving my English tutoring session. I gave my students some Laffy Taffys. My job as their tutor was to Americanize them – work on their accents, teach them about American foods, read Dr. Seuss’s books. I talked with them about the American sport, baseball, trying to bring a sense of Great America into a little Russian apartment. An apartment that sits in a building that witnessed the reign of Lenin, Stalin, Khrushchev, Gorbachev, Yeltsin and is still standing to see the similar tactics of power under Putin. I pulled on my Northface sweatshirt and walked into the drizzling rain.
Have you ever met Russian Autumn? It is the most depressing season of the year. In case you are not sad enough about starting a new school year, the dark gray skies, deep puddles and polluted rain will move you right along. This weather always seemed so ugly to me, I could never understand those who liked it.
I curl my fingers in my pockets; trying to keep the crisp cold off my hands. As I walk on to the Boulevard of Chistiye Prudi, I am forced back into memories of this large park with the lake. This boulevard used to strike me as ugly and dirty. This is the park where Gothic youth groups got drunk and vomited; this is where skinheads looked for trouble; this is where I got cursed once as a “Zhid;” this is where when I was eight years old, I accidentally broke my sister’s fragile arm while ice skating on a Motzei Shabbos; this is where I walked every night, focusing straight ahead, walking fast, making eye contact with no one. This is where Jews come every year to do Tashlich, this is where I went boating as a child. This is what I passed, when I thought I would give anything to leave Russia, the bullies in my class, the ugly history, the gray, and mean mentality.