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What is Calling Me?


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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.Twenties-100413-Ice-Rink

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.

The rain is falling a bit harder. I look down at my shoes, realizing how inappropriately I am dressed for the Moscow fall. Water is soaking my shoes. I continue on.

It’s eight p.m. on a Monday evening, the drunken youth groups are not out yet, and people are walking, hidden safely underneath their expensive umbrellas. I squint my eyes in the rain and continue on. I eye the surprisingly empty benches. I observe the usually calm lake being disturbed by the angry rain.

I am staring at the Prud, the lake, and all of a sudden, I am forced to stop in my tracks. I am forced to admit to myself, what I hadn’t for so long. Moscow is beautiful, even in the worst season, worst weather. Despite everything, Chistiye Priudi looks absolutely magnificent to me. I almost say Shehechiyanu for experiencing such a novel feeling. I don’t see the angry graffiti on the benches and pavement; I don’t see wild homeless dogs running around, I don’t see the street drowning in used cigarettes.

My thoughts are so confusing! I grew up in a Moscow where the norm was to own a fancy cell phone in second grade, ride on Bentleys, spend free time at the movies, follow the identical European fashion. I am not of the generation that witnessed a shift from Third World country to one of advanced modernization.

I grew up with the privileges of a Western person. But at the same time I always lived the mentality of a third world country. Perhaps, the technological innovations, restaurants and hair salons were as advanced as Paris and Manhattan. But the mindset of the people was always peasant-like. You don’t question Putin, the corrupt Politsiya, the oligarchs or opponents who are imprisoned for longer than their sentences. You live your life and hope no one interferes.  Yet, I look around and realize there has been a change here, while I was studying in the States. There is a difference. This is no longer the Moscow, the amazing city in which I grew up. It has transformed.

The rain is beating down rhythmically, penetrating every part of my body, I don’t feel my toes, but I continue on. I spend my days at the school where I was a student, where my life was dictated by the sounds of the bell, the homework assignments of the physics teacher, the fights between girls in my class. And now I walk through the same corridors as a teacher. The students look up to me and use the respectful term that is used when speaking to a superior. Students ask me, “Where did you just come from?” I proudly answer, “America.” People are impressed. At first suspicious, the snobby girls, in their long Luis Vuitton skirts accept me. I miss Moscow. I laugh at my naiveté of wanting a different childhood.

When I first arrived in the States I tried to integrate as a student from a different school in the neighborhood, rather than a girl from an entirely different culture. But now, I have embraced my differences, and refuse to be intimidated by those who think my upbringing was “weird.” In fact, I miss the familiar walls of school. This is my home, my Rodina, why do I always shy away from it? But at the same time, I feel something calling me back? Ugh… all these feelings… so overwhelming and confounding! Why do I want to come back? Only four years ago, I was excited about not living in Russia, and now I want to come back? What is calling me?

By now my waterproof sweatshirt is soaking. I am losing feeling in my joints. But I continue on. I am trying to be honest with myself and understand, what is calling me back.

I get it, I feel passionate about the well being, growth and success of the school my mother founded. I get it, after living in America; I miss the old history and lack of entitlement of the people. I miss standing in the Moscow Choral Synagogue, where Golda Meir once stood, davening to God from a building that holds so much Jewish pride and history. But I don’t understand what is calling me here?

The rain is coming down so hard now that it is actually painful. But I continue on, wiping furiously at my eyes and nose. I turn onto my street, onto my busy pereulok; I stare at the beautiful architecture of my parents’ apartment building. I look at the people safe and dry inside the little cafe at the bottom of the building. I walk closer to study a young woman who is standing by herself and facing the window, her face is wearing a strange expression, almost apathetic but in disbelief. Her hair is also wet; curly which is unusual for Russians. She hugs herself and squints her eyes, trying to make sense of the world. I analyze the young woman harder, until I realize I am staring at my own wet reflection.

I look up at the sky, and am greeted by angry lightning. Shivering I continue on, I walk into the building, take the elevator to the third floor and ring the doorbell. My hair is dripping wet, creating a large puddle around me. I cross my arms across my chest, trying to provide myself with some body heat. The redwood front door opens up, and there stands my mother. The rain has stopped, and I don’t continue on. I force myself to stop.

Rachel! Stop!

My mother looks at me, taking in my saturated skirt, shivering red hands, and finally my face. A look of understanding crosses her face. I am confused about my yearning to return to Moscow. But as my mother embraces me warmly, and I cuddle into her welcoming arms, I feel at home. Home doesn’t have to be liberal, democratic, modern, and wealthy.  All it has to be is…Home. And that is why I want to come back.

This is home, after all.

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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.

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