In Memory of Elie Wiesel


“Indifference, to me, is the epitome of evil.” ~ Elie Wiesel (September 30, 1928 – July 2, 2016)

 When, in 1990, at the age of 39, I emigrated from the USSR to the United States, I did not know about Ellie Wiesel, Anne Frank and other victims — or survivors — of the Holocaust. In fact, I didn’t even know the term “Holocaust.” And not because I was a bad student who failed to learn it in school, but because the anti-Semitic politics of the Third Reich were not covered in our school curriculum and our mass media — not before nor during WWII, nor afterwards. As a result, the atrocities that were well known in the West were hardly mentioned in the East. There, coverage of WWII was dedicated to the bravery and suffering of Soviet troops, and, until 1956, to Stalin’s military genius. So the mass killings of Jews – in Europe and Ukraine — did not qualify.

(Reproduction of the photo depicting Babi Yar ravine near Kiev, Ukraine, the place where 100,000 people, overwhelmingly Jews, were murdered in September 1941.)

This is not to say that the Russian population had it easy. The war was devastating for the USSR. Overall, more than 26 million Russian citizens died during the war, not to mention those who came back as invalids and hopeless alcoholics. Still, the fact that the Jews were systematically exterminated was not revealed in Russia (where casual anti-Semitism was the norm) for a very long time. Well, we knew about concentration camps, including Auschwitz, Treblinka and Buchenwald. In fact, there was a popular song written about the latter, which went like this:

“People of the world stand up a moment

Listen, listen. It buzzes from all sides

It can be heard in Buchenwald ringing off the bells

It’s innocent blood reborn and strengthened in a brazen roar.

Victims are resurrected from the ashes …”

Yet again, we were never told that the main goal of a camp like Auschwitz was the implementation of “The Final Solution of the Jewish Question.” Historians estimate that among the people sent to Auschwitz there were at least 1,100,000 Jews from all the countries of occupied Europe, over 140,000 Poles, approximately 20,000 Gypsies from several European countries, over 10,000 Soviet prisoners of war, and over 10,000 prisoners of other nationalities.

When I found myself in Columbia, MO, and I had learned enough English to start reading, books about the Holocaust were not high on my list. First, I needed to learn about my adoptive country, its history, culture and customs. So, when one day (I was already working at the Reference Desk of the Columbia Public Library) a teenage girl came to me and asked about “The Diary of a Young Girl,” I had no idea what that book was about. I just looked it up in the library catalog.  And later, when another patron was looking for “Night” by Ellie Wiesel, I didn’t know anything about that book either.  In fact, I had trouble spelling “Wiesel.”

Time went by and I learned about the Holocaust, about Anne Frank and Ellie Wiesel and others. I saw a collection of victims shoes in the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington (the Nazis confiscated their victims’ belongings and sent valuables back to Germany; the shoes were to be repaired by the camps’ prisoners and reused).

And I heard a reading of names of the Jewish children murdered during the Holocaust (1.5 million names in all) in the Yad Vashem Children’s Memorial in Jerusalem, which is housed in an underground cave and lit by candles that, reflected in a system of mirrors, create the impression of millions of little stars. (The complex was built with donations from a family whose two-and-a-half old son was killed in Auschwitz.) And when I was read “Night,” I could hardly keep from screaming; for the way I felt, it all could have happened to me, my parents and my daughter.

(Yad Vashem Children’s Memorial, Jerusalem, Israel)

There are some events so cruel and traumatic that people don’t want to talk about them, even less read about them. In fact, when Wiesel’s “Night” first appeared in print (in Yiddish) in 1954, its publication was hardly noticed. In America, when the book was published in 1960, it wasn’t an overnight success either. Gradually, though, it began attracting more attention, and when, in 2006, Oprah Winfrey presented “Night” to her book club, it became a New York Times bestseller.

Wiesel went on to write many more books and to become a Nobel Peace Prize laureate. Above all, he remained a voice for Holocaust victims and survivors – the mission he considered the most important in his life.

“If I survived,” Wiesel said in 1981, “It must be for some reason. I must do something with my life… because in my place, someone else could have been saved. And so I speak for that person.”

 

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©Svetlana Grobman.  All Rights Reserved

Let’s Talk Turkey


IMG_1657-003My first Thanksgiving in this country wasn’t a great experience (click here to see my story about it). Formerly an engineer, I worked nights at a retirement home making the minimum wage. I rented a small apartment and drove a rusty car. I had no friends, and my daughter was my only family. I couldn’t even speak English, so I thought I had little to celebrate.

Since then, I’ve had all kinds of Thanksgivings: most of them good and tasty. Yet there was one — during my divorced state – when I almost set my house on fire while making my first Thanksgiving dinner for myself; and also one after which my whole family got violently sick (this is after I remarried).

On the whole, though, I like Thanksgiving. I like its food, I like the fact that it is a family holiday, I like that afterwards we always have leftovers. In fact, I don’t understand people who complain about eating leftover turkey for too long. I don’t mind that. To me, turkey meat is tasty, lean, and healthy (vegetarians, skip this). Also, did you know that that great pragmatist, Benjamin Franklin, wanted a turkey to be the symbol of America and not a bald eagle? Continue reading

Of Soil and Feathers: Reflections on Life and Death


We were born in different countries.  We grew up in different societies, and we never met. And yet, from the minute I opened “Heartburn,” I felt as if I knew her all my life. She was my kind of person: smart, funny, and razor-sharp ironic. She knew what she wanted and didn’t take crap from anybody. She was the person I’d love to be but, let’s face it, never will be.

noraAnd then she died.It happened a year ago, but I am still grieving. I know it makes no sense. Famous people die all the time; some deaths leave me cold, some sad–like the death of Paul Newman, my virtual lover :). Yet her death I took personally. It was an affront to the world order in general and my world in particular. She was Nora Ephron for goodness sake! We had so much in common. We both were Jewish by birth and secular by conviction. We both remarried–well, she twice and I once. We had a similar sense of humor, and we were a little sentimental and a lot middle-aged. Still, one morning I turned on my radio and listened to the announcement of her death.

I couldn’t believe it. I had recently finished reading “I Remember Nothing,” a smart, funny, and somewhat sad book, and I hadn’t even discussed it with my friends! It was unfair. Almost as unfair as the death of my mother, who died while I was on my way to visit her. She was alive when I left Missouri, but by the time my plane landed in Tel-Aviv, she was already gone. She wasn’t even sick — at least not recently. True, she was eighty-eight and had a variety of afflictions, but nothing immediate or life threatening. She had dinner with my sister’s family, played with her great-granddaughter, and went to bed in a good mood—only to never wake up.

I arrived in the afternoon, several hours after Mom’s body was taken away in the ambulance. I knew nothing. My sister sat me on a chair, took my hands in hers, and said, “Mom’s died.”

“What?!” I said. “I brought her presents and Splenda!”

I always brought Splenda for Mom. I must have been the only person in the world who carried Splenda to Israel, for Mom believed that American Splenda tasted better than Israeli Splenda.1-IMG_1315_1

“She died overnight.” My sister said. “The funeral is tomorrow morning at 11:30.”

I started to wail. Israel is a good place for wailing. It seems appropriate, even if you’re not doing it by the Wailing Wall. Besides, what else did I have to do until next morning?  I did so much wailing that I had no voice left in me, or so I thought–until I saw Mom being carried into a little chapel where we had gathered to say our last good-byes.

I had attended Jewish funerals before — my grandparents’ funeral in Moscow and two more in America. Yet nothing prepared me for my mother’s funeral. For one thing, there was no coffin. Mom’s body was wrapped in a linen shroud that covered her head-to-toe and made her look like an oversized UPS parcel. And if that was not bad enough, we were not supposed to approach her. If that was her, for how would one know whose mother was hidden inside a wrapped package?

The ceremony was quick. A rabbi said Kiddush, and my sister and I repeated it after him–I barely following the Hebrew sounds. Then he stepped back, and the men who brought my mother inside hurried to carry her out.

Mom “Wait,” I screamed, suddenly aware that this was my last time with her.

The men stopped and stared. I was screaming in English.

“Let me see Mom’s face!”

“You can’t.” My sister grabbed me by the hand.

“Let me go!” I freed myself from my sister’s grip, rushed to the covered figure, and kneeled before it, trying to feel familiar features. Yet nothing felt familiar through the fabric whose purpose was to hide and separate, and not to reveal — neither the person beneath it, nor the mystery of her departure.

Somebody picked me up and pulled me to the exit and to an open grave in the harsh noon sun. Mom’s body was lowered, and the same men who carried her began shoveling red Israeli soil on top of her body.

No! – I wanted to yell. — In Russia, we didn’t pile dirt on top of our dead. We protected them from being crashed under its weight. We put them into coffins. We said, “Let the ground be like feathers for you.” Feathers, not heavy soil!

But, I didn’t yell, just closed my eyes. Quickly, the grave was filled and a little hill formed above it. The mourners topped it with small stones, and the procession headed back to the parking lot.

Mom and I, 1957

Mom and I, 1957

“Don’t take the same path back,” somebody said, and I thought how wise that was, for, of course, everything must be different now. There won’t be weekend phone calls to Mom, which always started with, “Svetochka, how good to hear your voice,” and ended with “Don’t forget about me, dochenka [Russian endearment for daughter].” Nobody will remember what a terrible eater I was as a child and marvel at the fact that I now eat “like normal people!” Nobody will demand Splenda from America, and nobody will ask me to send photos to her.

I was the only person in the family who sent Mom photos — my daughter’s, my sister’s (who lived in the same house with her!), and mine. In fact, my daughter once said to me after visiting her grandmother, “You should stop sending pictures of the two of you skiing. They all look the same, you know.” No, I didn’t know. Mom never said that. She wanted to see that I was healthy and happy. She always asked if my American husband and I loved each other. “Yes,” I’d say. “We do.” But next time I called, she asked again.

The wake in my sister’s house was like every Russian-Jewish wake I’ve attended. It started with a toast to Mom’s memory but soon turned to the business of living. I wasn’t attentive, though. I kept thinking: How did Mom die? Did she just stop breathing or did she wake up in pain and call for help?גרובמן

I’ll never know the answer, as I’ll never know how Nora Ephron died. Does it really matter? Probably not. What does matter is that both of them are gone–the person I knew all my life, and the person that I’ve never known. And the best I can do in their memory is to say goodbye.

Goodbye Mom. Goodbye Nora.                                  Let the ground be like feathers for you.

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After the Funeral


1-IMG_8428Several month ago, my husband’s aunt died, and we drove to Kentucky to attend the funeral.  It was a cool but sunny November day – not sad enough for the occasion but also not too depressing to make one feel that life is meaningless.  Aunt Anne would’ve liked it, too; she used to enjoy spending time outside — playing golf or going out on a pontoon boat.  She was from the category about which people say, “they don’t make them like that anymore:” tall, active, with a decisive expression and an equally decisive mind – a piece of which she never hesitated to share with you.  She was also a long-standing Democrat (who knew there are Democrats in Kentucky?!), and in fact, she voted by absentee ballot from her hospital bed several days before her death.

There were many people at the funeral, and a Baptist minister, a middle-aged stocky man, gave a nice eulogy, obviously designed to make those left behind feel better.  (Well, he did say that God grieves when a Christian dies, which made me, a Jew, wonder about my situation.)  Afterwards, women from the church provided a potluck lunch, giving the grieving family a chance to talk with people they don’t see often and reminisce about the past.  Not having seen the Kentucky relatives for a while, I couldn’t help notice that those I remembered as early middle-aged looked quite a bit older, and those I remembered as kids looked mature – some of them already parents on their own, and it was good to see this never-ending renewal, as it was sad to think about the never-ending departure.  After the service, the minister continued his vigil, cheering teary-eyed family members and greeting out-of-town relatives.  He had the mild manners of a good Southerner and the soft touch of a person who officiates at baptisms and weddings as well as funerals.  At the end, he approached us, too — asked for our names and where we came from, and then said, “What church do you go to?”

Being the only non-Christian there, I felt slightly uncomfortable with this question, so I mumbled under my breath, “Well, I’m Jewish,” hoping to end the conversation.  But, to my amazement, my husband suddenly said, “We go to a synagogue.”

We do?! – I almost said loudly but stopped myself just in time.  The thing is that I go to synagogue on the High Holidays only, which amounts to one or two visits a year — depending on my willingness to suffer through the long sermons the main topic of which is trying to shame those in the audience for not coming more often.  As for my husband (who is not Jewish!), he joins me only if I threaten him with passing all that suffering on to him — which usually works once a year.  In any case, after I got over my husband’s surprising statement, I started inconspicuously pulling him by the sleeve, for the only thing I expected next was an attempt to save us by immediate conversion, so a quick retreat was in order.  Yet I was wrong.  Instead of proselytizing or banishing us from the holy grounds, the minister, without missing a beat, broke into a monologue about his days in divinity school and his experiences with learning Hebrew and Greek.

On our way home, I kept thinking about Aunt Anne, what a strong person she was, and how she always knew what she wanted — even for her funeral.  Then my thoughts shifted to my eventual departure.  At first, I contemplated whether I want to be buried in the ground, according to the Jewish tradition, or cremated.  Then I realized that I have a bigger problem on my hands – where would my funeral take place?  In America?  I have only one close relative here – my husband.  In Israel?  My parents and sister live there, but a Jewish burial has to take place within hours, which, logistically, would not be possible.  Also, the last time I talked to my mother about this subject, she said that she wants to be buried in Moscow, next to her parents!  And if my mother is not buried in Israel, why would I go there?  As for Russia, that is the last place on earth where I want to rest.  It was bad enough to live there for 39 years; there’s no way I’d go back dead or alive!  Now, I had just one option left – London, which my daughter made her home.  Yet I quickly discarded that idea, too, for my daughter has enough things to do while working, going to school, and raising my two grandchildren.

Not finding any solution, I gradually dozed off — still searching even in my dreams.  When I woke up, the sky was turning dark and we were already in Illinois — yet another place I would cross without leaving a trace.  I straightened up in my seat, looked at the rapidly disappearing lights, and, suddenly, it came to me – what does it matter what happens afterward?  As long as I live a good and honest life.

©Svetlana Grobman. All Rights Reserved

 

Forward


Forward: an Essay in  Pictures.

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I don’t know about you, but when I was young, I was very smart.  I also had a great vocabulary (Russian, of course) and I was going “to make a difference.”  The strange thing is that now, many years later, I no longer feel very smart, the differences I make are mostly culinary (so the only person who notices them – or not — is my husband), and my English vocabulary could still use some improvement.  Just today I told my husband that, due to a winter storm that struck our area the day before, two Midwestern airports had to close, leaving a lot of passengers strangled there.  Naturally, I meant to say “stranded,” but despite that, my husband burst into laughter and, after he stopped laughing, said, “Don’t you hate it when that happens?!”

How and when my decline began I cannot say, since for a long time I believed that I was moving forward, the way one is supposed to.  cover for The Education of a TraitorYet in fact, I apparently have been regressing for most of my adult life.  Some of it I can blame on my Soviet past.  It’s hard to keep your sanity when strangers on the street shout at you, “You dirty kike go to your Israel!”  It’s even harder when, after you had finally decided to move to America, gone through an interview in the American embassy, and – lucky you! – received an entrance permit to the United States, you found out from your local authorities that you had “no right” to leave the country where everybody hates you.  Talk about catch 22!   It’s amazing that I escaped with most of my faculties intact!

Also, my regression might be a result of aging.  For example, I used to remember everything.  Now my only means of staying on top of things is my Google calendar.  And if there is something that cannot be entered there – random names for one thing — I’ll never be able to come up with it.  Well, this is not exactly my fault. Some people’s names are way too complicated, like that actor’s — you know … … the one who played Abraham Lincoln … Something Month-Lewis.  Besides, it’s not like I forget the name of my ex-husband.  He’s name is …  Well, what do I need his name for?  I’m no longer married to him anyway.

Actually, the worst thing about this age related backsliding is that things and objects around you suddenly take a life on their own.  For example, you take off your bra and panties and climb into your bathtub, thinking that afterwards you’ll take your stuff to the laundry.  Yet by the time you shower, dry your hair, and apply night cream to your face, both the bra and the panties are nowhere to be found.  You then spend the next 30 minutes turning everything in your bathroom (and your bedroom) upside down and interrogating your husband — all to no avail.  But in the morning, your husband finds your panties on top of his shaving kit and your bra in his chest of drawers, and nobody seems to know how they got there.

But the way, speaking of underwear, I never drop my clothes on the floor; I have a moral conviction against that. When I watch movies where lovers, in the moment of passion, rip clothes off each other and strew them around the floor, I always feel like screaming, “Pick up your clothes!  Didn’t your mother teach you anything?”

IMG_2505Going back to the winter storm I mentioned at the beginning.  Until recently, we had  no winter at all, not even for a day.  But at the end of February, a blizzard fell on us like a gigantic white pillow, smothering everything in its way and completely stopping life in our town.  Even the library where I work closed – it lost both power and, most importantly, the Internet.  So with nothing much to do at home, my husband and I decided to go cross-country skiing, which is not very popular around here.  Actually, since we get snow once in a very blue moon, none of the winter sports is, and we must be the only household in town that owns cross-country skis.

With 10 inches of snow on the ground, we started our run from our porch IMG_2536(we live some 300 yards away from a city recreation trail).  For a while, we struggled to get our muscle memory back, but soon, we found our rhythm and began moving forward.  It was a slow going — the snow was deep and we were the first to break its puffy surface.  Yet gradually my breathing relaxed and my mind, no longer needing to supervise my feet, began wandering.  I was moving faster now, enjoying the fresh snow and admiring the silky blue sky, and there it suddenly struck me.  Skiing is just like life!  When you’re young, your parents put you on your skis and teach you how to move, and for a while, you follow their tracks.  Then, by the time you become strong yourself and leave your family behind, someone else comes along and slides beside you.  And later yet, you have your children, and they begin following your tracks – until you move aside and they continue on their own.  And while we, the skiers, change, the run continues, for a long time for some and for others not, but always in the same direction – forward. IMG_9842

©Svetlana Grobman. All Rights Reserved

What Was That Holiday in November?


Dear friends,

This is a story I wrote some time ago for the Christian Science Monitor.”  I hope you like it 🙂

“I’m not celebrating Thanksgiving.”

“Why?”

“It’s their holiday. I don’t know what it’s about. Besides, what’s there to celebrate?”

I looked at the middle-aged Russian woman. She had settled in our town recently, and I hardly knew her. Yet, I knew her very well, for, reflected in her tired eyes, I saw myself many Thanksgivings ago.

Every time I heard the phone ring, I felt like dashing to the bedroom, covering my head with a pillow, and pretending that I was still in Moscow. 

The honeymoon phase of immigration had passed – when the never-before-seen abundance of food sent me into a trance, and aisles of Wal-Mart clothes thrilled me as much as a field trip to Lenin’s Mausoleum. But a new reality had set in – a nagging fear that I’d never make it in America and that bringing my young daughter here was the most irresponsible thing I had ever done.

The phone kept ringing. I picked it up, muttered, “I don’t speak English,” and immediately hung up. At night, it rang again, and my daughter, who knew some English, answered it.

“The Hermanns are inviting us over for Thanksgiving dinner,” she translated.

“Thanksgiving? What’s that?”

“A holiday.”

“What’s it about?”

“I’m not sure.”

Americans had invited us to meals before, and I appreciated their effort, although not the food. One family cooked us a Mexican dinner. The only thing I knew about Mexican culture was that they wore sombreros. As for the food, I had no idea what it consisted of, so when I bit into a jalapeño pepper, I was surprised and unprepared for the spicy aftereffect. The alarmed hosts rushed to me with a glass of ice water, the only drink they had at that meal. Where I came from, nobody served tap water to guests.

Another time, we were invited to a Chinese restaurant. I wasn’t familiar with Chinese food either. Also, we weren’t given knives and forks, and I couldn’t eat with the chopsticks they gave me. So I left that feast hungry.

On Thanksgiving, I timidly opened the door of a two-story brick house from which came wonderful aromas of food. What were we celebrating?

Back in Russia, we celebrated the anniversary of the Great Socialist Revolution in the fall. A large military parade took place in Moscow’s Red Square. Rocket launchers, nuclear missiles, and tanks shook the square’s cobblestones, thousands of troops goose-stepped, and “volunteer” factory workers paraded past Lenin’s red-granite mausoleum, where high government officials waved and smiled to shouts of “Slava!” (glory) from the crowd.

None of it seemed relevant now. No tanks rolled through our Midwestern town, and no military marches were heard.

Could Thanksgiving be a religious holiday? I had vague recollections of Thanksgiving prayers in the Russian Orthodox Church. Yet, there wasn’t a single onion-shaped dome in our town.

What holiday was it, then?

The house was decorated with carved pumpkins and mums. On the table rested a large brown turkey, a gravy boat, a bowl of cranberry sauce, carrots, beans, sweet potatoes, and pies.

I wasn’t used to turkeys – chickens and ducks were more common back home – but I liked the taste. I didn’t touch the cranberry sauce, though. (Who eats poultry with jam?) Sweet potatoes looked weird (aren’t potatoes supposed to be white and salty?), so I skipped them, too.

I also skipped the pumpkin pie. My mother used pumpkins to make kasha (porridge), not a dessert! There was some kasha-looking dish on the table called “dressing.” To me, “dressing” implied putting on clothes, so I didn’t try it.

When the dinner ended, I asked my daughter to inquire about Thanksgiving. “Oh, Thanksgiving started at the time of the Pilgrims. They celebrated their first harvest and good fortune. And we, like them, express gratitude for everything we have,” she was told.

I had never studied American history, and the only pilgrims I’d heard about were people traveling to holy sites in the Middle East, not in America. As for gratitude, I mentally reviewed my situation. Formerly an engineer, I now worked nights at a retirement home making minimum wage. I rented a small apartment and drove a rusty car. I had no friends, and my daughter was my only family. I couldn’t even speak English. I had little to celebrate, I thought.

Many things have happened since then. Gradually, I learned English. Later I met and married a wonderful man, and, in time, my daughter became a mother herself. My life was similar to the lives of others who came here before and after me – with work and worries, sadness and happiness.

As for Thanksgiving, it became mine, too, because who are we immigrants, if not pilgrims? Like them, we come to a place we don’t know much about. Like them, we rely on the kindness of strangers. Like them, we go through hard times. And like them, we come to appreciate our good fortune.

I looked at the Russian woman. “You’ll celebrate Thanksgiving,” I said. “You’ll see. Just remember our Russian saying: ‘Without effort, one cannot pull even a small fish from the pond.’ ”

Thanksgiving turkey by antonellomusina
©Writing With an Accent. All Rights Reserved

Elections 2012


Thank you everybody who read/liked/commented on my Halloween story!  It’s so encouraging (and inspiring) for a writer to be appreciated.  You, guys, are great!  Now, I was not going to publish anything until November 15, but since we’re all waiting for the results of this election, I thought you may like my other older story, too.  Enjoy!  (I hope :))

Thank goodness for democracy!

I sighed. “Another sweepstakes.”

“Did you sign up for that no-call-no-mail-no-contact-under-any-circumstances list?” My husband asked.

“Yes, I did,” I said, opening the envelope.

Ms. Svetlana Grobman, you’ve been selected for a Presidential Campaign Survey.”

“It’s not a sweepstakes,” I informed my husband, wondering how my adopted country managed to survive without me during the years I lived in the Soviet Union.  The USA obviously needed me. For example, since I became an American citizen in 1995, I’ve been called for jury duty four times! I work with people who’d love to serve, but had never been called, including my mother-and father-in-law, who were seventh-generation Americans. Even my husband, now retired, has been called only once.

Similarly, when strangers telephone our house, they always ask for me, although nobody can pronounce my name. Only rarely do they want my husband with his conventional English name, Charles.

“Did anybody else receive a presidential campaign survey?” I asked my colleagues the next day. None had.

That night, I told my husband, “I have to answer that survey. It’s signed by a presidential candidate. He’s asking me to participate in the democratic process.”

“Did he also ask you for a donation?” my husband asked.

I disregarded this remark. Nobody had asked him to participate in the democratic process. Besides, he was used to democratic elections, with a choice among candidates; whereas, during my 39 years in Moscow, I never experienced such a thing.

My first Soviet election of the 1970s was a grand affair. Bravura patriotic music poured out of loudspeakers. Dressed-up people filled the sidewalks. Yet the polling place looked like my idea of purgatory – with many people going in and very few coming out. I walked inside. Several unsmiling officials crowded at the counter, busily checking voters’ passports, putting check marks by their names, and handing out ballots. Behind the counter perched an unused voting booth. The only things spoiling the bureaucratic orderliness of the voting process were the scents of seafood and noises oozing from the adjacent room, where crowds of people blocked the doorway.

“Masha, lend me some money!” I heard somebody shout.

“How much?” the invisible Masha hollered back.

Clearly, the next room was a happening place, and everybody around me thought so, too. As soon as they got their ballots, they quickly deposited their votes, and dived into the mass of bodies and tempting aromas on the other side.

While waiting to deposit my ballot, I absent-mindedly read its contents, which did not surprise anybody in the country. For every election, there was only one name on the ballot for each office, and the Soviet people were always unanimously united behind that person.

The best thing about this system was its simplicity. We weren’t bothered with phone calls or mail, we never researched our candidates (the names on the ballots rarely changed anyway), and we never had any doubt about the results – 99.9 percent of the population happily embraced their only choice.

The excitement in the next room was triggered by a buffet set up there for the election. It was covered with delicacies one wouldn’t find on any other day. Cans of caviar stood there like Kremlin turrets, packs of smoked salmon emitted mouth-watering scents, and piles of cured sausages rose like revolutionary-era barricades. In short, it was a celebration of the Soviet regime at its best.

This happened year after year, until, in the late 1980s, the Soviet economy plummeted and the assortment of election goodies dwindled. I lost my “election” enthusiasm long before that. One year, I walked into the voting booth, shut the curtain, and crossed out the only name on my ballot. The next time, I tore the ballot up. Finally, I just stopped going.

Yet, the election result was always the same – 99.9 percent approved. Actually, not voting caused me more trouble, since, inevitably, a portable ballot box appeared at my door, brought in by a grumpy bureaucrat, eager to put a check mark by my name.

My first American election took place in 1996. It was a casual affair. The polling station was in a nearby church, and the atmosphere lacked the excitement I was used to. One gray-haired volunteer checked my voter registration card, and another handed me a ballot – a document with several columns of little ovals and names. At the end, I was given an “I voted” sticker and a doughnut instead of caviar.

In recent years, I’ve voted at a school, where there are no doughnuts, coffee, or music. And yet, I do not miss the Soviet-style elections, for whatever the weaknesses of American elections, they have something I didn’t dream I’d ever see – choices.

No, I’m not naive. I know my single vote doesn’t count for much. But together with the votes of others, it has power – the collective power we pass on to our candidates, hoping that they’ll use it wisely. As for the torrent of dinnertime phone calls, campaign materials, and donation requests – I’m annoyed with them at times, but, I tell myself, “Thank goodness for democracy!” And, sometimes, I even reach for my checkbook.

©Writing With an Accent. All Rights Reserved

Welcome to my blog!


I never thought that I would start my own blog, and yet, that is exactly what I’m doing.  Why?  Not because I believe that I am a profound thinker and the world cannot live without my opinions, and not because I am a vain person.  Why then?  Well, I’ll be honest with you.  Because I just finished writing my first book “The Education of a Traitor” (I have published essays and articles before), and now I need to build “my platform,” or, to put it plainly, I need to prove to the publishing world that there are people out there who will read what I write; that I have something to say to them –even if they are very different from me.  Can I do it? I don’t know.  I just have to try, for there is nothing more important for a writer than readership.  And now, let me introduce myself.

I am a foreigner.  I was born in Moscow, Russia (which in those days was called the Soviet Union) and I lived there for 39 years.  When I immigrated to the U.S., I didn’t speak English, and despite many years of studying, I speak with an accent.  This may take time to get used to, although people usually say, – oh those polite Americans! – “What a charming accent you have!   Where are you from?”  (Just between you and me, I HATE my “charming” accent.  So if you ever meet me in person, don’t ever say that! :))  In any case, I usually reply, “I’m from Russia,” to which many say something like this:  “I’ve been in Moscow/St. Petersburg/etc.  Great country!   Great people, too!  Do you go back often?”

Well (this, again, is between you and me), I haven’t been back since the day I left my crying relatives at Moscow Sheremetyevo International Airport (none of us knew whether we would ever see each other again) and, accompanied by the hateful glances of the Russian border patrol, boarded a plane.  Why don’t I go back?  As I already said, I lived in Russia for 39 years — which was a very “interesting” experience in itself, but to make matters worse, I was born into a Jewish family.  I did not know then that that wasn’t a good idea, but neither I nor my parents could do anything about it anyway, since in Russia being Jewish is very different from being Jewish in any other place on Earth.  It doesn’t mean that you go to religious services and celebrate Sabbath every Friday (sorry to say, I still don’t even now).  In fact, the Soviet Union was an atheist haven where nobody believed in anything, but everyone cited Karl Marx: “Religion is opium for the masses.”

To tell the truth, very few of us knew what opium actually was, but we all understood that it must be something very bad, like rotten capitalism, wars, exploitation of the working class, or writing curse words on the wall.  Our knowledge of religion was mostly gastronomical.  For me and the Jews of my generation being Jewish meant eating gefilte fish and matzah for Passover (if you don’t know what matzah and gefilte fish are, google them!), and for my Russian counterpars, the traditions of the Russian Orthodox Church narrowed down to painting eggs and baking cakes for Easter.  Also, a week before Lent, we all religiously ate blini (small pancakes) with sour cream, and those who had “connections” (and you absolutely had to have some kind of connections if you were to survive in the Soviet Union) ate them with caviar – nobody giving a hoot what Easter was all about.  Which was actually good, because outside our stomachs, religion could mean serious trouble – expulsion from college, difficulties at work, and possibly, even worse.

So, what made me and others like me Jewish?  Our ethnicity, of course!  Well, they called it “nationality,” and as such it was recorded in all our documents: from our maternity wards to day care centers, schools, colleges, places of work, and in the most important places of them all – in our passports, which every Soviet citizen received at the age of sixteen.  Whatever the document, it read (always on the fifth line): “Nationality — Jewish.”  Of course, it didn’t help that, as popular saying had it, our Jewishness was “written on our faces” — meaning that in the sea of the light-headed and light-eyed Russian majority, we, dark-headed and dark-eyed, with tanned complexion, stood out.  This might not have applied to everyone, but it surely applied to me.

The most revealing thing about me was my nose. It was long and protruding (still is, in fact :)) — a typical Jewish nose that I inherited from my father. My mother’s nose, on the other hand, appeared almost normal. In fact, her nose appeared so normal that she didn’t look Jewish at all, so her patients (she was an overworked and underpaid district doctor) told her anti-Semitic jokes and complained about the global domination of Jews: “Those kikes took over all the good places, so true Russians don’t have anywhere to go!” To which Mother, whose low salary was often less than the salaries of her “true” Russian patients, only nodded and said, “Take these pills twice a day and get a lot of rest …”

Well, see how far talking about my accent got me?  I think I’d rather stop now.  Talk to you later! 🙂