I wake up early on an August morning in 1980. The blinds are drawn and the rays of the sun are blinding me. I reach for my sunglasses on the desk, but there is no desk, and the giant map of the United States hanging over the bed is missing too, along with my books, my wardrobe, the pictures, the carpet, and the wallpaper with its distinctive geometric pattern. For a few minutes I lie in bed, confused. I dreamed I was in America. America, my father said, is a melting pot, where everyone is melted down and becomes an equal part of the whole. There are no “guest workers” there, just immigrants.
Suddenly I realize it’s not a dream but reality. I’m fourteen years old and really am in America, in New York, in Brighton Beach, a beachside neighborhood of Brooklyn where mainly Jewish immigrants from the Soviet Union live and which is therefore referred to as Little Odessa. We’ve been here almost two months already. The Jewish organization HIAS is subsidizing a small apartment for us, for half a year.
The room I’m sleeping in is scantily furnished. Next to the bed is a box of my stuff. My glasses are on top of a pile of newspapers. I’m collecting the feature pages of Novoye Russkoye Slovo—The New Russian Word—a Russian-language newspaper consisting of a Jewish main section, edited by Jewish immigrants from the Soviet Union, and—after about page seven—an anti-Semitic back section. The latter pages are where old Russian émigrés and their offspring harangue about the Jewish world conspiracy and the Jewish Bolshevism which is reputedly the reason they lost their homeland. The new immigrants bemoan the anti-Semitic policies of the Soviet powers-that-be. The two groups are bound together by their anti-Communism and their firm conviction that the USA is the most beautiful, democratic, and richest country in the world. The obituaries are found at the end:
Piotr Mikhailovich Bogomoltsev, former cadet in the Imperial Russian Army, former accountant at US Steel, and longtime deputy chairman of the Russian World War I Veterans' Association in New York City, New Jersey, and Connecticut, passed away last Sunday at the age of eighty after a long and painful illness. He is survived by his son Sergei Bogomoltsev, grandchildren Ralph Bogomolzev and Susan McAlister, née Bogomoltseva, great-grandchildren Robert, Peggy Sue, and Helen, as well as other relatives and friends.
I read the paper because my English isn’t good enough for the New York Times yet. Only once did I attempt to plow through the sixty-page Sunday edition. My efforts thwarted, I promptly returned to the Novoye Russkoye Slovo. For two weeks now I’ve been engrossed in the world of a captivating serial novel depicting the fate of a Siberian village in the thirties: three novel-pages a day in the literary supplement. (I can’t remember who the author was anymore.) Every morning I run to the newspaper stand, hungry for more. I’ll soon have the whole book together, and keep the densely printed pages in a shoe box so I can reread the whole thing later in one go. My father often lifts an eyebrow and says I’ve got trashy taste.
I get dressed quickly this morning and wake up my parents. “Go get your paper,” Father grumbles. “You should be learning English instead.” I think about how Father’s knowledge of English is limited to “How do you do?” “Hello” and “Good-bye,” and that he, too, like all immigrants from Russia, gets the bulk of his information from the Novoye Russkoye Slovo.
“Take the garbage down with you,” shouts Mother. “And while you’re at it, get me a loaf of rye at Birnbaum’s, the Russian store. Don’t go to the supermarket. That mushy white American bread isn’t edible. We could also use some butter, two hundred grams of cheese, and a jar of jam. My wallet is in my purse where it always is. And another thing, be careful out there! If you see a group of colored people, cross over to the other side of the street.”
Outside the front door I trip over a bulging, evil-smelling plastic bag. The trashmen have been on strike for three days now. Garbage from the entire building is piling up on the curb. I toss our garbage bag on top of the others, then head toward the sea and turn onto the neighborhood’s main thoroughfare. About a hundred yards down is the newsstand, and right behind that the little kosher restaurant Yerushalayim, the club rooms of Mother Odessa, Birnbaum’s grocery store, and Liebmann’s fruit store. I buy a copy of Novoye Russkoye Slovo, begin leafing though it eagerly, find the desired pages, and in the blink of an eye am bridging time and space: Leonid Prigov, the hunter, is roaming through a dense pine forest and I know that he’ll soon find the prisoner who escaped from the nearby camp. Only when I bump into something big and soft do I realize that I’m not on the banks of the Ob, but on Brighton Beach Avenue.
“Is that you? Up so early!” It’s the voice of Boris Moyseyevich I hear, an émigré from Leningrad in his early fifties whom everyone calls Borya. He works in Liebmann’s store in the morning and is holding a crate of oranges. Immersed in my reading, I’ve walked right past Birnbaum’s store.
Borya takes a glance at my paper. “What? You read that trash?” I’m a little insulted that everyone refers to the gripping novel as trash. “If it were trash,” I say, “the paper wouldn’t print it.” Boris Moyseyevich laughs and changes the subject. I’m about to turn back, but he grabs me by the arm and launches into a story I don’t really want to hear. Mr. Liebmann, a thickset man with a fleshy nose and round, rosy cheeks who stands smoking a pipe at the entrance of his store, eventually interrupts him: “Stop yakking and get to work. You’re not getting paid to stand around.” At which point an unpleasantly shrill adolescent voice echoes from the bowels of the store: “The old man’s always gabbing. He could spend all day telling the same old boring stories, over and over.”
The voice belongs to Lev (Lyovchik) Blau from Zhitomir. I met him four years ago in Ostia. He also works in Liebmann’s store.
“What? You here too?” he exclaimed when we first ran into each other in New York. “It’s a small world. And you haven’t seen the world if you haven’t been to Brighton Beach . . .”
Lyovchik has a very simple philosophy when it comes to dealing with adults: “You’ve just gotta keep your cool around these old farts,” he explained to me, “then you can get away with murder. They’re soft like butter. You just have to stand your ground.”
I’m not particularly fond of Lyovchik, “that stuck-up creepy little brat,” as Borya calls him, but secretly I admire him. I’ve never seen things before the way he does. No one ever explained them to me quite so clearly. When I talk to Lyovchik, the world, which has always been something mysterious and complicated to me, suddenly begins to take shape. If only everything were so simple!
Even now, the little creep is so cheeky I’m flabbergasted: “The old man chatters so much ’cause he doesn’t have what it takes anymore. His time is up. America is for the strong and the cool, not the habitual whiners.”
“Do I have to put up with this? From that snotty little runt?” Borya Moyseyevich says indignantly. “And to think, I’m an engineer, a college graduate. What did I come here for in the first place? I must have been nuts. Just look at me. Lugging around orange crates. At my age!”
“That’s the way it is, Mr. Engineer,” says Liebmann. “C’est la vie. If you don’t take it like it comes, you won’t be nothing but a loser all your life. Why you always got something to gripe about? America is the best place on earth for Jews. All decent Jews go to America. Just look at me. In Russia I was a measly clerk with 120 rubles a month, and now I’m a businessman.” He then cranes his neck toward the store and yells: “And you, you little pain in the ass, one more crack like that out of you and you’re fired. I can’t stand the sound of your voice anyway.”
I don’t feel like listening anymore, I’m late as it is, and still have to go to Birnbaum’s to buy the groceries. Birnbaum’s wife packs everything into a heavy brown paper bag depicting a tree with big green pears on it. Underneath it says: “Birnbaum’s is Better than the Best.” Konstantin Natanovich—alias Kostik—Birnbaum from Kherson, a former foreman at “The Red Proletariat” machine factory, has caught on fast. The sign above his store reads “kosher.”
All decent Jews go to America. An offhand sentence from the “fruit man” that I can’t get out of my head. It’s not the first time I’ve heard this kind of remark. “Self-respecting Jews go to America,” Rav Pelzer had often said in Vienna. “Israel,” he explained, “is not a country for Jews. Zionism is heresy, because only the Savior, the Messiah, can found the one and only, the Eternal State. Our suffering is punishment for our arrogance, and Zionism is the greatest arrogance since the destruction of the Temple by the Romans.”
Lugging the groceries home from the store, I can’t help thinking of the little Hasid from Vienna; it was thanks to him that my parents and I were able to come to America at all. “Brooklyn,” Rav Pelzer explained, “is the real heart of Judaism. You, too, will find your new home there.”
Rav Pelzer was director of the Vienna office of the Hasidic organization “Der Glückliche Rebbe”—the Happy Rabbi. A Jewish friend brought it to the attention of my parents. The office, which simultaneously served as living quarters for Rav Pelzer’s family, was located on the third floor of a modern building whose outer façade betrayed nothing of the Orthodox Jewish organization within. The acronym “DGR” next to the button on the intercom could only be deciphered by insiders. A mezuzah, a small parchment scroll with an inscription from the Torah, was fixed to the doorpost on the third floor; yet neither Hebraic letters nor a sign on the door suggested that the office of a Jewish organization was housed inside.
“A security precaution,” Rav Pelzer explained. “We don’t want to attract attention, let alone have some policeman outside the door. God forbid we should have to rely on the goyishe police.”
It was Rav Pelzer who advised us to apply for a tourist visa to the United States. “Twenty families I’ve brought to America already,” he said. “Jews from Romania, Bulgaria, and Hungary. None of them had immigration papers. Our headquarters in Brooklyn supported them for years. Now they’re pious Jews, living according to the laws of the Torah. Over time they were all able to legalize their status.”
Rav Pelzer gave me a bilingual edition of the Torah, in German and Hebrew, as a gift. He said I should prepare for my bar mitzvah. After all, I was already thirteen. Whenever my parents and I visited the Rav he would ask me how my studies were coming along. “It’s a great read,” I would answer each time, though I hadn’t read a single line. “That’s my boy,” the Rav would commend me. “You’ll be a real Jew someday.”
The Rav said I should attend a Jewish school in America, should grow payot and study the Talmud. That was the condition for helping us emigrate to America. My eagerness to come to New York was considerably dampened by this alarming prospect. Moreover, I wasn’t even circumcised. There was little doubt that the teachers at the Jewish school wouldn’t stop at the insistence that I grow payot.
“Don’t worry,” said my mother. “Whatever the rabbi says now, just nod your head. Be courteous and smile the way I taught you to when you were younger. Once we’re in America we’ll find a way around the yeshiva.” And Father added with a laugh that the Rav is the perfect cliché of a “caftan Jew” the way the locals picture them. Did I really think he would allow me to become a caftan Jew?
“What have I got to do with these religious fanatics anyway?” I said and giggled. “They look ridiculous. I wouldn’t mind having a pull at those sidelocks. That’d be fun, all right. I can just picture them howling . . .”
I snatched the Torah, the one the rabbi had given me, off the bookshelf, opened it, and began rocking back and forth in a caricature of praying Orthodox Jews. Meanwhile my mother took a photo album with yellowed pages out of a drawer, leafed through it, and laid it open on the table.
“Who’s this guy?” I asked after studying the photo of an older man, the spitting image of Rav Pelzer.
“That, my dear, is your great-grandfather. One of those caftan Jews with sidelocks. He was murdered in 1919 in Byelorussia by anti-Semitic thugs.”
From then on I stopped making fun of pious Jews.
I soon learned to admire Rav Pelzer’s energy and optimism. There was a solution to every problem—for example, when my parents told him that the American consulate in Vienna refused to grant us a tourist visa. “No visas for people like you,” the official in charge had declared. Yet our friend Rav Pelzer was not to be shaken by this initial defeat. His organization had other ways of getting its protégés to America, he explained to us. A short while later, we had our visa . . .
So now I’m in Brooklyn, but have had little to do with “caftan Jews” and other locals, Jews and non-Jews alike. Instead, here in Little Odessa, I keep running into the type of person I’m familiar with from Israel, Ostia, and Vienna: the “uprooted Soviet citizen,” who, according to my father, “has to paddle with his hands and feet just to stay above swampy water.”
Rather than paying a visit to the New York headquarters of the “Glücklicher Rebbe,” my parents have relied up till now on the more traditional avenues for trying to get a foothold in their new host country. They’ve been to every Jewish aid organization (not only the Hasidic ones), and have filed an application at the immigration office for “conversion of a tourist visa to a permanent residence permit”—a procedure with little chance of success, a lawyer informed us. I can remember how my mother tried to change my father’s mind: “Let’s at least stop by at the Hasids, just to see what they suggest. Maybe they have their own lawyers, or some helpful connections. What will Rabbi Pelzer think of us! After all, he’s done a lot for us.”
“I don’t give a hoot about Rabbi Pelzer and all of his sidelocked friends,” retorted Father, twisting his face into a look of contempt. “You have to be on your guard with these religious fanatics. Once you become dependent on them, they never let you out of their grip. I can already picture my son reading in the synagogue.”
I get back from shopping and Father asks me irritably where I’ve been so long. Birnbaum’s is right around the corner, he says. They’re hungry and tired of waiting for breakfast. I set the shopping bag down on the table and begin telling them about Boris Moyseyevich, Lyovchik, and the fruit seller. “Borya chewed my ear off again,” I explain.
“It’s all doom and gloom with him,” grumbles Father. “My sympathy has its limits. After all, he’s got every legal opportunity in this country. Not like us. If I were in his shoes, why, I’d be up and at ’em.”
“Stop showing off,” says Mother.
I’m sitting at the breakfast table, watching my parents. Mother eats slowly and deliberately. She routinely wipes the corners of her mouth with a paper napkin. It’s impossible to read from her face what she’s thinking about. Father eats quickly, hastily stuffing bread and jam in his mouth. He’s studying the next to last page of the Novoye Russkoye Slovo, where the rental and help-wanted ads are. He devours the text with his eyes, as greedily as his breakfast. Occasionally he turns to Mother: “Here’s a job for you. ‘Seeking employee with background in mathematics. Written application with résumé requested . . .’ If only we’d get our work permit.”
“Hmm,” Mother mumbles, and continues eating. She pays no further attention to what my father is saying.
“Here’s another one,” exclaims Father with his mouth full of food. “Listen to this . . .”
I’m convinced that we deserve to live in America. Much more than this Borya guy or some other people I’ve met in Brighton Beach. America is for the strong and fit. Like us. Especially Mother. We made it into the country despite all the red tape and legal hurdles. If you believe in something strongly enough, it will come true. True, my parents haven’t achieved much in the past couple of weeks. And Father constantly complains: about the dirtiness, the crime, the colored people who purportedly make the streets unsafe, and all the other immigrants. But we’re in America. “We didn’t come this far just to pack up and leave,” he says. “America may have its drawbacks, but only here can our son become one of them, someone like everyone else.”
from Zwischenstationen. © Vladimir Vertlib 1999. By arrangement with Paul Zsolnay Verlag, Translation © 2014 David Burnett