July 22, 2014
Sunday was 36 years that I’m in America.
For those new to me or this site I was born in the Soviet Union. In a lucky twist of fate, and this is a sentence you don’t hear that often in human history, I was born Jewish. Everybody had it rough in the Soviet Union but Jews uniquely so. With religion banned Russians could still be Russians even without their church. Not so for Jews. You could take away everything that made someone Jewish, seize the synagogues, outlaw the customs, but still, in the eyes of the state, you are a people apart. Your Jewish identity, etched on all of your official documents, kept you from getting certain jobs or living in certain places. You would never be Russian- and in a place where sameness and assimilation was the law, this was a challenge. The lucky part of this unlucky-for-everyone situation is that across the world there were American Jews fighting to get us to freedom. In 1975, during the brief 1000 days Gerald Ford was president, he signed the Jackson-Vanik Amendment which used trade to pressure the Soviet Union to issue exit visas to Jews. In a blink, our situation at the bottom of the Soviet food chain was altered. We were out of there! See ya, wouldn’t want to be ya!
Except, well, things aren’t always that simple. In the time while you waited for the US to accept you, you were in a no-man’s land. It was bad being an “other” before, now there was indisputable evidence that you didn’t belong. It was a society built on the idea that everyone must have the same beliefs, belonging was key. It was tough then to be overtly happy that you were leaving, ahem, the worker’s paradise to go to that awful America where there was racism, homelessness, old people eating cat food! Friends dropped you, family who was staying behind feared you. Association with you could mark someone a traitor. Family who couldn’t or wouldn’t leave was left behind to likely never been seen again.
I try not to make these yearly posts too political, though obviously they sometimes inadvertently can be. With Russia and Israel in the news so much in the last week (if you’re reading this in the future, this was the week Russian rebels allegedly shot down a Malaysia Air passenger plane over Ukraine and Israel has launched a ground offensive in Gaza, this go-round beginning with three dead Israeli boys) I’ve been thinking more than ever about identity. I have a lot to say about both countries and their current situations but I’ve been writing and deleting my thoughts for three days now and my Americaversary post just doesn’t seem like the right time.
Identity is difficult for people like me. I was born in Russia but, frankly, I have no love for Russia at all. I have never lived in Israel but the homeland of Jews is very special to me. I want my children to be all-American while still teaching them Russian, the language of a people who hated me (and Hebrew too but that seems right). When someone asks me my background I say I’m Russian though, as I wrote above, I never was, and my father’s side of the family is from the Ukraine though at no point were they considered Ukranian either. It’s complicated.
I’ve written before about being among the luckiest Jews in history. There’s no doubt that it’s America that made us lucky. Looking around the world today I feel that more than ever. The theme in all of my Americaversary posts is gratefulness and I remain so thankful for the opportunity that made me an American (love you President Ford, mean it). The only people I consider luckier than me are the ones lucky enough to have been born here. Today that includes my two children who will never have any doubt about who they are, will never have to explain about places that don’t exist anymore or people they don’t relate to, will never feel anything but the Americans they are.
My American family:
Previous July 20th posts:
2003 (scroll down a little to July 18).
July 1, 2014
I have a piece in the NY Post today about the brief patriotic moment we just experienced around the World Cup. Shame it can’t last.
(I also had a piece last week about Dana Milbank, the lying liar at the Washington Post who invents stories and gets away with it.)
May 9, 2014
I’ve got a piece in the New York Post today against the idea that we’re “wasting” our lives on our phones.
March 11, 2014
I’m participating in an America’s Future Foundation’s discussion on “Economic Liberty Under a DeBlasio Administration” in NYC this Thursday, March 13, 2014 7:00pm-10:00pm. Come on by. More info here.
The Irish Exit
978 2nd Avenue, between 52nd and 51st
7:00 – 10:00 pm
Free Appetizers and Cash Bar!
February 7, 2014
Last week, I wrote this piece on the trouble with Sochi.
Now my piece seems entirely too tame.
January 17, 2014
I’ve got a piece in the New York Post today on the acceptability of envy in our culture.
I hear Rush Limbaugh talked about it on his show but I haven’t had a chance to listen yet.
Update: The Rush transcript is here.
November 27, 2013
Want to shop on Thanksgiving? I want to wear sweatpants and overeat so let’s not judge each other. My latest in the New York Post.
(I also forgot to link my “no, these Halloween costumes aren’t racist” piece in the Post from a few weeks ago.)
October 21, 2013
I’ve got a piece in the NY Post today about letting kids stand up to bullies. You’d think this was obviously something we’d allow. But you’d think wrong.
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October 10, 2013
I have a piece in the New York Post today asking the question on many a New Yorker’s mind: where were the cops during the motorcycles vs. SUV chase?
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September 9, 2013
(I have a longer post on Syria coming).
July 25, 2013
I’ve got a piece in the New York Post today (my first non-mommy piece since Jack was born 5 mo ago!) on Huma Abedin and how, at this point, she’s even worse than Anthony Weiner. She’s enabling him and trying to make this erratic man our mayor. No, thanks.
July 22, 2013
I know there are people who move to the U.S and still refer to where they came from as “my country.” That wasn’t my parents and not just because they took our Soviet passports at the gate, called us traitors and told us to never return. They were here, in America, to be Americans and my brother and I were to be nothing but.
It didn’t go quite that smoothly, however. It might be news to some people but being Soviet-born and living in America in the 1980’s did not make me very popular with the other kids. Then Ivan Drago casually said “if he dies, he dies” while Apollo Creed lay dying and all hell broke loose. Assuring the other kids that I was totally, totally rooting for Rocky too only worked til they found out I hadn’t seen the movie (or, really, any movies. In fact the only movies I can remember seeing in theaters until that point were “Muppets Take Manhattan” and “Splash” so basically anytime anyone mentioned movies I’d talk about the love story between Tom Hanks and Daryl Hannah or Kermit and Miss Piggie). Added to the fact that I never knew anything about any TV shows (we had no TV in the living room, just a small one in the kitchen which was turned on during hurricanes and wars) and my mom packed me weird lunches and dressed me funny and, in that hard-to-remember era when Russians were rare in Brooklyn, I didn’t have the easiest time.
When my father found out some kids were calling me “Commie” he tried to give me a comeback. “Just say ‘if I were a Commie I wouldn’t have left Russia.’”
The 8 year olds will definitely understand that.
There wasn’t even a long pause before they called me Commie again.
But here’s the thing about America, and yes I’ve noted this before, after awhile you’re just…American. I could keep a chip on my shoulder forever about being teased as a child, I could retreat into the culture I came from because some kids were jerks or I could move on with becoming who my parents brought me here to be.
Being an immigrant is part of my identity, I don’t deny that. Even 35 years later the fact that I learned another language before I learned English means that I frequently google words I know to be sure I’m using them correctly. I mispronounce words I learned in books. But more than that there’s an American trait that I wasn’t born with but work at developing. Other cultures think of it as American niceness, politeness. When I lived in Scotland they’d imitate the American accent and say “have a nice day!” But that’s not quite it. It’s a sense of fairness and a dogged (I just googled “dogged” to be sure it meant what I thought it meant) pursuit of right. When the Snowden/NSA story hit a few weeks ago the commentary I heard from other immigrants was of course the government is spying on us whenever they feel like it. And of course they’re not going to just do it to fight terrorists. And of course there’s nothing we can do about it. On the IRS scandal, of course the government is going to use it to get their political enemies.
But people born in a country where doing the right thing is celebrated and shopkeepers tell you what kind of day to have don’t just take things like that in stride. They weren’t born in a country where hundreds of years of backward government had led to this kind of cynicism that gets passed on from parents to children. They were born in a new country, a country that was formed to be better. Even the aftermath of the George Zimmerman trial fits that. The protestors don’t like the decision of a fair trial so they take to the streets. At no point are any of the protestors concerned that they’ll go to jail for making the state look bad. In the place I was born sham trials exist to this day and those who protest those trials risk being next. The U.S has black marks in its history, sure, but when Jay-Z says “I thought this was America, people” it’s because even he knows what America means. “I thought this was Cuba, people” or “I thought this was Russia, people” doesn’t have quite the same connotation.
I’m two days late on my 35th Americaversary post because I’ve had an incredibly eventful year which leaves me with almost no free time to write (or sit, or sleep, or breathe) like I used to. In September I started a business and in February I had a son. I’ve only written three things since Jack was born and two of them were about how hard my life is right now (actually, the third kind of was too). I know talk of the “American Dream” can be cliche but despite how difficult things currently are for me I feel like I’m living in it. I had an idea for a business and (with an awesome business partner) went for it. I get to raise my children, Jack and Sadie, in freedom, I get to have more than one child (I know people all over the world have lots of babies but one of the most poignant stories of my youth were my parents telling me that if we had stayed in the Soviet Union I would have been an only child. They saw life there as hell and wouldn’t add another kid to that.), I get to marry the love of my life. I am so grateful for all I have and each July 20th I remember how easy it would have been to have none of it.
My family on Father’s Day:
Previous July 20th posts:
2003 (scroll down a little to July 18).
February 18, 2013
December 19, 2012
While a lot of people are talking long term strategies to stop school shootings, I have some *right now* ideas I learned from being Jewish, in my my latest piece for WNYC’s A Free Country.
November 13, 2012
I try to offer a little historical perspective, on the post-election doom-saying and celebration, by taking us back, all the way back, to 2004 and talk of a permanent GOP majority, in my latest piece for WNYC’s It’s A Free Country.
November 6, 2012
I want to be wrong. I would feel very happy getting this election wrong. But this is the way I think the map breaks tonight (and I think WI and IA are longshots for Mitt too). I think it will be close overall but that Obama takes it in the end.
In case anyone is wondering how NY’s “vote anywhere” thing works today:
You fill out your ballot in a privacy booth like everyone else. With pen. Because it’s still like 1970 in NYC. (And as I explained to my shocked sister-in-law today–these are our new machines! This is our updated way of voting!)
Then put you put your ballot in an envelope which doubles as an affidavit. That is, your ballot is ensconced inside but the information you fill out is on the outside, able to be read by anyone. You fill out a bunch of information like where you live and why you can’t vote there (displaced voters tick a box that says their information can’t be found in the voter rolls).
And in two different places on the affidavit you’re asked your party identification. I know there are Republican poll workers but I didn’t see any at my polling location and I don’t have a lot of hope for an envelope identifying the ballot within as filled out by a member of the Republican party making it through a long and tedious journey to be counted. Maybe I’m cynical. And yes, I realize it’s NY so who the hell cares anyway.