My earliest childhood memories consist of celebrating Passover by watching our family's matzo emerge from an anonymous paper bag and several pillowcases. Matzoh secretly procured by my grandmother from the only functioning synagogue in Kyiv, the city of my birth, was not technically illegal, but getting caught with the bread of affliction bore dire consequences for its owner. In the privacy of our own apartment, my family gathered, ate way too much, drank the obligatory four glasses of wine, sang, and played while recounting the story of Exodus. I do not recall ever opening the door for the prophet Elijah, which would have most likely cost my parents and grandparents their jobs. So, not so different from how we celebrate Passover in America, well except for that part where discovery of my family’s celebration would have wreaked havoc on our existence in the USSR.
Every year, I think of how my mother and I left the Soviet Union. Our exit visas were creative in their wording. My mom was ceremoniously stripped of her citizenship; I was not old enough to hold citizenship. My mom and I packed our lives into two suitcases, a maximum of suitcases allowed by the Soviet government for the two of us. Blankets, pillows and sheets took up one of these suitcases. The government allowed us to take only $150 USD. Going through customs border patrol officers searched both our suitcases and persons. My mom lost an extra can of coffee during the search. I am not sure how the officer that confiscated the can of coffee survived to live another day, as my mom describes herself as a coffee addict. I am pretty sure, the officer in question made a lifelong enemy. We’ve lived in America for 21 years, but for my mom the coffee can episode feels like it happened yesterday. So there we were, stateless, pretty much penniless, I mean let’s face it $150 was not much in 1989 either; the very definition of refugees.
While I am leaving out a lot of details of the history of how I became a proud American, I will leave you with the following thoughts. I am proud to be an American, as the country singer croons. America accepted my tiny family and gave us freedom, protection, and opportunity. Instead of making me feel small my teachers encouraged and supported my budding talents and skills. I went to a first rate public high school where I thrived. I received scholarships and government backed student loans to study at NYU. I studied, worked, volunteered and thrived. I paid off my undergraduate debt, saved and was accepted into one of the best graduate programs in the country. Yay for SAIS Hopkins! I plunked my entire savings into my graduate education. In addition to recieving a first rate graduate education, I met the love of my life. I love my life.
It is funny, that I think about this pretty much on Passover as we read the Haggadah; which documents the story of the Hebrews’ Exodus from Egypt. With each succeeding year I recount more and more wonderful things that would not be possible had my mom and I not lived through our very own Exodus. I am so grateful for my chance. In Hebrew school we learn from the book of Exodus to: “welcome the stranger,” “protect the stranger,” “have one law for the stranger and the citizen among you” because “you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” As our departure swiftly approaches and we pack up our lives, I think about my first Exodus. I think about becoming a stranger in a strange land, well not in the same way that Robert Heinlein put it, well you know what I mean. It is a funny feeling packing up your life. I can’t help but think about how my mom did this all by herself.