As I look back on my life, I can discern a chain of events that are surprisingly and wondrously interconnected. It seems as if it has been my fate to live not just one life, as is usually the case, but several different lives – lives that might have been allocated to various people with different emotions, temperaments, interests, and aspirations. However, even when I was very young, long before a person usually starts thinking about the meaning of life, I was sure that everything happening to me was happening not by chance, that everything served some purpose that it was leading somewhere, teaching me something. That it hid a secret – surprising and enticing.
The twists and turns of my life did not extinguish this sense of mystery, but rather seemed to add new, tantalizing riddles. What is this secret mission of my life—unknown even to me? And why does it demand that I live so many different and separate lives within one life?
Perhaps the solution was hiding nearby, just around the corner, I told myself. Wait a bit and you’ll find the answer. Or perhaps you must wait for many, long years. Perhaps you need to look at things from a different point of view—from above or from the side? Maybe some being from another dimension sees the answer and observes me with an all-knowing smile.
My first life began in 1950, when I was born in Moscow to the close-knit Kholmyansky family. My parents Rosa and Grigory (Grisha) gave me the name Alexander (Sasha), not a particularly Jewish name. Our family – my parents and my older brother Michael (Misha) — was similar to many other Russian intellectual Jewish families at that time. Very few observed the Jewish traditions, but most families socialized primarily with other Jews.
Like other parents, my parents tried to do everything possible to protect their children from sorrows and provide us with a happy childhood. Perhaps the main sorrow was that we were Jews, in the midst of an anti-Semitic society. So my parents tried to hide my Jewishness from me, and I grew up totally unaware of my Jewish identity.
I don’t know what Russian children hear nowadays in kindergarten about Jews, but in those days I heard quite a lot. Who are the Jews? Of course, that I did not know. But I learned that to be a Jew was very shameful. Beneath the surface, they are bad, sinister, greedy people.
It is discovered that one little boy in the other kindergarten group is a Jew. Either he admitted it himself, or the parents of other children found out. After that, well, they treat him like a leper. Other children say to each other: “Don’t be like a Jew! Don’t be greedy! Don’t act like a yid!” And, I too, talk like that.
So I grow older, in blissful ignorance of my real identity. However, the older I get, the harder it is for my parents to hide our shameful secret. Perhaps they are searching for a tactful way to reveal the truth, without hurting me. But one evening, the doorbell rings. My father calls,
– Who’s there?
– It’s the census taker.
A woman enters with questionnaires, and starts asking the usual questions: how many members in the family, marital status, and so forth. And I am listening to it all.
At my father’s answer, I am shocked. How could we be Jews? Who are Jews? We are Jews? Aren’t we like everyone else, that is, to say, Russian? No. Not exactly.
The census taker looks at us hesitantly and even sympathetically. My mother tells her,
– Go ahead and write “Jews”. He doesn’t understand.
The census taker leaves, and I give vent to my feelings.
– You may choose to be whatever you want. But why am I to blame? What have I done wrong?
I am choking with tears of despair.
They all try to talk to me—Mama, Papa, and Misha, my older brother. But I refuse to be pacified, refuse to accept what they were saying. I tear myself away, running to another room. For a long, long time I sit there, frantically looking for a way out of this situation. Finally, a saving thought flashes through my mind. Clutching at a faint hope, I ask myself, “What if there is a big river and I find myself on the opposite side of the bridge from my family. If the bridge breaks and we are separated, do I still remain a Jew?”
I feel so low, despicable, damaged. No longer will I be able to respond as before when children start to tease. I begin looking around constantly at the other children, wondering if they already know about me. Do they know? Has my secret been discovered? How feverishly I yearn to be like everyone else!
Thus, kindergarten ends and elementary school begins. No one reveals my Jewish descent, so my shameful secret is not yet discovered. But the teacher’s class roster contains a special page, the last page. For some reason, this page lists the nationalities of all the pupils. Why? Is this really necessary in the first grade? Especially in a state where “all nations are equal”?
In the first grade, the children cannot read yet. And of course, according to the school rules, the class roster is not supposed to fall into the pupils’ hands. But who complies with these instructions? In the slightly older grades, the pupil selected as class monitor puts the class roster on the teacher’s desk during recess and the roster lies there on the desk all that time. And the class monitor could easily leaf through the pages of the roster. Not because they know about the secret page at the end, but in order to find out whom the teacher is going to call up to the board during the next lesson. Sooner or later, someone is likely to find that last page.
By the time I start fifth grade, I am beginning to like the fact that I am not like everyone else, that I am somehow different, special. There is something romantic, charming, mysterious, and elusive about this. Maybe I can see things in a special perspective — I can see aspects that are for some reason inaccessible to others. Maybe being a “black sheep” is not only a disadvantage? Maybe there are also benefits? This warrants further consideration.
In seventh grade, I begin to keep a notebook where I write down the names of Jews who are famous in different sciences and arts. An interesting hobby, I must say. And what happens if you compare Jews’ achievements with those of other peoples? The results are impressive.
Once while my mother is cleaning my brother Misha’s bedroom, she pulls out a drawer from his desk. I happen to be entering the room at that moment to get a book and glance at the open drawer. A strange object catches my attention. I come closer. In the corner of the drawer is a small frayed booklet with Hebrew letters. I can recognize that it is Hebrew, because I have already seen Hebrew letters in some old prayer book that belonged to my grandfather. Misha is still at work. I should wait until he comes home. It’s not right for me to look into his private things. But the temptation is too strong for me. Like a thief, I grab the book.
It is a calendar in very small print. I examine it closely. “Oh, my God! It’s from Israel!” I pounce on it, read it carefully, and pick it over as carefully as if I were gnawing morsels of meat from a bone. I drink in each phrase, each word. It’s a special sort of calendar, including some text translated into Russian. It has some very unusual words—“yishuv”, “hagana”, “kibbutz.” And what is the meaning of “a Jewish state”? Is this what we read about in the newspapers: Jewish, that is,” bourgeois”, “Zionist, reactionary circles”, “Zionist state education”?
And here is another word, “aliyah”. What a beautiful word! Aliyah is the word they use to describe when Jews come to live in Israel, because they want to live with other Jews. This calendar book mentions the First and Second Aliya.
I carefully close the calendar – such a precious book. But everything in it is so remote from me, like a fairy tale!
My parents are not satisfied with the level of mathematics instruction in my school. So they hire a private teacher for me and I cram as hard as I can for the entire eighth grade. Success! I am accepted into the most prestigious mathematics high school. I am so happy! I am entering a new world—with the best of the best—in terms of both ability and motivation. It will be so interesting! But will I be able to cope with it?
September first arrives. With trepidation, mixed with hope, I arrive at my first class. As the class is filling up, we look at one another. All around me I see faces that I can recognize as Jewish, like my own. God, how many of them! More than half the class, probably! Never have so many of us been together like this! It’s intoxicating. Somewhere in other countries, they say, there are Jewish neighborhoods, communities, and schools … Jews can interact with other Jews as much as they want. But here, in the Soviet Union?
The teacher comes in and begins calling the students’ names from the class roster. I twist and turn in all directions, trying to see which faces correspond with these clearly Jewish surnames. Oh God, it’s so pleasant to be among my own kind! I wish it could always be this way! It feels as if a spring has been released within me. I am overwhelmed by euphoria.
What a wonderfully open atmosphere there is! How leniently the teacher communicates with the students. We can discuss everything quite freely. Both what is written in the newspapers and what can be read between the lines. I’m starting to participate in heated discussions – discussions conducted with such an exquisite play of intelligence! There is such a diversity of talents and interests! During a break between classes, you can hear students talking about mathematics, history, music, and literature…
Again and again we discuss the Jewish problem. Why are there so many of us in this class? Well, let’s say, because of a special talent for mathematics. But why were there so many Jews among the Communists who made the revolution? And now all over the world, wherever there is unrest. In France, and in Latin America – these uprisings are full of Jews. Why can’t they sit quietly? What agitates them and pushes them?
And how is it that we have been able to survive? Is there another people who has been as tortured, persecuted, and even exterminated? And what is it about us that they don’t like? Please tell me! Are we so much worse than others? Do we have such repulsive traits? Well, probably, we do have some, but other nations have no less. No, there’s something else, something hidden. We simply are not the same as they are. And they, of course, differ among themselves, but we differ from all of them, we are special. We have certain uniqueness, bear a special stamp. And people always persecute those who are different.
Suddenly I feel that an idea pierces me, a dream, a fleeting image. At first it’s subdued, then it breaks free, manifests itself clearly – Oh, if I could go away, go to a free country, where one need not fear house searches every minute and can write whatever he wants, and talk! When for a moment I imagine myself there, abroad, behind the “iron curtain”, immediately I feel a sweet feeling of emancipation, of liberation, of breathing freely! And as if something has changed in me, a new feeling emerges and settles, somewhere deeply inside, as a new secret knowledge. I suddenly realize: willingly or unwillingly, I have made a decision. Oh, God! What decision? How can it possibly be carried out? The iron curtain rules here, there is NO emigration!
Again the newspapers start to rant about Israel: “the machination of Zionism”, “an aggressive policy”, “diverts the waters of Jordan to its territory”. . . And here I am sitting and looking at the map. What a tiny piece of land Israel is! In the Soviet atlas it appears with the 1948 borders, of course. I scrutinize the map. Is there at least one bit of land beyond shooting range? Beer-Sheva, only, maybe. How do they live there? They must be courageous people!
And what about me? Shall I strive to go to America in search of comfort and peace? Actually, I have relatives there, so it would make sense to go there. No… Israel is a small country, but it is a Jewish country. There and only there, Jews are masters of their destiny. Only Israel is a home for Jews. So, it is my home too.
As little as half a month remains before the Six-Day War. We listen to all the endless, heart-rending cries in the Soviet media. The all-embracing hatred and tension is engulfing us as well. Despite the tension, matriculation exams draw near. Even though our studies demand our attention, more and more heated discussions take place. Now we are no longer discussing the Jewish question in general, but Israel specifically. .
No longer able to restrain myself, I quietly disclose to my closest friends:
– I dream of emigrating to Israel.
Alas! Here we do not seem to understand each other. I catch skeptical, slightly derisive glances directed at me.
– But how is it possible – to emigrate?
– Guys, I do not know what or how, but if I have the slightest opportunity, I will go.
– Okay, but why Israel, why don’t you want to go to, say, America?
– America is nice but it’s a foreign country to me! I want to walk down the streets every day and see passersby who look like you or me. This is really important – it’s a completely different feeling! Do you understand me?
A cautious smile appears in response.
– And more important, this is about the meaning of life, what you devote your life to. Here you go to work every day. Who is reaping the fruits of your labor, what will be the outcome of your life’s endeavors? You know, I care about that. I do not want to strengthen “the most fair and just state in the world”. But actually I do not want to strengthen “Uncle Sam” either – he is a stranger to me.
On the verge of the Six Day War, I cannot convince my friends. None of us is aware that in just a few years, the families of the students of our School #2 will be among the pioneers of emigration to Israel, and the authorities will call our school a “hotbed of Zionism”.