01 May Babinsky. Present (1978 – )
Our new life marched on, simple because full of choices. Dima and I lay awake at night sometimes, letting our minds meander through scenarios of how it might have been. We had only memories to prove we had glimpsed the fangs and eluded them, our minds relatively unscathed.
We missed the transformative point along the way where we transitioned from paving the road for our children to joining them on it—unbeknownst to us, we had immigrated not only for their sake but for our sake too.
That was not the only point we missed—in a blink of an eye, Emily and Polina are adults and mothers and professionals. Whatever their perspective on the time we traveled together, they will tell their story. Meanwhile five new apples on my branch of the tree call me bábushka.
1978 – 1979
We received our green cards.
Dima reached his firm’s ceiling salary of nine dollars an hour. On evenings and weekends, he helped Ilya paint vacant apartments.
JVS (Jewish Vocational Service) offered me a part-time job, through the Truman College, teaching ESL to older Russian immigrants—three hours a day, three times a week at eight dollars an hour. For this exorbitant pay I swallowed my dislike of teaching.
But with my income entirely depending on the Soviet Union’s attitude toward emigration I eventually got antsy. Used to trust my spider sense, I was certain that emigration was too humane a policy for the Soviet Union to continue for long.
Assured by a mathematician-friend that computer programming was a stable profession that required basic logic and no math I quit both the interpreting and teaching jobs in November of 1978 and enrolled in a six-month programming course at the Control Data Institute.
The tuition of thirty-five hundred dollars left us with less than five hundred in savings. I was nervous about succeeding in the course and later finding a job.
A snow blizzard shut down the city: public transportation functioned poorly, cars were abandoned in the streets, chairs guarded parking spots shoveled by people who needed to drive to work. It took forever to get to class. Police delivered medicine and basic foods to the seniors and the disabled trapped in their homes. They clarified on the radio that chocolate cakes were not considered basic foods. Mayor Michael Bilandic lost his job over his unsatisfactory response to the blizzard.
I graduated from the programming course in April of 1979 with an almost perfect grade—one of the first in my community to learn programming in the United States and the first woman. The subject remained as foreign to me as it had been when the course began.
Feeling guilty about spending our savings on a questionable venture, I did not wait for the placement service to act. I set out to call every employment agency in the Yellow Pages. To spice up the process I contacted the Z’s after the A’s then the Y’s after the B’s and so on. No letter of alphabet was interested in first-job seekers. Until I got to the Wood Employment Agency.
In May, my new career began at Rand McNally as a programmer-trainee at an annual salary of 10,500 dollars. As part of the interview, my future boss gave me a tour of the company. It began quite awkwardly: we stood in front of a door, I expecting him to open it and he reluctant to come across as an anti-women’s equal rights troglodyte.
Coming from a society where equality meant that women paved roads and men supervised them I was dumbfounded, and amused, when he explained the reality of the time. After that, he ran ahead to open doors for me and helped me with my coat—I still believe that my attitude played a role in his decision to take a chance on me.
I was the first real, meaning right-off-the-boat, Soviet person that the company had laid its eyes on, the personnel department told me, but they hoped I would work out. I guess I did because another former compatriot got hired soon after.
My coworkers had a lot of questions about my before-America life. They asked why people did not fight for their rights, and doubted shortages of liver that nobody liked anyway. And wasn’t Kiev in Siberia?
We sponsored some new immigrants. They told us that in our times, two years before, life in the Soviet Union was great compared to what it had become.
In November of 1979, the Soviet Union stopped the emigration. Some of our friends became refuseniks.
1980 ‒ 1981
Twenty years before, Khrushchev pledged that the current generation of the Soviet people would live in communism – “and we do,” Dima said, “he didn’t specify in what country, did he?”
The Westinghouse Electric Corporation offered Dima an engineering position at the construction of a nuclear power plant in Rockford, IL, a two-hour drive from our house. He worked five years there, twelve-hour days, and commuted on weekends.
We replaced our Ford Galaxy with a brand-new red Oldsmobile Cutlass, a model so popular we waited three months for delivery. We took it on long-weekend trips; it was not as gas-guzzling as the old car.
But, for convenience, we rented station wagons for our two-week vacations in Florida, Arizona, the East Coast. Chicago Motor Club brochures provided all the information and advice we needed. Dima installed a board that spanned the back portion of the car. The girls played and napped on it; the supply of food and clothing that did not fit in the trunk sat under the board in the space between the rows. We stayed at motels even when visiting towns where friends lived. The notion that not staying at a friend’s house was an insult to them seemed now absurd.
Emily had her bat mitzvah. She invited the entire grade, over a dozen girls. They could only come to a kosher house, so Emily made it so, as instructed at the school. She accomplished it by scrubbing the fridge and the range to a condition no one expected a kitchen appliance to be in a rented city apartment.
I bought paper plates and cups. Her girlfriend took us to grocery stores and a bakery whose kashrut standards were beyond reproach. Upon dropping off his daughter, each father quizzed me on store names, observed the paper plates and my full-length long-sleeved dress with approval. Only two forbade their girls to partake of the cake—the bakery did not qualify. Emily read something in Hebrew. We were proud to tears.
Every New Year’s day, we produced skits in Russian at our home to keep the language alive for our children.
1982 ‒ 1983
Dima and I recited the citizenship oath, hands placed on our hearts. The girls became citizens automatically when we did.
We showed off our Citizenship Certificates at a celebration at our new home, a three-bedroom condominium we bought in Skokie, a suburb north of Chicago. The owner financed it for three years at twelve percent (banks offered mortgages at eighteen percent.)
For the first time, we traveled by air to tour California.
Polina was the flower girl at a friend’s wedding, one of the first in the immigrant community.
Our children’s principal put up a fight when we took them out of school to enroll them in public schools near our new home—we could not afford both the condo and a parochial school with a modern math and science program.
She was incensed that I envisioned college for my girls. “Let them continue in our system for free, then we’ll find them good husbands,” she pleaded. I was firm: “They have to have a profession. What happens to a family if a husband can’t work?” “The community supports the family. It’s a mitzvah,” the principal replied as firmly. I snapped, “We did not come to America to be supported. We came to work and help others.” It was hard to comprehend that, in her mind, education impeded religion.
With three years of programming under my belt, I reached a comfortable plateau in my career. But I did not understand how a business enterprise worked and my coworkers waved off my wet-behind-the-ears questions. My manager told me that the only business principle one ought to know was “There is no such thing as a free lunch.” I enrolled in the Lake Forest Graduate School of Management to understand what he meant.
Almost all the subjects the school offered had the word executive in their names which scared me. Being the only student who spoke with an accent made me feel self-conscious. On the flip side, the curriculum at the time did not include statistics and the professors were not academics but either entrepreneurs or corporate executives.
At the first lesson of Executive Marketing, I looked so baffled that the professor asked if I had difficulty understanding English. “No. It’s just that I suddenly understood the difference between socialism and capitalism: in the former, one focuses on trying to buy; in the latter, one needs a degree to learn how to sell.”
Among the immigrants we sponsored in Chicago, quite a few were Dima’s former classmates from the Kiev School 131, at the time a boy’s school. That inspired him to organize the 30th school reunion in the summer of 1983. Word of mouth brought schoolmates from all over the United States. Some drove long distances in their clunkers — no one could afford the price of an airplane ticket yet or a reliable car, for that matter.
A friend with wood burning skills worked nights to produce personalized “medals” that Dima designed to commemorate the event. They hung on a ribbon with the American flag colors. Everyone wore them for the entire weekend. No medal in the world was more meaningful to these giddy new Americans.
In total, around 40 people attended. No one objected to those who switched schools or any-year graduates. The owner of the hosting restaurant happened to be one. And definitely no one objected to the presence of graduates from the nearby School 145, at the time a girl’s school. We sent the not-personalized version of the “medals” to the classmates who celebrated in Kiev.
1985 ‒ 1986
I graduated from the Lake Forest Graduate School of Management. Yes, “there is no such thing as a free lunch” truly was the only business principle to know.
Polina who had exhibited no interest in religious traditions suddenly asked to have a bat mitzvah. For a year, she got up early every Sunday to study at an Orthodox temple founded by a Russian-speaking rabbi.
The event took place in November, 1986. She invited fourteen friends, two of them Jewish. The rabbi turned speechless when he saw boys among the guests and faces reflecting every conceivable ethnicity. But he knew his flock too well to express his feelings. The children were dressed in their Sunday best, boys in suits and ties. Serious and respectful, they presented Polina with books on Jewish history. She read a piece it took her a month to prepare. Like with Emily, we were proud to tears.
On April 26, 1986, an explosion at the Chernobyl nuclear plant near Kiev killed thousands.
Had not the Scandinavian countries reported the high level of radiation, chances are that it would not have been reported at all, not even, as it was, below farm news—similar accidents that had taken place in the remote regions of the country were not known until post-Soviet Union time.
I dared call a friend in Kiev but he laughed off my anxiety: “This crazy West only invents reasons for panic. What’s the big deal? A couple of people died, that’s it.” As we spoke, high-ranking officials had already quietly evacuated their families. The delay was to ensure that the standard cheering went undisturbed at the First May demonstration.
Volunteers, without protective gear, were sent to the explosion site to help the local firemen—all of them soon died. The media published advice to keep the windows closed at all times (no air-conditioning existed) and wash the floors frequently. Doctors were punished for providing radiation-related medical advice, i.e. creating panic.
In November 1986, Syuta died of a bleeding ulcer.
In December 1986, the construction of the Rockford nuclear plant completed, Dima was laid off. He decided to start his own business doing remodeling and rehabilitation of commercial properties.
Mikhail Gorbachev, the president of the Soviet Union, said at a press conference that emigration was not necessary any longer ‒ everybody who had wanted to leave had done so already.
1987 ‒ 1991
Emigration from the Soviet Union resumed. We were able to sponsor a number of families.
I started writing Bridge from Nowhere. Read the story about the decision to write about the emigration of the Soviet Jews in Babinsky. Immigration (1976-1977). 5: Fame. Community. Year of Birth 1976.
The first McDonalds opened in Moscow.
The Soviet Union dissolved.
Emily married Gary.
Avram died of a stroke and dementia.
My first grandchild, Abigail (Abbie) Kate, was born. She was named after her maternal great-grandfather Avram and her paternal great-grandmother Anna. Her Jewish name is Ahava.
Dima decided to teach her magic tricks and the poems he wrote for her.
Dima and I took Polina to Kiev that she had left as a toddler. Normally sharp-tongued, she was stunned into silence by the sales people, rude and annoyed at having to acknowledge customers; by the lack of markers at the cemetery and the unspeakable state of its bathroom; and most of all by the docility of the people.
For educational purposes, we stayed not at a hotel but at my girlfriend’s house, a two-room khrushchevka with a kitchen so tiny that Dima was able to turn on the stove placed diagonally from the door opening where he stood.
We could not give Polina a full-blown picture of our former life because lines for food or empty store shelves were no more. Neither were there many people shopping, though: prices were too high for an average citizen, let alone a pensioner like my girlfriend who continued working but had not been paid for six months by the time we arrived.
“Salvation Army store,” Polina reacted to the sight of the central department store, dull and dark. It was not familiar with credit cards. The famous Bessarabka farmer’s market was almost free of sellers or buyers; the counters in the meat section offered no meat.
A few middle-aged women were trying to sell plastic bags to the few customers that ventured in. Dima shocked the limited audience by buying some tangerines.
(The abundance that came a few years later is staggering but the purchasing power of the majority of the population is still very low.)
We knocked on the door of the apartment where we used to live and were allowed to tour it. Polina was incredulous at the absence of a sink in the lavatory. The sight of the water heater attached to the wall above the head of the bathtub horrified that child of a litigious-minded America.
But the current resident said that all her friends were jealous that, thanks to the water heater, she did not have to deal with the unreliable hot-water availability and they all took baths in her house. She thanked Dima profusely for all the additional storage spaces he had built, for the high-quality remodeling we had done twenty-five years before, and for our large balya that was hanging on the same nail at the same place over the bathtub where we had left it.
“I thought you said we had a nice apartment,” Polina commented, clearly questioning our judgment.
My twin grandchildren, Zoe Leah and Jacob (Jake) Adam, were born.
Leah was named after her maternal great-great-granduncle Leib. Her Jewish name is Sheina after her maternal great-grandmother Shifra (Syuta).
Jacob was named after his paternal great-grandfather. His Jewish name is Yakov.
Dima passed away following heart surgery.
Bridge from Nowhere was published. After several years of presentations for stores, book clubs, and libraries, only a few copies remain.
Rakhil died of pneumonia.
I started researching family roots, writing my family story, collecting photographs, meeting new cousins.
Polina married Patrick. A German native, he converted to Judaism prior to the marriage.
My grandson, Micah Eli, was born. Micah was named after his maternal grandfather Michail (Mike). Micah Eli pronounced together sounds like Michail. His Jewish name is Micah.
My grandson, Rafael (Rafi) Jonah, was born. His Jewish name is Rafael.
The family website is ready to accept the story, the tree, and the pictures. It is an imperfect representation of the betweenness that keeps an apple on the tree. It is my yerushe.