05 May Born Into a Fairy Tale
May 5 is my parents’ immigration anniversary. They arrived in Chicago on that day in 1977, my father at 72, my mother at 65.
In those good old days, one could go directly to the gate to greet the arrivals. The minute my parents emerged from the ramp, pandemonium erupted. A camera-flashing, microphone-thrusting, notebook-grasping group materialized out of nowhere. The main questions it threw at us were “how do you feel seeing your granddaughter again” and “why did you leave the Soviet Union.”
Luckily for them, my mother did not understand English or she would have told them they were meshugge to ask. My husband and I assured the reporters that my parents were happy both to see us and to leave the old country.
Media Darlings from Kiev
We managed to eventually learn the reason for that over-the-top attention. My parents happened to be the 1000th Soviet Jewish immigrants to Chicago. When we came 8 months before, our caseworker estimated the size of our community at 500 people.
We saw ourselves in the news that evening. A flustered Chicago Tribune reporter called our house begging for an interview and a photo-op. She was in trouble for letting such an important event slip through her fingers in favor of a competitor. We didn’t understand what her problem was—the concept of competition remained beyond our Soviet mindset.
She spent a long time with us on Saturday asking for human-interest Soviet stories. She should have been careful what she wished for. Our descriptions of communal apartments, lines for chicken and bras, and other delights of the workman’s paradise made her eyes glaze over.
So, she made us go to a corner grocery store nearby where my father proudly paid for his first American purchase while my mother watched the transaction like a hawk.
The reporter photographed us at home, in the street, and in the store.
The pictures appeared as a full-spread in the newspaper.
For weeks, Jewish organizations and smaller media interviewed us.
The photo of my mother at the airport hugging my older daughter taken by John H. White (1982 Pulitzer prize recipient) from the now-defunct Chicago Daily News appeared in the newspaper again a year later when the photographer received an award for it.
Do You Like America?
A slew of elderly descendants of emigrants from Ukraine whose parents had had the foresight to choose Ellis Island contacted us through the media. They talked about their contribution to the “Save Soviet Jews” campaign, invited us to lunch, and offered boxes with used clothing. But mostly they wanted to talk. To inquire whether we had, by chance, met their relatives in Kiev. Try to envision the life they would have lived. To share their parents’ blurry memories. And to ask “do you like America.”
In a mix of Yiddish, Russian, and, with our help, English, my parents diligently struggled to explain that Jewish was a nationality just like American. And that the absence of meat during the war did not mean having poultry available. The dead-end conversations finally brought them to the conclusion that Americans’ fairly-tale life dulled them—why else would people go to a restaurant for a simple fried egg.
Well, now the fairy tale was what my parents’ were born into. They resided in a private apartment double the size of their Kiev one. They bought any deficit without standing in lines, even tangerines, even strawberries in the winter. And they opened a bank account! And they subscribed to a Yiddish-language newspaper!
My father joined a synagogue where congregants spoke Yiddish. He was in awe of the capitalist economy, especially income tax. My mother was slowly getting used to the concept of taxes. First, she refused to pay them in stores, so I had to do it behind her back.
My parents chose to celebrate the anniversary of their immigration with no fanfare. They simply splurged on a ready-made crumb-sprinkled coffeecake and made tea in the special-occasion tea-ware that followed them from Kiev packed in window curtains.
The thin glasses with faceted design around the middle sat in imitation-silver fancy-wrought glass-holders. These glasses were used for special occasions since I remembered myself. Now they were used for a without-equal special occasion.
At that tea ritual, they praised America and reminisced. They had one regret: living off American generosity they had not earned. If only they had come at a younger age!