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An immigrant’s summer of firsts

One experience in the U.S. was so new that our Russian had no syntax to describe it.

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    Immigrants representing four countries, Poland, Norway, Germany, and Russia, look from Ellis Island towards New York, New York in 1913.
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The first thing I remember from the summer of 1990 is Coca-Cola. A cold, red can of Coca-Cola that a flight attendant offered me free of charge on a midnight flight from New York’s La Guardia Airport to Manchester, N.H.

I’d just turned 21 and this was my first can of Coke. My family and I were on the last leg of a journey that had taken us 16 months, 11 days, and 20 hours. The journey had begun in the kitchen of our apartment on the outskirts of Moscow when I’d finally persuaded my parents to emigrate.

The second thing I remember is lights: billboard lights, storefront lights, streetlights, car lights, gas station lights. The small city of Nashua, N.H., danced in light. By comparison, Moscow – a metropolis of several million – was sunk in darkness.

The third thing I remember is the pool, the bright blue outdoor pool that belonged to the complex where the Jewish Community of Nashua rented us our first apartment. 

Going for a dip in the pool was a concept so foreign to us that our Russian grammar didn’t contain a phrase to describe the experience. We had to invent our own. “Go on the pool” cut at our ears at first, but then became an integral part of our Anglicized Russian – much like the new American reality that at first shocked yet soon permeated our lives. 

Before we left Russia, our knowledge of America came from the essentials of every Soviet Jew of the 1980s. We listened to shortwave radio tuned to the Voice of America. We played bootleg Bruce Springsteen records. We discussed Ronald Reagan’s visit to the USSR and his plea to Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to let the Jews emigrate. We read letters from relatives who had left years earlier, and we marveled at photos of their big cars and big houses. To us, America seemed expansive, full of hope, and replete with promise. 

Our arrival that summer unleashed an avalanche of first experiences. The can of Coke, the lights, and the pool were quickly supplanted in significance by the omnipresent smile Americans wore on their faces, whatever the situation; by supermarkets the size of a small town; and by choices we were free to make. We attended a synagogue for the first time in our lives. I majored in pre-med, a field that was closed to me as a Jew in Moscow. My grandfather discarded his lifetime white-collar career and his retirement to bag groceries alongside other gray-haired men. And my father spent his days in the trenches of a construction company and his evenings at a borrowed typewriter applying for jobs wherever he saw an opening.

By the end of August, my grandfather had earned enough money to buy a one-way ticket to Los Angeles, where the Russian-speaking community numbered in the thousands and he needed no English to build a new life. My father sent out 98 résumés, receiving 47 rejections and one invitation for an interview. When that interview led to a job offer, my parents packed their small Nissan Maxima and moved to Ohio. I stayed behind to finish college – and found myself on the verge of another memorable first.

In the Soviet Union, close-knit families prided themselves on living cheek by jowl and spending several days each week together. In Moscow, with my grandparents only a 10-minute walk away, we’d drop by each other’s apartments for a quick lunch of fried potatoes with meat, stock up on butter for both households when it appeared in stores, and spend summers together at our dacha, the quintessential summer house of a Muscovite. We didn’t expect our move to America would erode this closeness.

But it did.

After my parents drove away, the silence in the apartment made it real: I was alone for the very first time in my life. The opportunities and expanse of America put distance between me and my family. Instead of being closely entwined, like water molecules in a pool, we were dissipating like vapor particles. Yet while this separation was tinged with sadness, it also hinted at something else. In a gas, intermolecular bonds are weak, and molecules exert very little control over each other.

The last thing I remember from the summer of 1990 is that for the first time in my life I tasted independence. 

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