Dear guests, students, faculty and lovers of literature and history.
Tonight is a culmination of an idea born of a long-repressed desire to confront the mouthful of my identity: Soviet, Jewish, American. And when I say confront, I mean in the way of a train wreck-- publicly and graphically.
Those of you who follow the news may have heard that recently the Jewish people have fled the land of Egypt and found freedom. Again. After thousands of years we know the drill: dress quickly, pack lightly, and smear the neighbors’ doors with lamb’s blood on the way out.
I also remember a different exodus. A much smaller tribe of eight Jews boarded a one-way train from Odessa headed for a one way plane to New York. Instead of unleavened bread, we carried smoked chickens and other refugee essentials likematryoshkas, the Russian nesting dolls, and contraband wooden spoons brightly painted traditional Ukrainian ornament. For emergencies bribes. To ward off the angel of Death, my father signed an oath not to disclose whatever military secrets he may have been privy to while working as an engineer at a transistor factory. It was 1990. Poor American scientists in Silicon Valley must have been long deprived of the memory of what a transistor looked like. But my father would have signed anything to get on that plane so his daughters would be spared the plague of bureaucratic stupidity. As we plotted immigrant plans, our futures shimmered with the promise of redemption and good dental coverage. We were never meant to look back to the scorched tarmac on the wrong side of the parted ocean. But my father was wrong. Twenty some years since, I find myself obsessively retracing that journey. Nor am I am alone in wanting to understand what happened to our generation who, despite receiving countless boons from the Free World, still struggle to define that freedom. To assess what it had really cost us.
It may be too early to tell the full account of the Soviet Jews. Today, there is hardly any serious scholarship on this subject. Who would tell this story? The American Jewry has yet to move passed the legend of Refuseniks to notice the other 700,000 who did not list Gulag on their resume. The Soviet Jews themselves have been too busy conquering the Ivy League and staking out prime real estate of coastal United States. The high-tech startups leave no time for trips to the Vilna archives and tours of Babi Yar cannot rival yachting getaways in the Gulf of Thailand.
Who will tell this story but the very few who’ve found the will and the courage to dig in the unsorted, unsavory past? And who but the artists among us have the voice to transcend the ivory tower and reach the ordinary folks on the F train morning commute. I believe that time has come and that those computer programmers, stock traders and biochemists are beginning to ask the same question as I am: what is the story of my people?
For beginning to write the haggadah of my exodus, I am deeply grateful to David Bezmozgis who came to America from Latvia at the age of six but whose books read as an eye-witness testimony. David’s work is a painstaking reconstruction of a complex past and in my view among the first real attempts to present its heritage in its ripe fullness. The stories of Natasha and The Free World belong to a first generation of world-class Russian Jewish American storytelling. Devoid of cheap sentiment and moral hang-ups, they aim to grasp at the hyphenated and deeply nuanced reality of Soviet Jews in their many diasporas. As we listen and engage with these stories, I hope to reclaim a bit of our selves scattered along the long journey into the Free World.Ira Krakhman BGI Fellow, (MA/MA) Hornstein Jewish Professional Leadership Program