In the famous Café Gijón, one of the oldest cafes of Madrid, I recently told a friend how much I am struggling to make it as an artist in Spain. When I present my portfolio I introduce myself as an American, in hopes of awakening some kind of interest. My friend looked at me quizzically. “Why don’t you say you are a Russian-American?” she asks. “It’ll sound a lot more interesting.”
But I have never called myself Russian – even though I grew up in Russia. When I left Moscow, the city of my birth, at 20, the country still carried the name and the map coordinates of the Soviet Union. I surrendered my red, Soviet passport at Sheremetyevo airport knowing I wouldn’t be allowed back. Along with my family I was immigrating to the United States as part of the second wave of Jewish immigration and under the rule of no-right-of-return. As far as I was concerned I didn’t need to come back. I was done with the USSR.
We left in 1989, several weeks before the fall of the Berlin Wall and a year after I first broached the subject of immigrating with my parents. At first they balked at the proposal, but, with the Perestroika-induced rise in Russia’s beloved tradition, antisemitism, they soon agreed.
My parents quit their two stable, engineering jobs; we left behind our apartment and everything we’d accumulated during our life in Moscow. We boarded the plane with two suitcases and $80 each. For my parents – much more sober than I was about the prospects of relocating to another culture, another language and another political system – the move was a gamble.
or me it was a dream. Not only was I leaving behind the constant stream of antisemitic slurs thrown either directly at me or printed in the Soviet press, but I was also discarding the notion that my future was tied to the engineering realm. In the USSR the profession of an engineer was the most accessible career path for Jews. There was no question in my parents’ minds that I’d follow suit – just like they did and their parents did before them. And even though I hated engineering, there was no question in my mind either. I knew there wasn’t much I could do about it.
On arrival to the United States I quickly learned that the sky was the limit. My US passport – unlike my former Soviet one – didn’t list my ethnic origin. It didn’t preclude me from entering professions deemed too dangerous to entrust to Jews. I went into a field that required me to travel abroad, a feat either never or rarely afforded to Jewish citizens in the USSR. No longer a Jew among a sea of Russians, I was now like everyone else. I was an American.