Marya Zilberberg | Longreads | February 2019 | 16 minutes (3,886 words)
I don’t think my father ever took off his Star of David necklace from the day he put it on in the infancy of the Carter administration. It was always there, resting in a copse of chest hair, a silver target in the V of his open shirt collar. I never asked, when he was alive, what it meant to him, but I imagined he had started to wear it simply because he could, having just escaped more than four decades of oppression in the U.S.S.R., where he couldn’t. Or, perhaps, wouldn’t.
The necklace had first belonged to me; my parents bought it for me when I was 14, when we were in Rome awaiting our entry visas to the United States. I had only recently learned of such a thing and its significance when my mother’s cousin Zhenya came to visit us in Odessa from Moscow just before we emigrated in August 1976. I had never before met this cousin, and when I first saw her what jumped out at me was her weird hair, a brown helmet of large immobile waves with a dullness I’d associated with dolls. Thankfully I had by then acquired some tact and didn’t blurt out my first impression. Zhenya wore a necklace, a darkly patinated metal circle, smaller and thinner than a penny, about the size of the old Soviet kopek. Into it was etched a shiny six-pointed star. When I asked my dad what it was, he said, “A Magen David,” the shield of King David, a symbol of the Jewish people. Although his matter-of-factness surprised me, I didn’t press him, thinking I must be missing something.
By the time we were readying to leave, I had spent almost half my lifetime with the awareness of being a Jew, though with no clue as to its larger meaning. At 7, I took a ballroom dance class at the Palace of the Pioneers because my mother thought it might instill some grace into my otherwise clumsy build. At the end of the first lesson, our teacher lined us up against a bleached wall, boys in white shirts and brown pants sagging from their scrawny frames like laundry on a line, girls with pigtails tied in exuberant white bows the size of parachutes, all performing a silent ritual of respectful attention. She instructed us to bring to the next class information about our nationalities. When I asked my parents about it that evening over dinner, my dad, staring into his bowl of soup, said, “We are Jews.”
The Russian word for Jew, yevrei, had a harshness, a yielding v giving to an unforgiving rolled r. Even now when I try to say the word, my tongue sticks between those two letters, which, like warring tribes, don’t seem to enjoy their geographic proximity. This awkwardness echoes the Hebrew word for the language, ivrit, though in English the word transforms into an exhalation.
After some protestation that no, we couldn’t be Jews, were they sure there wasn’t some kind of a mistake, I settled into the knowledge that I belonged to a people whose complicated history need not concern me, since in no way did I externally suffer its consequences, just so long as I didn’t call attention to this detail of my demography. This was before my father was refused his Ph.D., even though his adviser deemed his thesis suitable to plagiarize. This was before I was called zhid (“kike”) by a classmate. This was before I had any inkling of the doors into my future, most of which would be bolted shut because of this fifth line in my passport.
Cousin Zhenya wore a necklace, a darkly patinated metal circle, smaller and thinner than a penny, about the size of the old Soviet kopek. Into it was etched a shiny six-pointed star.
Suddenly, on the eve of our great escape, cousin Zhenya’s brazen admission of our common albatross, her deliberate dare to the world, confused me. On the one hand, it signaled danger, something I had been taught to avoid with the same assiduousness the Soviet regime hunted down and extinguished dissenters. On the other, there was excitement in making a forbidden statement. I didn’t pretend to have this kind of courage, but I could see myself a covert rebel wearing the dissident star under my clothing, a safe metaphorical middle finger to the authorities. Besides, I had never owned any jewelry, and this piece appealed to my aesthetic and epistemic impulses.
During her visit, I took every opportunity to stare surreptitiously at my cousin’s creased neck, to run my eyes over the pendant’s peaks and valleys, its raised circumference, the smooth silver chain supporting its feather weight. I imagined how she might reach and carefully unclasp the chain — how, hands drawn together, she would extend it toward me in a giving gesture. After a nominal attempt to refuse, I would, with feigned reluctance, consent to have it fastened around my neck, hiding it demurely under my shirt. But she never parted with it, and leaving the motherland remained the only tangible symbol of my nationality, a symbol devoid of any sense of a gift.
The first stop in our westward drift was Vienna, where we had formally to declare our intention to go to the U.S. rather than Israel. From there, our journey took us through northern Italy on to Rome to await our entry documents. We traveled in herds in those days, refugees from behind the Iron Curtain, traversing our stations of the cross in orderly processions. It was near impossible to go unnoticed, but this kind of coordinated group motion, like sea anemones waving in the current, felt as comfortable as a May Day parade, even as it kept a bull’s-eye on our backs. Our flock numbered some 60 or so, families with children and the elderly in tow, each with at least one member who had survived the Bolshevik Revolution, the Shoah, the Gulag, maybe all three, and all survivors of the daily indignities inflicted on most citizens of the U.S.S.R., and especially so on its Jews.
The train tracks incised the Dolomite foothills that were littered with rubble and dotted with jagged stone exteriors eviscerated by the Friuli earthquake. The May earthquake had killed hundreds, injured thousands, rendered over 150,000 homeless, and left no one in the region unscarred. Though cranes and other construction equipment scattered on the wounded hillsides signaled a clean-up well underway, the destruction was fresh enough to look like the aftermath of a war. It must have reminded my parents of their return to Odessa in the fall of 1945, though those images would remain quarantined behind a wall of silence for many years to come.
I am not sure whether this is a bona fide memory or some convenient fabrication slipped into my synaptic clefts by the emotional context of the moment. My mind holds a picture of myself, as the train heaves down the tracks, standing in the narrow hallway outside our compartment, forehead glued to the window, watching a woman in a white blouse, black skirt billowing in the morning breeze, as she drops to dig through still-fresh wreckage with her bare hands, probably trying to recover family heirlooms collected over generations and so unceremoniously destroyed in a single petulant act of plate tectonics. She still has her earth, I whisper to myself, leaving a circle of steam on the glass. As it happens, the Russian word for dirt, planet Earth, and shorthand for homeland, is one and the same: zemlya.
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Some hours later, the familiar spruces of the north gave way to the exotic palm trees of the more temperate regions. As the air warmed up, our progress seemed to get slower, lazier, until the train grunted to a stop in a small village on the outskirts of Rome. After a brief period of routine sounds of a stop — floors creaking, feet shuffling, conductors shouting, smooth melodies of Italian speech — the voices and the steps rose in number and pitch, as though some invading army had mounted the cars and was now spreading through the length of the train to contain any potential escapees.
I can’t remember how we got word that all of our refugee comrades must disembark and make the rest of the journey on two buses, chartered for us by the Hebrew International Aid Society, and guarded by silent swarthy men with mustaches and impenetrable eyes, dressed in civilian clothes, wielding military weapons. It was a security precaution against credible threats directed at this undesirable caravan of refugees.
I still don’t have any idea whether there really was an actual contemporaneous threat. Much later I would learn of a similar train that had carried Soviet Jews from Bratislava to Vienna on the way to Israel in September 1973. It was attacked by “Eagles of the Palestinian Revolution,” the same group that would in 1981 claim responsibility for killing two and injuring 18 in Vienna’s Seitenstettengasse synagogue during a Bar Mitzvah service, the first synagogue my family and I had ever attended five years before, during our week in Vienna. Five hostages were hauled off that train, and threats were made if the Austrian government did not meet demands to stop the flow of the embattled refugees to Israel. Promises to stem and adjust achieved a rescue, and before flying from Vienna to Libya, the terrorists surrendered the Jews unharmed, at least physically. That, so far as I know, was the only successful act of violence against our stream of migrants. Maybe there were others that failed, and maybe they failed because of the swarthy men with guns, who, rumor had it, were La Cosa Nostra. I don’t know if this is true, but if they were, my relief that they were on our side on that day betrays a moral relativism I am loathe to admit.
When we finally arrived in Rome, the evening was heavy and humid, our skin and hair follicles saturated with the salty Mediterranean dusk. Through the methodical efforts of HIAS, we were settled in a hotel on Via Nazionale, between Piazza del Popolo and Piazza Venezia, the latter with its blinding white marble Monumento a Vittorio Emmanuele, also known as Altare della Patria, and once Mussolini’s favorite place for presiding over military parades. The street lights and traffic noises seeped into our room through the wooden shutters, and I tossed and turned that first night in a wary anticipation of a period of geographic stagnation, already an addict to perpetual motion in the shadows of displacement. In a few days, we would find an apartment in the poor part of Ostia Lido, where many of our brethren too would settle, while the gears of the bureaucratic machinery ground to secure our U.S. entry visas. We’d stay there for five months until the next leg would bring us to the mythical Promised Land, the United States of America.
In Ostia, I began to scour jewelry shops in search of a Magen David, a clone of cousin Zhenya’s. One drizzly November day, just ahead of my 14th birthday, my parents and I walked to a nearby store, the mist pricking our skin. There in the Judaica section, inside a vitrine, I spotted a sharp-angled silver star with the Hebrew word for one of the divine names shaddai in the center. It was as far from the kind roundness of Zhenya’s pendant as it could get, but I wanted it. I fastened it around my neck as my parents paid the clerk, and I fingered the raised Hebrew letters during our dozen-block walk home. That night I kept it clutched in my palm, digging its apices into my flesh while I drifted into fitful sleep.
I don’t recall exactly when I took it off after arriving in the U.S. Months into our stay, it became obvious that I was no longer a part of an embattled horde asserting itself to itself in the monolingual enclaves embedded into foreign neighborhoods. Here I was a more rare commodity, as unique as anyone, with the assumption of individuality. It didn’t take me long to discover that my extrasocietal sojourn had given me the space to hone my identity in any way I pleased. I did not need to step forward as the lone Soviet Jew, but, once conversant and accent-free, could instead blend, chameleon-like, into the fabric of the neighborhood and my peers.
We settled on the East Side of Providence, where, mixed in with Chinese and Mexican restaurants and a Kentucky Fried Chicken, there were two kosher grocery stores within two blocks, as well as a free-standing Judaica store, where I would in a few months purchase my first and only set of Shabbat candlesticks. We still use them every once in a while, when the spirit or our visiting rabbi friend moves us to light candles on a Friday night. These Jews were nothing like the Jews of Odessa, or the Jews of my communal transmigration. These American Jews were affluent, confident, even entitled, and blended in to a degree that made them hard to tell apart from their non-Jewish neighbors, even though they didn’t feel the need to hide. They were living without any visible threat, celebrating openly, brazenly. It was as though my learned vigilance could be put to bed, leaving behind a sort of somnambular placidity. But how do you convince the body that danger has passed? My little star began to seem superfluous, and it felt off-putting to insist on wearing this jarring reminder of my heritage. It had simply lost its subversive value, I told myself. And so my dad adopted the silver weight of its significance, displaying an exhibitionist streak I had been unaware of. It would brand him every day for the next 35 years.
As for cousin Zhenya, during the later days of the Reagan administration, she and her family had joined the ranks of Moscow’s refuseniks, who, like stars you see when you look above city lights, were rare, bright, and sometimes extinct by the time their light reached your eyes. It was then I learned that her funny hair was a wig, following a dictate of Orthodox Judaism for a wife to cover her head with something other than her own hair. I also learned that my parents, living in Massachusetts at this point, were in contact with Senator Ted Kennedy, who was helping negotiate our cousin’s family’s release from the U.S.S.R. In time this effort would land them in Israel, where they live still.
Many decades of busyness have passed since those days, eras of my life stacking like bricks in a new construction. High school, college, medical school, career, marriage, children, all linear trappings of the American dream linking into one coherent chain, the only oddity this transmutation, the residue of something fleeting, something existing only in the curves of my faulty memory. In retrospect, all the pieces blend into a single context; nothing seems like it doesn’t belong, even if at first some parts refuse to meld. But have you noticed how few stories are told of this experience, of this specific slice of the history of my people? Remembering has its price, reckoning its toll. The body has its own muscle memory not subject to the mind’s insistence to ignore. It is fitting that the Russian word for time features the same unavoidable transition from the innocuous v to the intransigent r. In this way vremya is a peculiar onomatopoeia, a sound of life’s shifts in valence.
After my father died in 2010, halfway through Obama’s first term, when my mother was cleaning out their house before moving, she found the sharp star. It too looked darkly patinated now, a tiny tarnished shuriken splayed atop its stiffly snaked silver chain.
“Can I have it?” The words escaped before I had even considered them.
“Here.” She handed it to me and continued puttering.
I brought it home, but didn’t wear it. Having elected our first black president, we had, after all, entered the end of history, the liberal utopia that was here to stay. So displaying my ethnicity still seemed unnecessary. But time is a cunning antidote to complacency.
In the weeks following the rancor of the 2016 presidential election and my piercing realization that the model of the world I had constructed had been an illusion, my then 19-year-old son’s friend L showed up at our house sporting an oversized silver Star of David on a long chain that reached down almost to his belly button. He wore it over his T-shirt, as though unaware of the mounting tensions, or, perhaps, in defiance of them. This made me nervous in that way I hadn’t felt in 40 years — in the awkwardness of yevrei applied to me for the first time, in the heavy footfalls of the men on the train, in the constant, if at times quiescent, awareness of the tenuousness of my position, in the cold clammy claw of not knowing for sure what kinds of violence this brazen in-your-faceness might evoke.
I think my dad had it right, wearing his ethnicity in public: The time to do it is before it’s too late. Just as abandoning civic involvement is an invitation to kill democracy, so hiding yourself under your sweatshirt is acquiescence to oppression.
In those weeks, I continued to stare at my dad’s necklace while brushing my teeth, leaving it alone in the darkness of the bathroom when finished. It wasn’t until after the chaos and bluster following the inauguration in January 2017 that the symbol of the Magen David snagged me again. After months of dog whistles from the highest echelons of American politics, after spray-painted swastikas had again begun to appear on walls and doorways around the U.S., after repeated bomb threats to Hebrew schools and Jewish Community Centers, after the deafening silence from the new president about these acts, the necklace looked reproachful. My habitual assimilationist tendencies had concealed a nagging fear of exactly this, this latent violent distaste for the Jews, this primal manifestation of aggression masquerading as justified self-defense. Inside my chameleonic facade hid an ostrich, its head buried in the darkness of crumbled rock. The deep layers of hiding were becoming obvious and irreconcilable with my vision of myself. I wasn’t a covert rebel flipping off the authorities. I was just a coward, afraid to assert myself when the attendant risk was anything above zero.
And then, on Holocaust Remembrance Day 2017, the president of the United States of America announced the Muslim ban. To sweeten the deal for his base, in his commemorative speech he also erased the blood-soaked Jewish tragedy from the catalogue of Nazi atrocities. It was an “All Lives Matter” moment, a deflection so egregious that my ostrich head sprung out of the sand, freeing me to see with clarity and resolution. I clicked the clasp of the chain bearing my father’s Magen David on the back of my neck, and walked out into the world, conscious of the message I was sending.
I have worn it nearly daily since, mostly under my clothes. In the tumultuous run-up to the midterm elections of 2018, a troika of unhinged extremists once again tilted the world out of balance. There were murders at a Kroger’s supermarket in Kentucky, and pipe bombs sent to select public figures on the president’s “enemies” list. And in a climax of horrific lunacy, during the Shabbat service at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, eleven fathers, mothers, sons, and sisters were transformed into torn bloody flesh, arms spread in a welcoming gesture. Each event was a culmination of all the isms and phobias abetted by the “good people on both sides” rhetoric fusillading from the White House. It had all leapt into familiar focus once again, this institutional racism, this ever-present danger, this Jewish birthright of constant vigilance and wondering whether it’s time to pack.
And something in the depths of my viscera shook and ruptured, the circumspect observer finally lanced by the razor’s edge of her inaction. “Never again,” reverberated through me like my own Friuli quake, powerful enough to splinter the foundations of my fear and to split my chameleon skin.
This nation and its people who strung together the steps for our exodus, from cornering the U.S.S.R. into cracking the Iron Curtain open for us and shaming them into releasing families like cousin Zhenya’s, to safeguarding our passage through the, at times, treacherous transit across Europe, to settling us here to plot our vaunted American vision. It is this open society that has upheld freedom of movement as one of the fundamental human rights. If I leave now, if I abandon my power as a citizen to shape this nation’s moral future, how many others will forever lose the benefit of United States’s authority in the world, a key counterweight to the current march of despotic regimes across the globe? How many others within our borders in even graver danger than the Jews will be left without an ally in the fight? Leaving would be a capitulation, a quiet go-ahead to the very elements that require a decisive rout.
I wonder if my dad ever lost the fear I was never really able to shake since my childhood in the Soviet Union. He had survived the war, Stalin’s purges, and the ensuing banal cruelties of the Khrushchev and Breznev regimes, cruelties at once more professionalized and more mundane than our nascent experience in the U.S. Though it has ebbed over my decades here, fear now stalks me anew in this land of the free. But I think my dad had it right, wearing his ethnicity in public: The time to do it is before it’s too late. Just as abandoning civic involvement is an invitation to kill democracy, so hiding yourself under your sweatshirt is acquiescence to oppression. I also recall cousin Zhenya, the one who insisted on wearing the traditional wig and that kopek-sized pendant despite the dangers to Jews in a state where gleeful cruelty had ossified into institutional policy. She did it not because she could, but because she had to, because not doing so would have meant tacit agreement, even complicity. In this way, she became the hope she needed to see, a reminder that courage is what’s required in the face of fear, not in its absence.
In real time, it’s hard to know where you are on the continuum of “there’s still time” to “it’s too late.” We are living an historical cataclysm, an inflection point, that harsh zone in-between, where things could still go either way, turning back toward the optimism that is the idea of America, or careening toward tyranny and chaos glimpsed in the convulsive mass shootings, in the rise of domestic terrorism, and in an increasingly autocratic presidency that daily cleaves a deepening chasm between citizens, and turns its backside to democratic ideals. I’d like to think there is still time.
Like my son’s friend L, I now pull the Magen David from under my shirt when I dress, despite my apprehensions, or rather because of them. The star’s wrought corners remind me that history always stutters before smoothing out, and that the freedom to be ourselves is not an immutable law of physics, but a value that requires work and commitment to uphold, now more than ever before within my lifetime.
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Marya Zilberberg came to the U.S. as a teen from what was then the Soviet Union. She is a physician-health services researcher who lives and works in Western Massachusetts. Her work has appeared in Tablet Magazine, Cleaver Magazine, and Meat for Tea: The Valley Review, among others.
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