My mother used to say to me, I cannot explain my love for you. When I still had you in my belly, my friend traveled south and brought back a kiwi, a small, prickly thing that was greener than everything I’d ever seen. Leningrad was beautiful but at the time everything seemed dull and gray. I felt guilty eating it, because I wanted all of it to go to you, every green vitamin and every green mineral and every piece of green magic that kiwi contained. I tried with all of my might to push it straight down to you, kicking, beating, stronger with every seed that I fed you, my little green angel, my darling, my dear.
My immigration story is not my own; it belongs to my mother and father. We left Russia for reasons that were neither new nor unusual. Anti-Semitism was institutionalized, so my mother, top of her class in Soviet Pioneer Camp (yes, it is what it sounds like), grade school, and medical school, was routinely scrutinized and passed over for work due to the part of her passport that said "Jewish" under nationality. In medical school, she was almost expelled for attending a Rosh Hashanah party. My parents knew that they - and I - would have a better life in America where progress was possible, where hard work was rewarded. In America, there were kiwis, four for a dollar, stacked in tall, gleaming pyramids.
When the refugee visa came through in 1991, we left Russia. My parents' medical training and certification was no longer valid in the United States, so they both needed to start over – medical boards, residency, the works. Neither spoke English, and spent nights poring over medical textbooks in an unfamiliar language. During the day, my father washed dishes. Like many new immigrants, we relied on the welfare system during the early years. Our first sign of success was a car, an enormously awkward burgundy Buick - shared by my parents, my aunt and uncle, and our grandparents. I went to school and learned English. We worked hard. Life improved.
My immigration story also belongs to the strangers that took us in. Our entire apartment was furnished by donations from the Jewish Federation, and my cousins and I were dressed in hand me downs from American families we were "matched" with through the Federation. Dolores Kleinberg sat with my grandparents and helped them learn a new language at the age of 65; and Dick and Mary Insel hosted us for Thanksgiving dinner every year, just the tip of the iceberg of their generosity and love. My family was welcomed into a community where they had no roots and no birthright. We did not make a new home entirely on our own; it was already waiting for us.
I often say that I can never imagine doing what my parents did. I say this not because they restarted their deeply rooted lives when they were in their mid-thirties, or because of the years they had to sacrifice in order to resurrect their medical careers. Rather, I cannot imagine doing what my parents did simply because I do not need to. I will never need to flee my home because of my religion, my ethnicity, or my oppressive government. My parents sacrificed so that I wouldn’t have to: they brought me to a land of kiwis and opportunity. In doing so, they passed their American dream on to me. I hope to make them proud.