The Pilgrim of Bela


“Do you think in English, mum?


“I can’t imagine I ever will.”

I went to the JCC camp. One day they asked us, if I understood correctly, to draw the most beautiful things we had ever seen in our lives on two paper plates, which they would then fill with dried beans and staple together. I drew the tricolor swirl of Aquafresh toothpaste just squeezed over the two. I couldn’t get over it. Advisors mocking me “love the Sprite can.” I remember this term as if it were a trope, when in reality it comes from a story told by a preppy girl in my high school who had a nervous breakdown following a “social service” trip to the South, she was so shaken by misery. The Scene: The “Explorer” comes to the spiritually bludgeoned native people to find that in their wicked little hut, among their few possessions, is a crushed and rusty Sprite and they pray to it. “The horror!” As if you don’t love the Sprite, you can yourself, with amazing results!

Around September, the grape leaves growing on the fence in the parking lot behind our apartment were ready to be harvested. We marinated them and made dolma for Jean and Jay. They probably wouldn’t have liked to know that their dinner had grown behind the dumpster. Today they call this kind of thing “wild crafting”.

Instead of leaving
our mall shtetls send their children to public school, we received the gift of two years of schooling at HANI, the Hebrew Academy of Northwest Indiana. None of the wealthy Jews we know sent their children there. It was across the state line; getting to school took two hours.

HANI was K-8, with 100 students. It was set up in an old TV station with two giant satellite dishes in the back instead of a playground. Every day we had Hebrew lessons with an Israeli named Ms. Hanukah, tough and bossy, which I found comforting. In the Soviet kindergarten, our teachers spanked us when we couldn’t fall asleep during siesta, we were yelled at because we didn’t have the motor skills to embroider the Kremlin. They were preparing us for the real school, which was going to be much stricter. Here, other than in Mrs. Hanukah’s class, all we did was eat animal crackers and roll around.

Why were we not belittled and disciplined? When will I have the chance to show my patriotism? I would cut little strips of my clothes, pieces of my hair, draw on my arms and legs, and walk out of class sobbing for no articulate reason. Nobody stopped me.

Sometime in October, our first-grade teacher, Mrs. Seaver, showed us a made-for-TV movie called Molly’s Pilgrim. In the opening scene, eight-year-old Masha, inexplicably “Molly,” a Soviet Jewish immigrant, lingers, watching a group of American girls play jump rope. The most popular catches her peeking. “What are you looking at, BIG NOSE?” Their teacher distributes wooden clothespins, from which the children are invited to create little pilgrims. Like, for Thanksgiving. Idiot Masha/Molly dresses her people up as Russian peasants, which is mainly the fault of her idiot mom, who tells her that “vee ar pilgreemz in zis kantry, vee also kame khere too bee free”. So the clothespin serfs are actually meant to be them, Masha and Mama: real-life, modern-day pilgrims. The kids at school find this reasoning stupid as hell. But then the teacher, who also thinks at first that Masha is stupid as hell, suddenly realizes something: “No, children, Molly is right. It’s a pilgrim!

Mrs. Seaver said we should put on a play of Molly’s Pilgrim. We were constantly putting on plays and competitions. Melissa, the richest and most popular girl in our class wanted to play the role of Masha/Molly. Fine. I would take the supporting role. “What are you looking at, BIG NOSE?” I taunted Melissa. Have we been experienced?

What American Jews failed to understand was that for Soviet Jews, the daily coping mechanism for dealing with pervasive but random institutional and interpersonal anti-Semitism was normalization. This was likened to an emotional strategy: not drawing attention to their experiences of oppression or discrimination, but diminishing them as much as they could; never inflate them into “traumas,” let alone redemptive story arcs.

It was a pride to remain steadfast, perhaps the last glimmer of a kind of faith in the equality promised by communism. My parents, who came of age during perestroika, were idealistic internationalists. They didn’t want to be Jewish, Soviet, Russian or Azerbaijani; they didn’t care about anything that tied them to an identity, a narrative, or some other constraint on their thinking or their place in the world. For them, being “Jewish” was just a ticket to freedom – they wanted out of this story!

” What a story ? my father will say. “There was no story. It’s shit. We never thought of all that. We were just living. And shakes his head in disgust at my childish, American need to come to a gratifying conclusion.

I didn’t invent this stuff, though. These misunderstandings had an important purpose. Sociologists point out that “the narrative of anti-Semitism that portrayed the immigrant past in terms of suffering and humiliation. . . entrusted the host society with the role of liberator [toward whom] the immigrant was expected to be grateful and docile” (Rapaport, Lomsky-Feder, Heider 2002).

On Halloween recently, mom dressed up as a peasant girl, just like the clothespins. She had bought the costume on Amazon. “Mom, what are you?” I asked him. “Ukrainian Anti-Semite”.


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