Get a taste of freedom
To all those who lived to see America,
In fond memory of all those who didn’t.
The train was sliding forward, softly and noiselessly. A train is one of those few places where you are mostly left alone, to sleep or meditate or lazily watch the changing stations and faces outside. You are usually too sleepy in the morning or too tired after work to interact, and the whole crowd around you is as sleepy or as tired as you are, strangely united by that slow synchronized motion, in that familiar state of dreamy hibernation. Nothing in life is as thought provoking as a New York City subway car.
“Mom, what is freedom?” The voice jerked me awake. Across from me, the big bold word in a poster stared me straight in the face. A warm fire was burning there, and in the foreground in front of it there were three sheets of matzah. “Get a Taste of Freedom!” said the thick letters. The matzot were small and round, and somehow brown-yellowish, very much like the ones my grandmother had baked.
Both March and April are cold months in the northwest of Russia, with chilling winds and sometimes snow. My grandparents would set the table together in their only room. They would pour the wine, and then Grandma would bring in the matzot, carefully covered. The fascinating story of redemption would be told in a very low voice, out of the neighbors’ earshot.
As we listened, the whole narrative came alive, every detail of it. Amazingly, what was being said about “the old times,” we saw unfolding daily, right before our eyes—here in Russia, in 1965. We knew exactly what the ancient Egyptians looked like: My cousin’s classmates who pushed him down the stairwell were “Egyptians.” Nick living next door who called my daddy a kike was definitely an Egyptian. And of course we knew only too well what the Pharaoh looked like: He was on the TV all the time.
Even after their escape from Egypt, Grandpa said, the Jewish people had to stay in the desert for 40 years—so that former slaves should die off completely—before they were ready for freedom.
“But why?” we wondered.
“Because slavery is a moral concept.” He slowly glanced around the room. “It doesn’t come just from the outside—it lives inside you. It destroys the soul, from within. Did you know that there were many slaves who wanted to stay?” Another glance around the table. Didn’t we know?
“If you have the soul of a slave, it will follow you wherever you go. If you want to be free, you have to stamp out the slave inside you. Slowly and painfully, bit by bit, this is how you become free. It takes years; it may take a lifetime, a whole generation. Or more.”
“But how did free people turn into slaves?” I remember asking.
“Of their own free will, of course. This is how you become a slave—by betraying your ideals, one by one, giving up your identity, religion, abandoning your culture, out of greed or fear. But nobody can make you a slave if you don’t want to be one, no matter what they do to you.”
Both my father and my uncle nodded and said nothing. Every morning they would get up early and go to work, but my cousin and I suddenly knew that all our fathers were doing was building pyramids. Behind closed doors, we would turn on the radio, very quietly, and the “Voice of America” would fill the small room with barely audible sounds. Not only did Freedom have a taste, parched-dry and bland; it also had a voice, no matter how muffled and indistinct. Here there were neither candles nor kipas, kosher food was something unheard of, and boundless freezing lands lay in every direction, snow gleaming in the moonlight.
But did you really need much? With a legacy so enormous, do you need much? Fifty centuries of history give you quite a perspective: Pharaohs come and go, empires emerge and collapse, and what remains is knowledge, wisdom, and an unbending spirit of freedom, handed down from generation to generation, no matter what. And a simple meal of flour and water, to remind you of self-respect and dignity, as plain and natural as freedom itself. Grandma had used a fork to perforate the matzot. Behind a locked door.
My cousin was a big boy and he was always the first to ask “those” questions. “Grandpa, do you think the Soviet Union will soon collapse?”
Dad flicks me a warning glance from his end of the table: If you ever ask that question aloud, anywhere … . No worry, Daddy. I know.
“We may not even live to see it,” Grandpa says hesitantly.
“But eventually—do you think it will?”
He is silent for a while, a tired old man, examining his empty wineglass, turning it over in his stiff fingers, probably wondering if we are old enough for all this. We are waiting.
“I give you my word.” He says finally.
The train was slowing down and the people began waking up, one by one. Faces of all shapes and colors, were smiling, blinking, yawning all around me. Weird smells and sounds of strange languages filled the hot air. I suddenly wanted to hug them all at once. It was time to stand up, though, so I glanced at the poster for the last time. “Get a Taste of Freedom!” it said. The matzot were small and round, exactly like my grandmother’s.
Helen Brook works as medical coordinator at a hospital in New York City; she lives in Staten Island with her husband and two grown sons. She has written an immigration-themed murder mystery, “Birthright,” and recently launched a project, “Wandering Stars,” to represent Jewish actors, musicians and vocalists who had to leave their countries of birth.
© 2012 HIAS. This story first appeared in “HIAS @ 130: 1+30, the Best of MyStory,” and is reprinted by permission. Please visit http://mystory.hias.org/en/pages/purchase-hias-book/ to purchase a copy of this book, which includes one poem and 30 stories written by Russian-speaking Jewish refugees who came to this country to start new lives in freedom.