Category Archives: Uncategorized

The Things I Miss About Israel

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marrying-of-chani-kaufmanI made aliyah in 1999 at the age of 25 and lived in Jerusalem for a year, and then for two years in Tel Aviv, working as an English teacher in high schools. I returned to London in 2002 for a break, feeling very burnt out by the intensity of life that is Israel. I needed to recharge my batteries and make a decision about whether living in Israel was really for me. I ended up being offered my old teaching job back at a girls’ Catholic Convent school. I realised at the same time how much I missed the breadth and variety that London has to offer, and its solidity—which is no small thing, having just spent two years living through the second Intifada. Then I met my husband so my fate was decided. While I love Israel deeply and go back to visit nearly every year, there are still a few things I continue to miss about the country:

  • The smell of baked tarmac and hot, moist earth the minute you step off the plane
  • The fact that December 25th is just another ordinary, sunny day
  • The road signs that loom out of nowhere in the desert for places called Sodom and Lot
  • The brilliant, white curves of restored Bauhaus buildings against an azure sky in Tel Aviv
  • The fading, crumbling colonial gems that appear like ghosts flitting between modern blocks, down narrow forgotten streets in South Tel Aviv
  • The existence of Modern Hebrew everywhere—screaming billboards, shop signs, radio jingles, the language of the street and the courtroom, of commerce and of lovers, of politicians and mothers
  • Eating chunks of sweet, fleshy watermelon mixed with salty feta cheese at a café on the beach at midnight—my toes in the sand
  • The sultry scent of oleander, its waxy flowers adding another ingredient to the olfactory explosion that is a Tel Aviv summer night
  • The sweet relief of rain after the relentless barrage of summer
  • The old, wooden poles that support loops of ugly electric cable that hum at night in Neveh Tsedek
  • The screeching of stray cats pursuing their amorous adventures at the back of every apartment block
  • The bliss of stepping into the cool, quiet luxury of air-conditioning
  • The blinding, biblical sunlight that strips the world of colour at midday that can’t be found anywhere else
  • The ancient city of Jerusalem with all its secrets, curses and shadows
  • The modern bubble of Tel Aviv with all its vim and vigour and love of youth and hedonism
  • The quiet and peace that steals over both cities just before sundown on Friday
  • The old, moss covered sycamore trees that look like old men with beards that line Rotschild Boulevard and the fruit bats that live in their branches and haunt your peripheral vision with their silent swooping
  • The smell of hot pine resin and crushed pine needles from the little playground where I used to play as a child near my grandparents’ house
  • The knowledge that if England were to ever throw me out for being a ‘dirty Jew,’ I would always have a home

The Visiting Scribes series was produced by the Jewish Book Council‘s blog, The Prosen People.

The Jewish world is full of debates. Get the latest in MyJewishLearning’s weekly blogs newsletter.

Posted on April 11, 2014

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

Make Passover Cooking a Family Affair

let-my-children-cookFollowing the release of my newest cookbook, Let My Children Cook! A Passover Cookbook for Kids, people often ask me whether it’s REALLY possible to get the kids to be helpful in the kitchen with all the holiday food prep. The answer is: Yes!! While it may take longer to peel those potatoes or to whisk the eggs, it’s well worth it. Kids love to be helpful (though it may not always seem that way!) and little jobs keep them entertained during the pre-Passover hustle and bustle. Besides, they’ll always remember it as special quality time and will even learn along the way.

Over the years, my kids have spent many enjoyable hours in the kitchen with me. I find it’s all about expectations. I try to set out a certain amount of time we will spend together and try not to push it. Cooking with kids is wonderful but best if done in increments rather than a marathon of kitchen time. If there’s more to be done, I finish it myself after they’ve gone to bed. For the younger ones, I make sure to designate very specific, simple jobs. Once they finish, say, rolling out dough for cookies or chopping veggies for a salad, I make sure to thank them and let them know they’ve been very helpful. This has proven to have gone over well in my family, as my bigger kids are now great cooks. They truly love to prepare anything – but they do have a preference for desserts. (Who doesn’t?!) My son is excellent at braiding challah (not for Passover, of course) and baking apple crisps. Last year, my girls made delicious potato blintzes and Passover egg noodles.

Besides for keeping my kids involved, our time spent in the kitchen together also serves as bonding time. Everyone says they grow up too fast…and it’s true! Soon they’ll be busy with friends and other interests. I like to make cooking time an enjoyable activity for the family, even if it may take longer than doing on my own. Memories that will last a lifetime are being formed. We even have some funny stories involving a few kitchen flops that certainly won’t be forgotten. I once made a beautiful cake with my children and it slipped out of the pan right onto the counter. Of course, they were thrilled since they got to eat it right then and there.

So, I say, instead of dreading the hours of cooking and baking you are planning, embrace it. Get the kids some cute aprons, put on some music, enjoy the quality time. When you sense they’ve had enough, do some crafts together (that is why I included some crafts in Let My Children Cook!) and sit the kids down with some art supplies. The atmosphere will be pleasant and you will be able to check some things off that pre-Passover “to do” list while creating positive memories.

The Visiting Scribes series was produced by the Jewish Book Council‘s blog, The Prosen People.

The Jewish world is full of debates. Get the latest in MyJewishLearning’s weekly blogs newsletter.

Posted on April 11, 2014

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

A Glimpse into the English Charedi School System

eve-harrisThe school was on a residential street in North West London. From the outside it was unremarkable, but the atmosphere as I crossed the threshold for the first time for an interview to become an English teacher, was astonishing. The Catholic convent school I’d just left was a seething cauldron of energy and chaos. The noise of ringing school bells and yelling teenagers formed the backdrop to a relentless melodrama of flunked exams and teenage pregnancies. After twelve years teaching in the comprehensive system, I was burnt out.

The advert in the TLS described the school as a girls’ grammar, but I guessed from the Jewish name that it would be quite religious, so I was dressed appropriately – long skirt, long sleeves and a neckline high enough to cover my collarbone. I’m a secular Jew, but I had no inkling what I was letting myself in for. The school wasn’t just a bit religious; it was a Charedi school, the most theologically conservative stream of Orthodox Judaism. In the UK, they are known for their black sable ‘shtreimel’ hats and curled side-locks, and little else, since they are notoriously insular. According to Jewish Policy Research, there are currently 53,400 Charedi Jews in Britain, a group that is growing fast. Membership of Charedi synagogues has doubled since 1990, and they now account for three out of every four British Jewish births. Continue reading

Posted on April 10, 2014

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

Recipe: Moroccan-Style Gefilte Fish For Passover

let-my-children-cookI recently presented a cooking demo based on my new Passover kids’ cookbook Let My Children Cook, in Jerusalem. During the time the women and I had together we talked about some of the recipes (of course), watched some of them being made and baked right there, and tasted every one of them (was this in doubt?). I don’t know who had the better time – the ladies or myself. I really enjoy meeting new people this way and hearing their experiences, their feedback, and, of course, their own recipes.

After writing a number of cookbooks, you’d think I’ve heard it all when it comes to gefilte fish. Then, a participant speaks up and tells me her favorite version of what to do with an average gefilte fish roll – something I’d never even considered. So, if I am smart, I run and get a scrap of paper and write it down because these kinds of ideas are gold nuggets when it comes to creativity! Or, someone tells me that her grandmother from (name that country) used to tell her what her mother made for Passovers when she was a child, and I get introduced to yet another facet of Jewish history and food. Sometimes I think I ought to record my shows since I don’t always remember every single thing by the time I get home and that’s a shame, since every memory is precious.

I also find that with every demo, I learn something to help me in the kitchen. Whether it’s a good tip or a recipe, there’s always novel wisdom I gain from the participants. This demo was no exception.

I was in the middle of demonstrating and explaining how I came up with the unlikely “Moroccan-Style Gefilte Fish” recipe in my new cookbook. I was explaining the way I developed the recipe and what I’d done to get the taste just right. Then one participant asked me if I defrost the roll first. I explained that it is best to defrost for about a half hour, so the paper on the roll removes easily. Someone else chimed in explaining a very easy way to avoid the wait: Simply take the wrapped, frozen loaf out of the plastic. Unwrap the two ends, run it under a stream of water, and…voilà! The paper then slides right off. I just shaved half an hour off this recipe. What a great tip! I’m certainly going to remember that for next time.

Since I mentioned my new gefilte fish recipe and the wonderful time-saving tip I learned, I’d like to share the recipe with you:

Moroccan-Style Gefilte Fish

Okay, so maybe this one is messing around with two different customs of fish — “gefilte fish” is mostly Eastern European, and Moroccan-style is mostly, well, Sefardi, but it comes out so good that I just had to share it.

Pareve; Serves 10

Let’s get to it!

  • 1 frozen, ready-made gefilte fish roll
  • 1 cup tomato paste
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 1 tablespoon paprika
  • 1 teaspoon hot paprika (cayenne pepper)
  • 1 tablespoon garlic powder
  • 1 tablespoon onion powder
  • ¼ teaspoon ground ginger
  • 1 onion, diced
  • 1 carrot, peeled and cut into round slices

And here’s how you do it!

1.Preheat the oven to 375°F (190°C).
2. Line a loaf pan with parchment paper. Peel off the wrapper and parchment paper from the frozen fish loaf and place it in the lined loaf pan.
3. In a small bowl, mix together the tomato paste, olive oil and all the spices.
4. Smear this all over the fish loaf and add in any leftover tomato paste.
5. Place the cut onions and carrots all over the fish loaf and in any spaces you find in the pan.
6. Cover the loaf with the parchment paper and then again with a piece of foil. Seal the edges well.
7. Bake for 1½ hours. Remove from the oven and let cool; refrigerate until serving.

Serve sliced, with the cooked veggies on the side. Really delish and quite different, too! And the aroma it emits while baking in your oven makes the whole kitchen smell inviting and amazing.

The Visiting Scribes series was produced by the Jewish Book Council‘s blog, The Prosen People.

The Jewish world is full of debates. Get the latest in MyJewishLearning’s weekly blogs newsletter.

Posted on April 8, 2014

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

The Journey Back

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juliana-maioLittle did I know what I was getting myself into when one day I decided to delve back into my Jewish Egyptian roots. I was born in Egypt but expelled with my family during the 1956 Suez Canal Crisis when I was 3 years old. We moved to France but ended up immigrating to the United States when I was 17. My life had been too busy and chaotic to journey back into the past until one day I was struck by a sort of midlife crisis. It was not the passage of time nor the meaning of life that kept me awake at night, but rather the nagging need to discover the truth about my people’s roots. Who were those Jews living in Egypt? What were they doing there? And what went wrong? I did not want anecdotes. I wanted hard facts.

Soon I started hitting the history books, and while I knew that Jews had been living in Egypt since biblical times, I learned that the largest wave of immigration occurred in the mid-nineteenth century when the country underwent a massive modernization and the Suez Canal was built. Jews came from all over the Mediterranean basin, and that’s when my family came. I was so proud to discover the integral part Jews played in the building of the country. They were doctors, lawyers, bankers, legislators, athletes, and movie stars. They built the greatest department stores and hospitals. They helped draft the Egyptian Constitution and were advisors to the king. By the advent of World War II Egyptian Jews were on top of their game. They were thriving.

But the Jews were not thriving in a vacuum, they co-existed famously with the many other foreign minorities that had also come to settle in Egypt—Italians, French, Belgians, Armenians, Greeks, Syrians, Turks, and of course the English, who had colonized the country. My research grew exponentially as I became fascinated by this unique, cosmopolitan Levantine society, who built a city that mirrored Paris in the heart of Cairo with grand boulevards and exquisite gardens.

My research grew wider when the next natural step was to understand how the Egyptian people reacted to that onslaught of foreigners. I was delighted to learn how tolerant and accepting they had been—that is until World War II, when the English held the country with a tight grip for fear of losing the vitally strategic Suez Canal. Factions of all kinds began to seriously challenge the Brits, and it was with extraordinary interest that I learned about young, rebellious army officers like Sadat and Nasser, the emerging Muslim Brotherhood (which also started attacking Jews and spreading anti-Semitism), the young dashing King of Egypt, and all the various political groups of the day.

Factions are usually based on ideologies and soon I found myself immersed in researching huge, topics that are as relevant today as they were then: colonialism, Arab nationalism, fundamentalism, and Zionism. It was all new and fascinating to me, and I remember when I first read about Theodor Herzl and the birth of Zionism, jumping out of my desk chair and proclaiming, “I’m a Zionist!” And then the next day, taking it back, “Maybe not.” But the following day, I wavered again.

Learning about Egypt during the war led me to investigating what was happening in Palestine, in Iraq, in Syria. It was all connected, and it was all so profoundly interesting. I had discovered a secret treasure that had been buried for decades, and it’s no wonder I decided to write about it.

After 10 years of researching and writing, my midlife crisis is over. My hunger for the truth has been satiated—at least for now. I know there is so much more to learn. Stay tuned!

The Visiting Scribes series was produced by the Jewish Book Council‘s blog, The Prosen People.

The Jewish world is full of debates. Get the latest in MyJewishLearning’s weekly blogs newsletter.

Posted on April 7, 2014

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

International Transgender Day of Visibility: A Jewish Perspective

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s-bear-bergmanFor a while, just as Transgender Day of Remembrance was getting established as an observance, a competing movement emerged. That competing movement, well-intentioned but wrong-headed, had the following idea:

“Trans Day of Remembrance is a sad and depressing situation. We mope around mourning our murdered community members, and if that’s our only public observance it makes non-trans people think that transgender lives are only and ever nasty, brutish, and short. Instead, let’s take the day and make it celebratory! We’ll have a dance and a film screening and maybe a sexy party!”

Communities battled over this, and the source of the battle was people’s feeling that mourning and celebration were opposite to one another. With some time to reflect, I have been able to understand that this is a way that my Jewish values inform and infuse my understanding of the world so completely that sometimes it takes a while for me to notice why I don’t quite grasp some piece of mainstream, Christian-inflected, thinking.

Coming from a tradition in which the prayer we say for dead people mentions exactly nothing about death but has to be said every day for a year, and whose mourning rituals involve both profound self-abnegation and constant food and family, it’s no wonder I might be slow to understand. Jewish mourning is complex and communal; it invites us into a long contemplation of the dead person and their place in the world, now emptied. Continue reading

Posted on April 3, 2014

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

The One Thing You Should Do the Day Before You Die

bellThe Talmud says that on the day before we die, we should be sure to do “teshuva”—turning your awareness to God.

“How is that possible, since we don’t know what day we’ll die?” I asked Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, founder of the Jewish Renewal Movement.

He laughed. “That’s why we need to do teshuva every day.” He said this can be as simple as, while talking to a friend, watching T.V. or cooking dinner, turning your thoughts to God. “If I’m talking to my friend, there’s the divine in her, and if I remember that, I’m also paying attention to God.”

When you eat dinner, he said, think about how the food and drink come from God.

If you need a reminder, he suggested hanging a bell in your car, so when you hit a bump and it rings, you can say, “I’m aware of you, God,” or “Thank you, God, for a car that carries me where I need to go.” He’s had a bell in his own car for years. “If, God forbid, I should die in a car crash, my last thought would not be, Oh shit, but a prayer to God.”

You could also hang the bell in a doorway in your home, low enough so it rings when you pass. Or you can try other cues: each time you stop for a red light, let it remind you that God created light.

If you make this a habit, Reb Zalman told me, you’ll be sure to fulfill the commandment to do teshuva the day before you die.

As I stood up to leave, he reached in a box and gave me a small brass bell to hang on the rear view mirror of my car. Then, as was his habit, he broke into song: “The bell is ringing, for me and my God.”

All riiiiight.

The Visiting Scribes series was produced by the Jewish Book Council‘s blog, The Prosen People.

The Jewish world is full of debates. Get the latest in MyJewishLearning’s weekly blogs newsletter.

Posted on April 2, 2014

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

How the Rabbi Hooked Me

davidson-and-schachter-shalomiIn the spring of 2009, Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi spoke at the Boulder Book Store to a jammed and eager audience. I was sitting on the floor, so charmed by his singing and story telling that when I greeted him afterward, I impulsively said, “I’m between writing projects, so if there’s anything I could do to support your work, let me know.”

I did not expect to hear from him. We’d met in the 1970s, when I was revisiting the Jewish tradition I’d walked away from at seventeen. Reb Zalman, who turns 90 this year, had escaped the Nazis as a child, been ordained a Hasidic rabbi in Brooklyn, then began looking for wisdom outside his community. Breaking with the Orthodox, he founded the Jewish Renewal Movement to infuse Judaism with spirit and relevance, and encourage people to have a direct experience of God.

As a reporter, I’d often called him for a quote over the years—I could count on him to say something colorful or outrageous—but we’d never really come to know each other. So I was startled, after our meeting at the bookstore, when he called at eight the next morning. He said he wanted to have a series of talks with me about “what it feels like when you’re in the December of your years. What is the spiritual work of this time, and how do we prepare for the mystery? It could lead to an article or a book, I don’t know.”

I jumped at the chance to spend time with him. I’d long feared that death would be a complete annihilation while Reb Zalman felt certain that “something continues.” He said he didn’t want to convince me of anything. “What I want is to loosen your mind.”

For two years, we met every Friday morning, recording our sessions. From the beginning, he wandered so far from the stated topic that I began to lose hope that I’d ever find a way to shape and tame our interactions into a narrative. But we both looked forward to our talks, and despite his constant straying from the subject, there would always come an unexpected zing—a discovery, an insight, or a new thought that shone like a jewel.

In March of 2011, I rented a studio on the ocean in Hawaii for a month to determine: could I find a way to construct a book out of what seemed a sprawling mass? If not, it was time to move on. I went into total immersion, shutting off the phone, listening to the recordings and going over all my notes. By the third week, I realized I had a lion by the tail. A rare capture of Reb Zalman’s stories and memories, his earthy knowledge and dazzling flights.

An outline quickly emerged, and I wrote the first chapters in a few hours. The book moves forward on three tracks: our conversations, his life story, and my story during the years I spent with him. During that time I was nearly killed by a suicide bomb in Kabul, and Reb Zalman suffered a steep decline in health. We created strategies to deal with pain and memory loss and to cultivate fearlessness and joy—at any age.

Most important for me was the bond that grew between us. Every Friday, no matter how troubled or distracted we were when we sat down to talk, at some point a current of warmth and appreciation would move between us. We sang and laughed. We expressed our most vulnerable feelings and received from the other unconditional acceptance. At one such moment, Reb Zalman looked at me and smiled. “Who said that people only make love with their bodies?”

The Visiting Scribes series was produced by the Jewish Book Council‘s blog, The Prosen People.

The Jewish world is full of debates. Get the latest in MyJewishLearning’s weekly blogs newsletter.

Posted on March 27, 2014

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

Is History a Prison or a Home?

sliver-of-lightIn 1951 my family left the region in which they had lived since Nebuchadnezzar II took a bunch of Jews captive and brought them to Babylon in 587 BCE. My father was a toddler but my grandfather took part in the underground Zionist organization in Basra, Iraq that tried to convince people to leave their ancient homeland for another ancient homeland. It must have been difficult to convince a strong-rooted community to relocate to Israel/Palestine where Ashkenazim didn’t speak their language nor share their culture. The disturbances in 1941 scared many Jews into relocating. But two hundred deaths are not enough to account for a mass exodus of 125,000 people ten years after the incident.

Now, when I visit my Iraqi-Israeli family in a suburb of Tel Aviv, the memories of Mesopotamia are thin. Only aunt Frida’s pickled mangos, classical Arabic music, and foggy stories of a dead generation survived the twenty-three centuries between the Tigris and the Euphrates.

When I crossed the Tigris in 2009, I expected to cross back over in a few days. I posted on Facebook that “I was exploring my roots.” I felt jitters at the idea of being in Iraq: the place of my father’s birth; the cradle of civilization; the site of the war that I protested against in America. But my Facebook post was more metaphorical than real. I traveled to Kurdistan – a region untouched by the war – and my father was born in the opposite part of the country. Many Kurds don’t even speak my father’s native Arabic.

My first steps onto Iraqi soil were at night. I exited the taxi that took me over the border from Turkey into Iraqi Kurdistan into a hotel. The stairwell reeked of pickled mangos like aunt Frida’s dinner table.

A jovial hotel owner about my father’s age greeted my friends and I from the couch in the lobby. We sat down and chatted in English. Soon enough, he slapped my inner thigh – like only my father does – and told me his political opinions: George Bush was his hero for killing Saddam Hussein, and he admired the military might of Israel. What would have happened if Jews continued in Iraq for the last sixty years? We’ll never know.

Since Jews emigrated from Iraq, Syria, Yemen, and Morocco en masse, the only country in the Middle East with a sizeable Jews community (besides Israel) is Iran. That’s where I ended up because I took a hike beyond a waterfall located too near the Iranian border and ended up in Iranian prison under suspicion of espionage.

In Psalms the captives lament the detention of Nebuchadnezzar II and yearn for home. “By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept when we remembered Zion.” Fifty years later the Persians conquered Babylonia and the Persians freed some Jews to return to their homeland.

It took me twenty-six months to make it out of Persian prison, but my family doesn’t have a homeland. My family has lived in Iraq, Israel, and in various corners of America. Yet, I recently received a little clue, which I cling to as if it were my destiny. When I recently moved to Brooklyn, the apartment I moved into – I learned after renting it – had belonged to my great grandmother for several decades. I’ll take any clue I can get.

The Visiting Scribes series was produced by the Jewish Book Council‘s blog, The Prosen People.

The Jewish world is full of debates. Get the latest in MyJewishLearning’s weekly blogs newsletter.

Posted on March 25, 2014

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

Quotas: On Being Jewish in Pre-Revolutionary Russia and Soviet Russia

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I keep thinking about a scene from one of my favorite childhood novels, The Road Disappears Into the Distance by Alexandra Brushtein. The novel, set in pre-Revolutionary Russia, is about a young Jewish girl, Sashenka Yanovskaya. In the scene in question, nine-year-old Sashenka is sitting the entrance exams at the Institute for Young Ladies. Each girl is asked to read a short passage from a textbook and to diagram a simple sentence. Sashenka, who is waiting her turn, is relieved to find the questions so easy. One by one the girls are called to the front of the class, but not Sashenka. A recess is announced, at which point only seven girls remain. Each one is a Jew.

After the break, these girls – Sashenka included – are subjected to a rather different exam: complex passages from the classical works of literature, follow-up questions that test their knowledge of geography and history. The girls perform admirably; they’ve been prepared well. But Sashenka doesn’t understand why they are being singled out. Later, as she is leaving the Institute lobby, she is accosted by an acquaintance, a daughter of non-Jewish family friends. “None of you Yids will be admitted,” the girl says to her.

In this dramatic manner, the heroine of Alexandra Brushtein’s novel learns what it means to be a Jew in the Russia of 1894. I read Brushtein’s book, in 1986, almost a hundred years later. Growing up in the Soviet Russia, I had done my own share of learning, though it had been more gradual. Some name-calling out in the streets or in the classroom. Some hints of the troubles during the Stalin’s times. Most of all, though, it was my parents’ insistence that I had to study twice as hard as my peers, because I would be judged twice as strictly.

In pre-Revolutionary Russia, quotas for Jews were a law. But in the Soviet Russia they were more insidious. We were all supposed to be equal, weren’t we? All those nationalities. All those republics. Our songs celebrated the friendship of the people, and there was always some regional folk dancing on TV.

My parents knew better, of course. And so did my teachers. My sixth-grade literature teacher read to us The Road Disappears Into the Distance in short installments, whenever we had a bit of time left at the end of the class. She was a great teacher; she could make you fall in love with a book. But when I told her I wanted to be a writer – a journalist maybe? – she said no, it couldn’t be done. She was Jewish, like me and my parents, and she knew what she was talking about.

Colleges had quotas – that’s what it all came down to. Good colleges and mediocre colleges alike. A few were safe bets, like the Institute of Auto Industry or the Institute of Petrochemical Engineering. Some never accepted Jews at all. There was nothing official, no laws you could point toward. You had to rely on hearsay and common knowledge. A neighbor my father met while walking our dog said they never accepted Jews at the well-known institute where he worked. “They all have poor vision,” he said, by way of explanation.

In the summer of 1990, I was sitting the entrance exams at the Moscow Institute of Electronics and Mathematics. I’d studied hard. I’d had tutors. My lovely physics tutor used to point out all the Jewish physicists in my textbook. He was convinced I would succeed. But my math tutor, who actually taught at the Institute, said the outcome would depend on the Party directives they were about to receive. On the day of my physics exam, I sat in a large classroom and waited for my name to be called. More than a hundred years had passed since the events of The Road Disappears Into the Distance, and I wasn’t sure whether anything has changed at all.

The Visiting Scribes series was produced by the Jewish Book Council‘s blog, The Prosen People.

The Jewish world is full of debates. Get the latest in MyJewishLearning’s weekly blogs newsletter.

Posted on March 24, 2014

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

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