By Janna Kaplan
Janna Kaplan is a Research Scientist at Brandeis University. She studies human adaptation to space flight conditions such as weightlessness and hyper-gravity. A former refugee from Leningrad (currently St. Petersburg), Russia, she came to the United States in 1982. For the past nine years Janna has been one of the organizers and leaders of the Boston Project Kesher Global Women's Seder, a community seder for American and Russian immigrant Jewish women.
I really do feel, every Passover, that I personally came out of Egypt. It is as if Exodus, the ancient Hebrews' liberation from Egypt, is a vivid and unforgettable memory from my own past, and I feel it deeply. The haggadah teaches us that it is a mitzvah to identify with the generation of Exodus, and for me this mitzvah that is truly fulfilled.
My mitzrayim is Russia, the Former Soviet Union, where I was born and grew up, discovered my Jewishness, and entered womanhood. Yet, as I look back on my life in Russia - childhood, youth, adulthood - I am overwhelmed by memories of suffering. Suffering from anti-Semitism, from humiliation and the vulgarity of everyday life, from lack of joy. Being Jewish in Russia was not exactly slavery; yet it was an existence strictly controlled by the state. The intrusion of the state into all our personal and professional relationships was especially painful. Under pressure from the Soviet system, threatened with loss of a job or a benefit or with harm to a loved one, a friend would denounce a friend who wanted to learn of her Jewish roots; a relative would disavow a relative who wanted to emigrate. When I became a refusenik [i], so many of my Russian friends and colleagues broke off relations with me that I fell into profound isolation and deep emotional pain.
And yet, I loved Russia! The eternal beauty of my native Leningrad inspired me. I walked around the city for hours; especially during "white nights" in late June when the sun goes down to barely touch the horizon but never really sets. I enjoyed cold, snowy winters, golden autumns exploding with unbelievable colors, and early springs roaring with crashing noise when the violent waters of the Neva River break free from the ice.
I loved the powerful intensity of friendships so inherent in the Russian character. It was precisely because I treasured these friendships so much that losing them, as I eventually did, brought bitterness and a sense of void. I admired Russian literature and music, the arts, the language. I loved the Russian language passionately! It delighted me in every form - spoken, written, versed, sung. I enjoyed thinking in Russian, sharing with friends, composing poems, and reading poetry to myself, aloud or silently. When I immigrated to the United States from Russia at 27 years of age, I had to leave behind everyone and everything I loved. The loss of the living language was, perhaps, my most profound and irreparable loss. Even now, 20 years later, I still feel it.
It took me a long time and much effort to rebuild my life after I came to the United States. I was able to find personal happiness and professional success, to repair relationships, and to forgive friends who had betrayed me. What never healed was my bond with the Russian language. Speaking Russian evoked in me an almost visceral reaction of discomfort and stress. Beautiful though it is, the language fundamentally reflects the darkest depths of the Russian people's painful history as well as the oppressive nature of every government they had ever had.
Transplanted to a culture where a person's privacy, pursuit of happiness, human and civil rights are real and undeniable, speakers of Russian like myself discovered the frustrating limitations of our native tongue. In Russian grammar, for example, past and future tenses are somewhat undeveloped in comparison with many other languages, reflecting fear and ignorance both of history and of what is yet to come. We lived in the present; truth about the past was denied to us for fear that those who knew their history would become empowered to shape their future. Control was only possible in the present; the past could not be changed, and the dreams we had of the future knew no boundaries. And so it came to be - for me - that in Russia, locked in the present, life felt like a dead-end road. Out of Russia, through years of wandering, my exodus would be about building the future.
Aside from the grammar, Russian lacks the vocabulary to express deeply personal, intimate issues, like sexuality or privacy. To talk about sex, for example, only two possibilities exist: an obscene jargon whose vocabulary is authentically Russian, or proper literary language, which evolved around the usage of Latin roots with, in some instances, Russian suffixes and endings attached. In Latin-based languages, such words do not strike me as dissonant, or artificial. But in Russian, they sound alien and unbecoming intimacy.
English, even as a foreign language, helped me understand what was most precious in my new life, the personal, the intimate, the aspirations and values I struggled and sacrificed so much for. It gave me the voice and the words to express myself in the "desert" of my personal wanderings, and, as such, it was truly a blessing.
My separation from the Russian language was a long and agonizing process. Within months of my emigration I stopped writing poetry. Russian seemed inadequate, yet no other language could transmit the poetic emotion I felt better than my mother tongue. I avoided other Soviet refugees so that I would not have to speak Russian and thus distanced myself from the only community that could have helped me preserve my bond with the language. The language spoken by this refugee community quickly became invaded by English words and expressions, as a result losing much of its unique harmony and intrinsic melody. Even so distorted, their Russian was, for me, heavily loaded with associations of my life in the Soviet Union.
Five or six years into my life in America, I realized that I had begun to think and dream in English. That awareness gave me a sense of lightness, a liberating feeling that does not usually come easily to me. Like many Russians, I always had trouble relaxing. So contrary was this private state of inner tranquility to the Russian way of life, to the constant deficit of personal space and time, that here, too, the Russian language never developed a word, nor evolved the vocabulary, to describe conditions of mind and body which we here know as relaxation.
When I married a wonderful American Jewish man, he decided to learn Russian and I encouraged him with all my heart. Yet more often then not I would find excuses to avoid helping him in his study. I thought that when we had children, I would teach them Russian. On a rational level, I wanted them to know my native language. I also thought that if and when my parents left Russia and joined me, I would speak Russian with them, and they would help me teach it to my children. None of that happened. Although I would in time have children, and my parents would eventually leave Russia and come to live with me in America, the Russian language did not regain the place in my life that I hoped it would.
Interestingly, I never ceased to enjoy reading, watching movies, or listening to operas in Russian. My problem was with the spoken language and with writing, the most obvious means of self-expression. Using Russian began to feel forced and unnatural, as if something in my bond with it had broken irreparably. I did not forget the language; nor did I lose my fluency. The effect of this alienation was much more elusive: it was in the buildup of a subtle anxiety that seemed to hover in the background, causing constricting tensions somewhere deep within me. Where? I did not know. But I found out when my first child, my son, was born.
Nursing my baby, admiring and cuddling him, I was enjoying motherhood as I had never enjoyed anything else in my life. I felt that if for this alone - finding my beloved and having this child with him - all my sufferings were justified, for they had led me to these blessed moments of happiness. And yet, talking to my baby in Russian became a dreaded experience. I would feel the tension creeping inside of me. My son, with the unfailing intuition of an infant, would sense that anxiety and become restless, crying bitterly. Nursing became torture when I tried to speak to him in Russian. The tension within me would rise like a tidal wave, penetrating my whole being. I would feel painful constriction in my breasts, and my milk would stop flowing. I could not nurse in Russian! There, in my most female parts - in my nursing breasts - I was not free. I was still living in bondage.
A few months after the birth of my son, I gave up speaking Russian to him. When my daughter was born three years later, I never even started. Abandoning the effort altogether was like letting go of my mitzrayim: I finally left Egypt! Like the ancient Hebrews of Exodus, with mixed feelings but confident that I was doing the right thing, I left the country where I had a lifetime of experiences and memories, never to return, never to look back.
Two things connect the child to the mother. They cannot both work at the same time; one has to give way to the other. The umbilical cord to the mother culture was cut; the time had come to nurse. And I wonder, sometimes, in what tongue the Hebrew mothers nursed their babies in the desert. Did they sing to them in Egyptian? Or was it then that the Hebrew language became, in its divine beauty, the sustaining energy of my people Israel by freeing their women's milk to flow?
i. Refuseniks in the Soviet Union were Jews who declared their desire to emigrate to Israel but were denied permission to leave by the state. Consequently, they were treated as enemies and deprived of jobs, sources of livelihood, and basic human rights. Severe persecutions affected adults and children alike. Refuseniks created a vibrant underground Jewish culture in the Soviet Union in the late 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, which included an elaborate system of Jewish education, religious education and practices, arts, literature, music, and community life. Most of the refuseniks were finally given permissions to emigrate in the early 1990s.