The following guest-essay by Lev Lakritz was originally published in Russian-Jewish Samizdat, and is reproduced here with the author’s kind permission.
Road Rage: Ode to Madness for Politically Incorrect Russian-Jewish Choir
by Lev Lakritz
We are back where we started, getting used to the idea of hitting the road again. We google the earth, check our suitcases’ zippers, locate the steel needle and whatever is left of the thread.
We thought we were done with the road when we landed at JFK during the Carter presidency. We carried all our worldly possessions in two suitcases per person, filled with such necessities as a volume of Pushkin poetry, a rubber enema, a needle and two spools, one black, one white, to cover all our sartorial emergencies. After thirty years, the indestructible Soviet sewing thread is still our first choice for mending a rip, the excellence of this planned-economy product as much an accident as the twice-a-day accuracy of a broken clock.
Back in Carter’s America, we were thousands upon thousands of émigré Soviet Jews exhaling a collective sigh of relief: we were finally in a place where we not only could live in peace but also die of old age — both in the same country!
Of course, we were blind. As blind and irrational as we had always been. Imagine a picture right after Germany and the Soviet Union divided Poland. The half of us running from Russian into German land jeering at the other half of us who were running from Nazi territory into the USSR. Two currents of fools scurrying on the same bridge in opposite directions, everyone with the same fervent prayer: dear God, let us escape this evil place. Which one? If I were God, I’d be confused, too.
In Carter’s America, we were unaware of the sorry state of the economy, inflation, and unemployment. We were undaunted. We rose. We always rise (unless we’re killed and burned first). We rose, no matter the economy, the language, the distance of our generation from the shtetl or the Holocaust. We rose. We relaxed. We began to believe that the road was the thing of the past. A road became a means of getting from New Jersey to Wall Street or from Los Angeles to Silicon Valley. We were here to stay. No more prayers to God. We had confused him with our previous requests anyway. He needed a break.
We had it so good that we couldn’t spot the looming danger. We were as blind as we had always been. But it was right there, in our homes, packaged in the perfect skin of our children, their inquisitive eyes, their precociousness. We attributed their early intelligence to our affection and diligence. We were deluded into thinking that reading Russian books to them made an iota of difference, that our children would suffer irreparable damage if we didn’t teach them chess, give them piano and violin lessons, that they would sue us for negligence if we didn’t cram their day until it bursts at the seams. We were fools. As always, we were blind fools.
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We moved to suburbs or to other states, boroughs, districts, streets, villages, and mountain tops in pursuit of the best schools. We thought it was the school that made a difference. We were fools. Teachers simply sat and waited for great students to gather around, so we obliged by moving our kids.
The school did make a difference, but not in the way we had expected. It wasn’t the absence of drugs (absence? really?). Our kids didn’t often succumb to them, anyway. It was not the overwhelming amount of homework. No — it was something old that was new again; that was why we didn’t recognize it right away.
When our kids came back from their first semester at the better American colleges and universities, we began to get suspicious but not alarmed. Kids were kids. Surely, they were just trying to fit in, to repeat the nonsense they heard without processing it on the higher level. They were uncritical in believing that it would do us good to have our jobs outsourced to India, Russia, and China. It certainly would do someone good, but not us. They were too young to discern a connection between the lack of part-time jobs in the town around campus and the presence of their beloved migrants (God forbid, we forgot that we were in our own homes and called them illegal aliens instead). Our children had become our bullies, empathetic to everyone except us. But they were just trying to fit in. It would pass.
We waited until the next semester break.
And when the next semester break rolled around, we got it: our kids weren’t trying to fit in. They were the ones with whom the other kids were trying to fit in. Wasn’t life grand! We should have been proud, except we were not. There was nothing to be proud of. We felt guilty for missing the early clues. We were horrified: our kids had become our enemies because they had become the enemies of their future kids, our grandkids. This was the time when the notion of loving thy enemies came in handy. We needed to keep repeating the words to ourselves when we saw our kids. How so?
While we had been reading to them about Ivanushkas, while we had been praising them for standing their ground in their arguments with us, while we had been encouraging them to read The New York Times, we had been oblivious to the possibility that malignant ideas could infect them. Could indoctrination even exist in a capitalist society? We had expected bubbles and bursts. We had been prepared for those. But who would’ve thought that ideas that had suffered fiascos replete with human sacrifice on an industrial scale in every single place they were tried could still be around? While we had been living the good life, expecting our kids and grandkids to live the good life, the seeds of the next disaster were being sowed in whitewashed classrooms.
We were guilty of dropping our defenses, for expecting only the material good and bad, for expecting either to have or to have not. Of all people, we should have known better. Our kids are repeating the story of the first Soviet generation of Jews, the first generation that went to public schools en masse, the first generation to be molded in the image of the educational committee that couldn’t care less about what family wanted their kids to believe in. That generation, too, was taught that all people were created equal. They, too, were taught that the notion of charity starting at home was passé. They, too, were taught that fairness was justice. They, too, were taught to yearn for all the workers to unite, for the international solidarity to trump ethnic and familial ties1, 2. For cooks to govern and for cows to fly.
The first Soviet Jews bought it. When duty called, they even informed on their parents; they made fun of their parents’ backwardness, their parents’ benighted beliefs in keeping the fruits of their labor for themselves, in loving their kin more than strangers, in loving the friends and neighbors they had more than humanity at large. They wanted fairness for the little people, who were, remarkably, never themselves but always someone else, someplace else, someone worse off, the more remote and unseen the better.
They wanted to lift up the downtrodden. After all, had they not been the downtrodden themselves just several years before? Had they not been able to rise up in the world through education and opportunities? If they could do it, everyone could. If they could become doctors, scientists, teachers, and engineers — everyone could do the same. Just give others a little push, a little opportunity, a little start.
All people are fools, but even in their foolishness, people vary. Ours is a peculiar kind of madness: we think everyone is smart or could be made so. God is having a good laugh at our expense. “Look at these fools. I chose them and groomed them with a purpose in mind. I even told them so. Yet, they go around, thinking they can outsmart me, that they can be God, that they can make other peoples into what they are not. Fools. Only I can do that.”
The first generation of Soviet Jews — the tiniest of minorities in the country — advanced to become a sizeable group, if not the majority, in science, government, and art. If only they could help — remember the word “help,” we’ll need it later — those worse off, if only they could pull up the peasant ethnicities (who happened to be the majority of the population). If only they could! How they rejoiced at the numbers of other peoples they had been able to promote each month, each year. How delighted they were by their own good deeds, by being magnanimous, by sharing their good fortune. The fools. The blind fools. Numbers don’t make a country function. Numbers don’t teach and heal. Numbers don’t fly and land airplanes. Numbers don’t maintain nuclear plants. People do. People who have learned to win at their own game.
Even fools differ by their abilities. Even the educated fools differ. If one fool jumps over a ravine and lands on the other side, a second fool jumping over the same ravine may land down or across. Little children know this much. They know this much before they get educated in school. That’s why they test their prowess, learn their limitations. If a kid lands in the ditch more often than not, he’ll search out different kinds of games. Games he can win. And he must keep searching until he finds such a game. If he can’t spit gum as far as his friend, maybe he can read more words in a minute. If he can’t carry a tune the way his friend can, maybe he can catch more fish.
Little children know this much: you don’t pull your rival by his shirt-sleeve out of the ditch and pretend he’d done it all himself. You don’t patronize your competition. You let them win or lose honestly. It makes everyone feel as having had an equal chance. But that’s not what the first Soviet generation of Jews did: they had pulled so many of the downtrodden out of the ditch, the landing became overcrowded. Someone had to go. Guess who? We’re sure you’ll get an A for answering this question. The Jews were no longer necessary. The majority could now pull their own by the shirt-sleeve. Jewish help was no longer needed. The first generation was excused. Dismissed from the landing. Cast out.
And so it dawned on the Soviet Jews, after their fall: maybe there was some truth to blood being thicker than water, to one’s own shirt being closer to one’s own skin. They’d finally caught on to their arrogant foolishness, but the deed had been done. Or rather, they had become undone. By their own hands, no less. Their helping hands.
They were no longer the magnanimous majority in governing bodies — they had become pariahs in their own country. Lucky pariahs, because the unlucky ones hadn’t survived the pogroms — oh, pardon us: they were called purges that time around. The names change as victims multiply: pogroms, purges, GULAGs, gas chambers, ___. Fill in the blank for the next one.
You’ll say, wait a minute, how are all these killing fields related except that they are expressions of boring old wars or anti-Semitism. We say, look closely and you shall find: they were all done in the spirit of mending the world. The old way of doing it had included such outdated notions as working harder and thinking smarter, finding a niche for oneself, being charitable to your neighbors and friends. The new way scrapped those old notions: no, you can mend the world by simply shifting peoples around, elevating some, pushing some down, some of them down below. The new way wrapped displacement, dispossession, replacement, and run-of-the-mill annihilation in the tinsel of fairness, so the sheep wouldn’t think they were led to the slaughterhouse but to better tomorrow. Better tomorrow for whom?
So, finally the arrogant fools, the first generation of the Soviet Jews — let’s call them our parents — comprehended how much they’d screwed up. When we appeared on the scene, they, having finally grown wiser, primed us so well against propaganda, that no amount of whitewashing could breach our defenses. And this was how it came to pass that our generation was spared the idiocy of the brotherhood of man. We were inoculated. We were healthy in our cynicism, we were immune to all things Soviet, we were sure that nothing good would or could ever come from a socialist state. We had benefited from our parents’ misdeeds and mistakes.
The most destructive piece of paper the Soviet economy had ever produced — at the time when it couldn’t even produce enough toilet paper to scratch our sorry asses — was the paper our exit visas were printed on. We weren’t needed anymore. Or so the titled majority thought. We decided that it was foolish to enlighten them this time. We didn’t tell them who worked behind the scenes, behind the figureheads, who actually managed factories and industries, wrote songs and performed them, taught in schools and operated on their children, maneuvering around their stupid five-year plans, the decrees and demands that came down from the top. No, for once we played dumb and left. They only caught on to what had happened when the country began to fall apart in earnest: they had numbers ruling and managing them.
We escaped to America where everything was possible. Where we were allowed to love ourselves more than other people without mortally offending them. And for that, we were grateful. And for that we loved the people we met in America, for our freedom to love them or not.
We were in Paradise. The snake was nearby, of course, but we were oblivious to its hissing, fools that we were. We frolicked in the woods, we splashed around. We forgot that inoculating children against brainwashing is the highest duty a parent has. That no matter how whitewashed the school seemed, it might be the most dangerous place of all.
If we understood English the way we do now, if instead of reading to them we read their textbooks to ourselves, we’d catch on when their brainwashing could still be arrested. We’d see that our kids were indoctrinated in the religion of equality of outcome, in always blaming someone or something for not succeeding in life.
And now it’s too late. Our children have been pulled into the doomed equality project with all the zeal of the previous generations of Jews. And we watch them marching alongside American streets with signs, “Yes, we can!” (What? When? Where? Why? And, most importantly, to whom? Here, we are compelled to pay tribute to the Russian community organizers who wouldn’t think of getting away with such truncated stuff. Though their constituency were illiterate proletariat and peasants, the revolutionary agitators worked hard to come up with slogans that, at least on a superficial level, made sense.) And we watch our children cheering and applauding a high public official who advocates in Congress for keeping skilled whites away from public opportunities and goods. Our children are blind fools. They might be imagining themselves to be green workers, for what we know.
We get what we deserve: a symbol for president, propaganda for information, conformity passing itself off as anti-establishment, groupthink camouflaging as idiosyncratic thought.
We are back where we started. Our children will surely learn what our parents had learned. But for now, they are oblivious. They feel so lucky to have been accepted by all the Ivies and other bindweeds that they pay no attention — because it’s we who pay their bills — that no matter their merit, scholarships don’t go to them. No matter their sky-high GPA, GRE, LSAT, GMAT and any and all acronyms, they are not courted by medical, law, and business schools. They don’t need to be. They come, study, graduate, and succeed no matter what.
Eventually, the admissions will go by the way of the scholarships. The promotions the way of admissions, and the hiring the way of promotions. They will become numbers whose numbers are to be controlled. They, too, will lose their idealism. They too will inoculate their kids to become cynical and distrustful of the state and what it could do to the Jews. And then our grandchildren will become like us, once again searching for ways of getting out, of hitting the road again. But where will they go? And if we are still alive then, where will we go?
Is there a country that hasn’t been touched by madness? Is there a country where one is free to fail? Has foolishness gone global? Is there not a place to hide anywhere?
But if we ever get out of this place alive, if there is a planet that would take mishuganas like us, the first thing we should check before settling there is if they handle their children with care and assure their offspring they are all unique. Unless they have a law on their books that makes the demand for equal outcome illegal, we should keep looking for another place to go. Ideally, it should be a planet that requires citizens to sign a consent form:
We, the undersigned, have been informed that all people are created different and that engineering equality of outcome is a crime against humanity punished by execution or exile.
It has always been like that anyway, but this time we want it in writing so future generations are forewarned. Amen.
|1.||“We in the Ukraine have too many Jews. To carry out power, the real Ukrainian workers and peasants must be enlisted.” From the speech on December 1, 1922 by Grigory Zinoviev (born Ovsei-Gershon Radomyslsky), a member of Central Committee of the Communist Party. Executed in 1936 during Stalin’s Great Purge. Rehabilitated by the Soviet government in 1988. Quoted from Gennadiĭ Kostyrchenko, Tainaya politika Stalina: vlast’ i antisemitism published by “Международные отношения,” 2001 ISBN 571331071X, 9785713310714, p 54|
|2.||“From the XII Congress and on, we are intensifying the removal of Jews from important positions.” 1926. Abram Merezhin (born Avraam Moishe Grubshtein). Chairman of Jewish Sections of the Communist Party. Executed in 1937 during Stalin’s Great Purge. Quoted from Kostyrchenko, Tainaya politika Stalina: vlast’ i antisemitism, p.54|