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The First American in the Family

Laurie Kam's story posted on June 20, 2012 at 3:33 am. Laurie emigrated from Leningrad, Soviet Union (USSR) to New York, United States in 1991

            The weekend after the fifth anniversary Russian Jewish Community Foundation ball, I went to my grandparent’s house to celebrate the eighteenth anniversary of my family’s immigration to America. When I was there, I decided to probe my grandparents with questions. I wanted to know everything that they went through as Jews in Soviet Russia. I did not know what communism was at the time, or what it meant to feel imprisoned. After that anniversary, I got the idea.

            I quickly learned that Soviet Russia was not the desired place to be. In his thick Russian accent, my Deda described it as, “a big country with thick walls surrounding it, and no way to escape it.” He explained thatRussiawas run by the KGB, a secret police force that was spread all acrossRussia. They spied on people that posed possible threats to the Russian government. If they threatened anyone to do with the KGB or said a bad word about the leaders of the communist party, the next day, they would be dead. If that individual was innocent and meant no harm, no letter of apology would be sent to the person’s family. My grandfather experienced that first hand.

            My Deda was orphaned at the age of four. His father, a high ranked Jewish military officer, was a victim of Stalin’s oppression and was taken from his home and never brought back. His mother, abducted for being the wife of an enemy, was killed in a concentration camp. His dearly loved, beautiful older sister Lina was named “The Sun of the Ghetto”, and was shot to death in front of the entire pack of soldiers that ran the camp. They took her undergarments and kept them in memory of her. My Deda was alone, no home, no family, and no food. My Deda weighed a mere ninety- five pounds after finishing the tenth grade. He was struggling to live every day, one step at a time.

            As my Deda grew up, and began to raise a family, he wanted a better life for his family. He worked hard and he provided as best he could. But when my older sister was born in 1990, the first time he held her, he said that he needs his Annichka to have an even better life. And so, the process began to get the entire family over to America, where opportunities awaited us.

            When my family arrived in 1991, it was October and unusually hot. My mom arrived in layers and layers of “chubi” and her mink hat, as there was no room to transport that over. Life was not the same in America. Everything was different- the language, the atmosphere, the opportunities. Everything needed to start anew. This is something I don’t think I can ever understand. Leave everything you have ever known, only to touch down in a city where you are essentially, an alien.

            I was the first American- born child in my family born in 1994. My first language was Russian, and I picked up English from my sister, who was attending Kindergarten at the time. By the time I got to preschool, I had decent English which became solidified in elementary school. But when people asked me who I am at any age, I always wanted to say Russian. Russian things were the only things I have known. I drink my “chai” every morning and every night. I love shopping at the Baza. I grew up reading “Kolobochik.” As a teenager, I listened to “Ruki Verh.” But what truly kept me in touch with my Russian background was the Russian School of Math, which I attended from first grade to tenth grade, and then worked as an employee for two years. Also, I have been going to the RSM Camp in Sunapee since 2005. The RSM atmosphere has not only given me a better math education, it has given me the confidence to be a good student, no matter the subject or the classroom. Not only am I constantly surrounded by Russian speaking people, but I am immersed in the same lifestyle that I grew up in. RSM has given me a place to connect with people that are essentially, just like me. There is immediately a level of understanding, because most people’s parents have accents, and people in my age group are also the first Americans in their families.

When I am at my American friends’ houses, there is no extravagant selection of chai, there are no “vareni,” there is no rug on the wall, and there are no Matroshki in the “servant.” This is what I love. This is what keeps me in touch. This is what makes me Russian-Jewish American. Although I am extremely Americanized, I do not feel even close to being 100% American. If I didn’t have these Russian rituals per say, I would not be the person I am today.

            My life would not be at all the way it is now if it was not for my Deda’s determination to get to this glorious country. If it was not for him, I would not fully understand many concepts of the aspiring life I have now. I would not understand what it meant to be Jewish and free. I would not understand what it meant to travel. If I lived inRussia, I would stay trapped in the thick walls that my grandfather described to me. I would not understand what it meant to have necessities like diapers and milk. If I lived inRussia, I would have to wait in long lines in order to get a carton of milk, only to later be disappointed that the shelves were empty. I would not understand what the true meaning of being courageous meant. These things are often taken for granted. But what keeps me grounded, what keeps me to who I am at the very core, is this Russian Jewish Community. Everyone understands that they are blessed in this free country. They have the opportunity to succeed. They have the opportunity to fail. But there is opportunity, and that is the most important part.