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I came to Los Angeles in 1979 from Leningrad to reunite with my son Mark. He left the USSR two years prior, and my other son had left a year before that. It had become nearly impossible to live without my children, and my husband and I decided to emigrate. I worked as a piano teacher at the conservatory in the Soviet Union while I lived there.

We left with my mother as well, and when we were living in Leningrad we didn’t really know what we were missing. Our whole lives we had been told that the USSR was the best country and the best-run government in the world. Only by the end of our time there did we realize that this was not true in the slightest.

We got our visa for Israel through HIAS because we could only exit to Israel to “reunite with family,” so we received an invitation from Israel. Our first stop was in Vienna, where we officially decided that we were going to Los Angeles. When we informed the HIAS representatives of this fact, we felt slightly awkward about it because we weren’t going to Israel like we had told them in the first place. However, we dealt with it and left for Rome where we awaited our time to finally go to Los Angeles.

Emigration was very difficult, for everyone. When my elder son was leaving, he was like the enemy of the land. People were scared to talk to him and come up to him on the street, and I had to hide this fact at work since I was a teacher and couldn’t be a “traitor to my government.” When my younger son left it was also a very trying time; the customs officers took away a fur from him and his wife when they were traveling because of its cost. Every emigrant was at the mercy of the Soviet customs officers. And so, when we were leaving, they remembered our last name from when my younger son was leaving, and they were especially cruel to us. They even completely undressed my elderly mother to check her. They were probably thinking, “Oh, an unsuspecting old woman, they could have easily pinned something on her without her knowing.”

We had bought a cheap violin to sell in America, but they didn’t let us take it out of the country. We even had documents that proved that the violin wasn’t expensive or valuable in any way, but the customs officers still took it away. We even tried to give it to our sister-in-law and asked them to give it to her when they were done inspecting it. However, they still refused and never gave it to her.

Anything and everything was inspected by the customs officers. Anything silver or gold, even spoons, had to be weighed. When we came here, we lived off the benefits that we got in Vienna because we could only bring $90 per person when we left.

Another difficulty was of course leaving many of our friends in Leningrad. Of course children are much closer and more important, but it was still an added trouble. We still talk to many of our friends from the Soviet Union, nevertheless, and we visit them and they visit us here.

When we got to Vienna, we stayed in a hotel that was right next to the market and my mother went outside in the morning and exclaimed that she felt like she had arrived at the Hermitage. All the meats were hanging up in rows and there were fresh, bright fruits even though it was February. It was very overwhelming and quite amazing.

Then we lived in Rome for three months to arrange all the documents and finalize the process before we could go to Los Angeles.

When we finally arrived in Los Angeles, it was a little strange for us. With all the one-story houses and all the many changes, it was very different from the USSR. At first we didn’t have virtually any money, and my husband almost went crazy, saying that we would have to become beggars. However, that was rendered unnecessary because we were given money by the Jewish Federation which sustained us very well.

Of course we didn’t know the language, and we weren’t exactly young so it was difficult to learn. We went to school for almost three years here, but stopped after my mother became very sick and we had to care for her.

When we lived in the USSR, we didn’t know anything about Judaism. We just knew when Passover and Yom Kippur were, and gathered to celebrate them. I was afraid to go to the synagogue, especially since it was located just across the street from my workplace, and as a teacher who was supposed to set an example for my students, I couldn’t go to temple. It was an awful thing to attend a synagogue.

My husband was in the Communist Party so he was definitely not allowed to practice Judaism, but we still all got together for Yom Kippur.

For Passover, matzah was not sold in stores, but we ordered it in the synagogue and then carried it under a pillowcase so we could walk home and not look too suspicious.

Things changed when we came here, however. We became much more knowledgeable and involved, and of course we try to have Sabbath dinner every week with our family, and we go to the temple when there’s an interesting lecture and always on holidays. We started becoming truly Jewish here.

I am very happy with my decision to come here. That isn’t even a question. I am much freer here.