On November 24, 1977, I stood with my husband, my two-year-old daughter, and seven other extended family members in front of the gated entrance to the American Embassy in Moscow. We were there to receive our exit visas so we could leave the confinements of the totalitarian regime of the Soviet Union in search of freedom.
The military guard said the Embassy was closed for the next four days. My heart sunk. “Why?” someone asked.
“Thanksgiving Day is a national holiday the Americans celebrate each year,” he said.
It was the first time I heard the word Thanksgiving. Bewildered, I thought, what kind of holiday is it if the government allows its people to celebrate it on Thursday? It must be pretty significant to the Americans. How great it must be to be off from work for four consecutive days!
The USSR did not have a holiday that lasted four days, and most celebrations in a country of not enough happened on the weekend when people were already off from work.
It took us months to get permission from the Communist government to leave based on religious discrimination. We were Jews who lived in a country that did not want us. This country did not allow us to practice Judaism. This country took away our identities and listed the religion of our forefathers as our nationality on every official document, turning us into the scapegoats of the socialist society and targets for persecution. Anti-Semitism flourished under the auspices of the brutal totalitarian regime.
When the Soviets agreed to let people emigrate, most of Jews left the USSR for Israel, but many for the United States as well. I had a hard time understanding the immigration process. Once the Soviet government had accepted our family’s request for asylum status, it had no longer considered us its citizens. With the stroke of a KGB agent’s pen, in a matter of seconds, we became nobodies. Our family had to give up our apartment and quit our jobs, and with that, lost our financial security and the roof over our heads. We became solely dependent on the kindness of relatives and strangers. The Communists had no use for us anymore, and they did not care how we would survive. Decades later, I still cannot get over the cruelty of the socialist government in the treatment of its Jews. They could discard you like a pile of trash when you were no longer needed to achieve their grandiose, but unattainable ideas.
The totalitarian regime granted our family permission to immigrate to the United States, but still, for it to happen, it was the American government in charge of issuing our exit visas. Nothing made sense.
After pleading with the military guard, he checked our documents and opened the gate for our family to enter the hallowed grounds of the American Embassy. My spirit filled with hope.
We walked inside the building, full of anxiety. A secretary greeted and ushered us into an office where a person in charge of visas asked us to sign some documents and handed us the permits to leave. It all happened too fast, and for me, this was the shortest encounter with bureaucracy I had ever witnessed. It seemed like a blur because, in a matter of minutes, we were ready to go.
Bureaucracy is tedious everywhere, but the USSR tops them all when it comes to it. While I lived there, I could never enter an office to get my request granted on the spot and had to return a few more times. When I dealt with the bureaucrats in the Soviet Union, they almost always needed another piece of paper to attach to my file before granting my request, no matter how insignificant that request might’ve been.
Inside the office, I already felt hopeful about my new country. If this is how bureaucracy works in America, I could deal with it. With visas in our hands, we left the American Embassy jubilant.
The following day, my mother-in-law purchased our tickets to Rome. Two days later, we took a taxi to Sheremetyevo, and boarded an Aeroflot flight that flew us out of the country of not enough.
We stayed in Italy for three months, awaiting permission to enter the United States of America, and on March 7, 1978, we took a Pan Am flight to New York and landed at JFK. Since then, I’ve never looked back.
That Thanksgiving Day in 1977 at the American Embassy was the day that forever changed me. I stopped living in fear. I no longer looked over my shoulder or spoke in a hushed tone, afraid of someone overhearing my conversation as I walked the streets of Moscow. On November 24, 1977, anti-Semitism and I had signed our divorce papers. At long last, I shook the shackles of oppression and spread my wings.
Landing on the shores of the United States of America made me grateful and appreciative of a country that allowed me to become enough. Ever since, Thanksgiving Day had become my favorite holiday to honor. As a proud American, I celebrate it each year together with the rest of the country as a national holiday. For me, the day of Thanksgiving holds extra special meaning. It is a day I give thanks to America, my beloved country that sheltered and taught me to appreciate the freedoms I experience daily. But there is more to my appreciation of Thanksgiving Day.
Fourteen years ago, in 2007, a day before the official holiday began, I was diagnosed with a basal skull meningioma. At fifty-three, I went from being a healthy person to someone who was, within days, given a death sentence. Even though the growth was benign, my situation was dire.
“You have a non-malignant tumor in a malignant place,” Dr. Robinson said inside his office. He explained that the culprit of my illness grew in the wrong part of my body (as if there ever is a proper spot to grow those things), and it was about to kill me. The meningioma at the base of my skull was the size of a chicken egg when they discovered it. It pressed against my trachea and made me stop breathing each night I fell asleep.
“You needed surgery yesterday, and I will leave now to schedule an appointment for you at Tampa General the day after Thanksgiving so you can get help from the best there is in the field of neurosurgery. Meantime, I am putting you on the highest dosage of steroids to save your life,” he said.
Dr. Robinson did save my life, and not only because of the medication but also by sending me to the best place at the right time.
I left his office to get another MRI before I headed towards my house. It was the night before Thanksgiving, and I could not stop thinking about the holiday. Should I cancel it? To be honest, I was not in the right spirit to celebrate, but the more I thought about it, the more inclined I became in favor of a large gathering. Weeks earlier, I had invited a big crowd, and now sitting inside my car I could not find it in my heart to withdraw the invitation at the last moment. Plus, I could not call anyone that evening. It was approaching ten o’clock when I pulled into the driveway.
Inside the house, I shared the sad news with my husband. His mood had instantly changed, and the atmosphere around us filled with dread of the upcoming operation. But in the morning, I continued with Thanksgiving Day’s preparations. Being busy distracted me from the inner thoughts as I baked sweet potato and apple pies, and my husband took care of the turkey.
That day I made my traditional delicacy that I invented. I serve it to my guests every year on Thanksgiving Day. The filling is fresh pumpkin and cranberries mixed with sugar and infused with cinnamon and freshly grated nutmeg flavors.
To wrap the yummy filling in, I use phyllo dough. Every time I do the individual pieces, I fold the dough into a triangle the same way a person folds the American flag to commemorate the soldiers who lost their lives to protect the freedoms of the United States. Freedom is never free. As I bend the dough, I think about the fallen heroes’ ultimate sacrifices, and I thank them each time I prepare this delicacy.
On November 22, 2007, despite the grim diagnosis, I found reasons to be thankful. I was grateful to live in the United States of America, where I was about to receive the best medical care during my craniotomy. Tampa General is a world-known facility for performing brain surgeries, and I considered myself lucky to go there. I did not feel afraid. I had faith and trust in people who would help me get through this enormous challenge.
American Thanksgiving is a day that is forever connected to the two most important events of my life. Forty-four years ago, back in the USSR, inside the American Embassy, I was granted freedom to leave the godforsaken country of not enough. Fourteen years ago, at Tampa General, the neurosurgeon gave me another chance at life. I am so grateful to America! It truly is the best country in the world. Happy Thanksgiving!