- By Marya Zilberberg
I remember flying over the Atlantic Ocean in a plane full of Russian speech and tentative hope, with children craning their necks to catch glimpses of the clouds below. I remember landing at JFK International, after winter had already dropped its early drape of darkness. While we waited for our luggage, massive cars crawled by outside, their lights splashing behind the scratched glass of sliding doors. I remember spending the night at some airport hotel, having a forgettable dinner at the hotel restaurant. What I remember most is darkness, oily and dense, and the airport lights twinkling like tiny distant stars.
This happened mid-January 1977, a week before Jimmy Carter’s inauguration. Almost a half year earlier, we had left our home in Odessa, Ukraine and then spent five months in Rome, Italy, waiting for our US entry papers. We had escaped communist threats, trading them for a dream my father pieced together from some snippets of programs on the Voice of America, scratchy fragments that had managed to sail past the KGB’s jamming devices into his Radiola, but only with the radio in one particular corner and its antenna canted just so.
When my father told me that my parents had filed for an exit visa, I was thirteen. To open doors for me, he explained. As a Jew, I would have limited opportunities, with institutional anti-Semitism a perpetual Sword of Damocles grazing my neck. Witnessing my mother’s life, I already knew that as a woman my role would be to take care of everyone’s needs, physical and emotional. I would face this fate under conditions of scarcity, holding down a full-time job and being told how emancipated I was, contributing to the mythical abundance that the Party’s five-year plans would surely reap. What no one yet knew, what I hadn’t yet articulated even to myself, was that my queerness would have one day landed me straight in the Gulag. So leaving for the land of opportunity felt both uncertain and devastating, yet the right move.
Fast forward forty-four years and here we are, at the eve of my twelfth presidential inauguration. I have lived a life larger than the thirteen-year-old me could have imagined. But as the days turned into weeks and months and years, they have also turned into history, a metamorphosis hard to appreciate except in hindsight. And now history has culminated in a disorienting flashback, sending me back to my former country.
Whereas I spent my youth building new skills and forging new relationships, my college-age children are stuck at home, staring at screens because of a pandemic willfully botched by our first would-be totalitarian president, someone who soaks us in propaganda as strong as the vodka my former countrymen used to sedate themselves. Their future looks uncertain because our economy, already weakened by a decades-long project for redistributing wealth upwards, is now in shards, and an ostensibly conservative political party now calculates its future based only on myopic considerations of the next electoral cycle. My kids have endured active shooter drills and witnessed, wide-eyed, the demolition of a woman’s right to her bodily autonomy. In this American Dream, guns have more rights than humans. Old anti-Semitic conspiracy theories have gained a new life through the president’s bullhorn. American jurisprudence is now hissing with fundamentalist zeal, and my hard-won gay equality is in jeopardy. The Voice of America is being censored.
Unbelievably, in the United States in 2021, a bunch of domestic terrorists, blood afire from the inciting words of the president and his allies, stormed the US Capitol, apparently intending to lynch hundreds of members of Congress. They failed, yet are planning to try again. Could it be that hundreds of thousands, even millions, are armed and ready to die for the lies that the demagogues, delirious in their fever of greed, have howled into their high-definition TVs?
Forty years after my first night on the American soil, the 2016 election sent us careening toward this country’s unredeemed past. Four years later and now my late father’s American dream has become a zombie nightmare engulfing reality. Like many, I feel disoriented and angry. More than most, perhaps, I also feel betrayed at how easily it has all come to this point of near-collapse, at how rickety even our democracy remains, and at how willing, even eager, half of this country’s citizens have been to court a dystopian future that mirrors so perfectly my cruel past. They clearly do not yet understand their own precarious positions within a power structure that crushes even its allies, whenever it deems them a threat, or simply no longer useful.
Where do we go from here?
There is nowhere else. This is the final destination. History is too fragile and unforgiving to ask our children to fly across the ocean, in the night, toward another tenuous promise.
The one thing I can do is step back from my own anger and disorientation. I am finding strength in embracing Hannah Arendt’s call for us to “love the world anyway.” This love is infused with a tentative hope—that my story can still save some corner of a heart, keep it from succumbing to a future I thought was behind me.
MARYA ZILBERBERG is a physician-health services researcher. She lives in the foothills of the Berkshire Mountains in western Massachusetts. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Tablet Magazine, Longreads, and Meat for Tea: The Valley Review, among others. She tweets as @murzee.