July 01, 2011

Absent for the Coup

IN LATE JULY 1991, I did something that, back then, was simply unheard of — I went to Israel for three weeks. It was not just that this was only my second trip abroad, but the fact that it was to Israel, which until recently had been considered one of the Soviet Union’s worst enemies. It was also the country many of my relatives had departed for in past years.

The Holy Land was a place to which a Soviet Jew might be able to emigrate, but visiting it was something you could only dream of. Now I was going to Israel as part of a group of Jewish teachers to study the history of the Holocaust. There were still no planes from Moscow to Tel Aviv, but there was a flight departing from Latvia, which already no longer considered itself a part of the Soviet Union. So our group set out for Riga.

The bedding we were given in the sleeper car was “single use,” so every time someone turned over there was a loud rustling noise. In the morning, one of the passengers said pensively, “It was just like being unemployed in New York, sleeping on newspapers, using newspapers as covers.” It was hard to tell whether this was a joke or he really believed that New York was full of people sleeping on newspapers.

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