“I am who I am today because of the choices I made yesterday.” — Eleanor Roosevelt

Born in Saratov, Russia, during the Communist regime, I knew little about freedom. Early on, we were taught to comply and worship the government. Even as a child, I was surprised by the fanatical devotion to theThese were not just our leaders; they were superhuman deities Communist Party. These were not just our leaders; they were superhuman deities. The obsession with these leaders created undeniable awe, fear, respect and often unimaginable love. A few times a year, on Communistic holidays, people in every city would march in parades through the main city squares—named after Vladimir Lenin and adorned with Soviet flags—singing propaganda songs while carrying flowers and balloons. I still remember the poems we learned about these “magnificent” celebrations.

Little children were placed on the shoulders of adults, and as I close my eyes today, 35 years later, I still remember sitting on my father’s shoulders waving a Soviet flag. I was as happy as all Soviet children. My country was the best in the world—perhaps it was the greatest in the galaxy. We were brainwashed with both open and subliminal messages all around us. Soviet propaganda had no boundaries in public or private lives. The Communist Party developed a perfect system to create submissive citizens to worship the party and serve its leaders.

Yet, strangely enough, most people never completely gave up hope. Somewhere very deep in their psyches, people whispered in their kitchens about freedom—as they longed for another reality, a chance to be viewed as individuals and to make decisions for themselves. The government felt threatened by that longing and pushed even harder to completely enslave its citizens.

I remember coming to school with my newly pierced ears in fifth grade. My mother gave me her gold earrings for this special occasion. My homeroom teacher asked me to stand in the middle of the classroom. She inquired if I felt “special” or “entitled” in comparison to my classmates, who could never afford gold earrings. I was shaking with embarrassment and fear. She then reached out and yanked the earrings. Blood started dripping from my ears. I was mortified as she dismissed me to sit down. I must admit that I am still completely overwhelmed thinking back to that moment. I learned my lesson; being different in any way, shape or form was dangerous.

The leaders dismissed even natural tendencies. I was born a lefty, and that inborn left-handed dominance was seen as a weakness by the Communist Party, as it was outside the “norm” and distinguished me from society. From the first grade on, I was forced to use my right hand, and any “slips” were regarded as disobedience. The teachers hit those who insisted on using their left hands. I was bullied into obedience, and I tried hard to learn the skill of using my right hand. Still, I was bothered, even at that age, about being deprived of all decisions. Yet there was no solution in sight. The society was in a collective trance of fright, paranoia and mass hypocrisy.

People were left with no choices. Everything was predetermined; furniture, clothes, cars, apartments, food, television programs, newspapers. Choices were there as symbolic gestures, as a game. The government allowed its citizens to choose between already predetermined solutions, but these Communist geniuses forgot one important factor: No force or propaganda could eliminate a person’s desire to take responsibility for his or her own life by making real decisions.

With my grandparents at the World War II annual Victory Parade on May 9th.
With my grandparents at the World War II annual Victory Parade on May 9th.

And then, unexpectedly at the age of 8, came my chance to execute this incredible gift of inner strength and take my first real stance.

A neighbor invited me to her birthday party. The girl’s mother was a doctor and must have had special connections. It was clear that they lived better than the rest of us. When I entered their apartment, I was stunned at how beautiful their furniture and rugs were. The spread on the table in front of us was exquisite: fruits and vegetables in the middle of the winter, candies and cookies in foreign wrappers.

The other children were pushing and shoving to grab delicacies from the table since none of us have ever seen or tasted such treasures. I was stunned and overwhelmed. Then, something absolutely unexpected happened. I decided not to participate in the frenzy and be different from all the other children. This felt liberating. I sat at the table quietly watching the collective insanity. Of course, just like every other child, I so much wanted to try the unfamiliar foods, yet somehow winning over my animal desire made me recognize the significance of the power of my free will.

Suddenly, the mother of the birthday girl brought a platter from the kitchen with fruits that I had only seen in pictures. These were real bananas. Everyone gasped. The mother announced that she was going to teach everyone how to eat bananas. She told us to take one banana from the platter, peel it (for the yellow part was not edible) and put a spoonful of jam onto the white part. The children were ecstatic. Everyone elbowed each other and followed the instructions. I sat there feeling alone, unsure if I could withstand the temptation and execute my original plan.

Of course, the mother was only trying to impress her daughter’s friends and didn’t envision this party to create any significant, life-altering moment for anyone.I could do little to demonstrate my uniqueness We were 8-year-old children sitting at the table, marveling at the experience. As I was sitting there, I somehow knew that my inner worth was much more significant than the treat that was offered. I just couldn’t sell myself short once I decided to take a stand. Perhaps it was silly of me, but I could do very little to demonstrate my uniqueness, my ability to speak my mind or be different; thus, this banana somehow encompassed all of my repressed desires for identity, self-control and free will.

The mother kept offering me the banana that was purchased specifically for each guest. I remember how shocked she was as I kept telling her that I simply didn’t want it. No child could refuse a banana in Soviet Union in 1984. Of course, I very much wanted one with the glossy strawberry jam spilling off it. But I knew that this was my chance to be me—to be different from everyone else—and that was somehow sweeter than all the sweets in the world.

As time went on, I remember how exhausted I felt. How hard it was and how I held back the tears. I never did take that banana, breaking through the invisible wall and making my first real stance.

As I go through life, I often think back to that moment when I found my inner strength.

My first May 1st Parade, held by the Soviet Union in every city of the country.
My first May 1st Parade, held by the Soviet Union in every city of the country.

Since then, I have made many important decisions. Among them, the choice to embrace my heritage, learn about my eternal connection to the chain of the Jewish nation and accept Torah as a guiding light for my lifelong journey.

Judaism teaches us to ask questions, to seek answers and to celebrate our uniqueness. I take full advantage of that on a daily basis. I search, learn, question, debate and hope to grow. I never take for granted my opportunity to make decisions, for this ability to exercise free will is a real gift.

Interestingly, 35 years later, my ears still remember the pain and cannot tolerate earrings. Perhaps some traumas are never forgotten. Yet it is through those moments of darkness that we can access our deepest values, ideals and strengths.

Today, in my Philadelphia home, I sometimes sit my 8-year-old self down, peel a banana, put a teaspoon of jam onto it and savor the incredible sweet taste of freedom. After all, what are we without the free will, and our ability to choose and stand up for what we believe in?

I hope Mrs. Roosevelt will forgive me as I add to her famous quote ...

“I am who I am today because of the choices I made yesterday. Having an opportunity to make these choices is one of the biggest gifts in our lives.”

With my mom and her coworkers at a mandatory May 1st Communist parade.
With my mom and her coworkers at a mandatory May 1st Communist parade.