Religion, the opium of the people, as per the esteemed grandfather of Communism Karl Marx, always appalled me as the attempt to relinquish control over one's life. I used to doubt whether religious rituals went beyond someone's petty needs for reassurance, sense of belonging, or convenience of avoiding responsibility for one's own actions. I'd been taught this overtly and covertly everywhere: in school, in Comsomol meetings, and at home. My Jewish family always looked with deprecation at those ideological deviates that secretly exchanged bags of flour for matzos during the spring holiday of Passover or just set their foot in the only synagogue of our city- these people must've been either half-witted or hypocrites.
By the late 1980's, religion became less frowned upon by the Soviet officials, but my views on Judaism and those practicing it didn't change much. As perestroika was failing task after task, my little family was getting closer to the idea of leaving the Soviet Union. My in-laws already immigrated to America, sending us optimistic letters and frugal gifts. Letters were written on pages from old Soviet notebooks, those that cost 2 kopecks before the inflation. We chose not to notice such annoying details, and happily spent the remainder of our parents' lifelong savings on clothing and food, not scraping or planning for a rainy day. We were recently wed, and enjoyed this pre-immigration worry-free life that felt like a reinvented honeymoon.
In our world of poorly tailored ready-to-wear clothes, it was important to have someone who could alter clothes so they would eventually fit. That year, I found a new seamstress whose biggest advantage was her location: she worked in a service salon just several minutes away from my house. She wasn't creative or original; I wouldn't trust her to design a dress, but she could dutifully follow directions and never ruined a piece.
She was practicing Judaism. Even her name, that I cannot recall now, sounded too Jewish for my taste. She looked faceless and ageless. I doubt if I would recognize her in the street after a year of frequenting her salon. The only difference between her and any other sheepish middle aged woman was the look of estrangement that Judaism had granted to her. Her black shapeless dress and unruly curls looked pathetic. Her bland face was time incongruent, as if she walked into a modern room from the thirties. Have you ever noticed faces that don't belong to a time or place but seem to come from far away?
I entertained myself by imagining her life: a crazy, lonely, religiously devoted spinster who couldn't tolerate the bleakness of her reality and needed promise of the better future, the promise any religion is so good at. I secretly laughed at her, and yet found myself playing a good Jewish girl in her company. Why I was doing it, escapes me. She, on the other hand, was initially cautious in what she was saying to me, and kept appropriate boundaries, yet became convinced pretty soon that I was about to be converted into Judaism.
Gradually, the seamstress started to freely share things like her thoughts about the Judaic values, her belief in the great future of the state of Israel, and plans of recruiting Jewish youngsters to "ascend" to Israel. Coming home, I used to laugh at this comic misunderstanding with my spouse.
Our immigration matters were all settled, and we had the date of departure to America, the Promised Land. I had to be silent about it, out of fear of blackmail or mobster attacks. An observant eye of my seamstress, however, spotted the unusual commotion. She commented a few times on my insistence to have alterations done by a certain date. Usually I was pretty laid back about deadlines, something she shamelessly took advantage of.
"You are leaving, aren't you?" she finally asked.
Since I was approached so bluntly, it seemed silly to hide the truth.
"Yes, I am."
"Can I ask you..-.where to?"
What made me say, "To Israel, of course"? What made me lie? To make fun of her, I guess. To emphasize the hypocrisy of her attempts to recruit immigrants to go to Israel while she herself was staying in the Soviet Union, in harsh yet familiar circumstances.
Anyway, that's what I answered.
"To Israel, of course."
"And your final destination is..?"
Little did I care. It wasn't a well prepared lie. I paused, thinking of any name of a Israeli city.
"By any chance.. is it Be'er Sheva?"
"That's right. Be'er Sheva it is."
I never even heard of such place.
The dressed-in-black seamstress, with her yellowish skin and no makeup, started to change colors like skies after rain. I never saw anything like that. I was extremely pleased with my little game. Ah-ha, gotcha.
"A strike of fate. My lucky day. G-d has sent you to me. I can't believe you actually are traveling to Be'er Sheva."
The sinking feeling in my stomach told me that something went wrong.
"It's a real urgent matter. As a Jewish woman traveling to Be'er Sheva, you should help me. My daughter and grandson are stuck there in a kibbutz without money; my girl moved there recently; her husband took the absorption basket that the government had given them, and ran off with it. I can't find a reliable person to send her money with. I can't wire it, either. You must know how unreliable wires are; they won't even be responsible if money's lost for good. I know that you can't risk it and take the actual money with you, but you can take a letter explaining who she can borrow from in Israel, so I'd give this amount in roubles to their trusted person here. This is a life-and-death letter. I can't afford for it to get lost in the mail." She was panting. Menopausal, I thought mechanically. I probably also changed colors by now, but for a different reason.
"If you'd also be so kind and take a small¡- the smallest parcel with clothes I've made for the baby. She can't afford anything these days, yet he's growing."
I felt my whole blood supply being pumped out of the heart and pushed through arteries and vessels, rushing into my face. Blood was drumming in my ears. I heard myself say, "Well...-it'll...be hard."
"Parcel...- I understand. But the letter?.. Please. You're going to Be'er Sheva, aren't you?"
I heard myself confirm that she could bring the letter and the parcel tomorrow, then went home and started looking for the world map. I wanted to see if there was such a town. I never heard its name. Did Be'er Sheva exist? I didn't find it.
Why did I lie? I, so righteous and compliant, who lived my life by the rules my mom had been drilling into my head since I understood speech: Never be rude to anyone. Don't crash the ant. Give up your seat for the old lady. Smile. Be considerate. Pick it up and throw in a garbage. Don't touch other people's stuff. Never raise your voice. Don't lie. Ten or more commandments of an atheist.
To get punished right after giving in to my very first urge to be malicious! I kept imagining taking this letter and then trying to get rid of it. Where could I deliver it?
I wish G-d, or something else could get me out of this humiliation. What a pity that I was a non-believer.
The next morning, I went into hiding. I wouldn't answer the door no matter what. I was moving quietly waiting for the doorbell to ring and rehearsing phrases like, "My husband forbade me...It's dangerous... I cannot jeopardize my family because of yours... Customs take away letters anyway...-" Then, it occurred to me that she'd come to look for me after work, so she could potentially run into my non-suspecting husband who'd be coming home. The very thought of them having any sort of conversation was unbearable. Around noon, I seriously considered disappearing for several days. My family would become so worried that the whole episode of being caught lying could go unnoticed. Or, better yet, they'd consider it a sign of the temporary insanity that suddenly befell me.
No, disappearing wasn't an option.
Around four, I heard a ring, and then a knock on the door. I didn't take into consideration that she, my seamstress, worked right here, in the neighborhood, and could get here sooner than my husband. She kept ringing and knocking for some time, and then left. My face felt hot, while fingers were icy-cold. What exciting lives liars get to live.
In the remaining weeks before our final trip to Moscow where we had to board the plane to New York, I lived in fear, looking around before exiting the building and avoiding the early mornings when the seamstress run into me before work, and late afternoons when she would be on her way home. My behavior would look strange to my husband if not the rush and anguish of the last days before the farewell to the homeland. Embarrassment eventually faded. This too shall pass... -I knew this line.
The morning before departure, the next door neighbor came to say good bye carrying a small bundle. "I'm so sorry," she said. "You people are all packed, and now this. But it's so small, you can stick it anywhere."
"What is it?" I asked. No, this wasn't a good-bye gift from the sweet neighbor. This was the wretched letter to Be'er-Sheva and a tiny windbreaker fitting a two-year old. The seamstress left it with her a couple of weeks ago, after several attempts to catch me at home.
I sometimes dream of Be'er-Sheva. I dream of a young woman dressed in black standing in the wind in the desert. Her hands cover a face of the toddler in a sky blue windbreaker, shielding him from sand getting into his eyes and mouth.