In the 1970s and 1980s, hundreds of thousands of Soviet Jews managed to leave the U.S.S.R., mainly for Israel and the United States. Soviet authorities couldn’t allow the U.S. government and Jewish refugee agencies to process these emigrants on its own soil, so my family, like thousands of others, spent the fall of 1988 in Austria and Italy. Vienna was the place where we encountered life outside the Soviet Union – a baptismal Pepsi, automatic sliding doors – but those weeks were a fog of disbelief at what we were seeing and what we no longer would.
By the time we reached Rome and then the seaside Italian town of Ladispoli [where a transit center had been established for Soviet Jewish refugees], we had begun to relax. Summer ran unseasonably long that year, and we made ourselves sick on translucent Muscat grapes that looked as if a quantum of sun had lodged inside, like the prehistoric flies petrified in the amber jewelry we had brought to pawn at a nearby flea market. Our subsidy from HIAS was enough to rent a small villa with a garden and a ceramic-tile floor that cooled sand-scalded feet after a morning on the beach with my grandfather.
At the flea market, my parents unloaded the Soviet goods preceding Ã©migrÃ©s had assured us Ladispolites craved from their bizarre interlopers: Zenith cameras; pins of Lenin clutching his collar; Red Moscow cologne; and, weirdly, linen. Even though we were fairly certain that money grew on trees in America, you never knew. Former engineers and philosophy professors wrapped themselves in linen bed sheets as if in ancient shrouds and shouted in the mongrel language of their exile, “Russo producto!”
Though the sun blazed every day, leaves had blanketed the ground by mid-October, and, one afternoon, my grandmother sent me out to the garden with a rake. I made three neat piles, savoring the roosh-roosh of an implement I had never seen: There were no private plots to tend where we had been. When I looked up, I saw that our landlady, Signora Limona (even her name redolent of that fall’s bounty), who lived next door, had lined up three persimmons on a ledge facing the garden, one for each pile of leaves. These, too, I had never seen.
“Grazie, bambino,” she said. “Take.” My teeth pierced the overripe skin, the slushy core cooling my mouth and tying my tongue.
There was bad news at the fountain in the center of town where our people gathered at night to trade rumors about visas. After years of indiscriminately accepting Soviet refugees, the American government was beginning to issue rejections. Summer ended overnight. Our acquaintances became wary and tense. In fact, that year was the beginning of the end of large-scale Soviet-Jewish immigration to America. For me, it was the start of adulthood. In the United States, I would learn English much more quickly than my parents and grandparents, becoming the overwhelmed translator of a culture they couldn’t yet grasp.
When we returned home from receiving the news that we had squeaked through, Signora Limona was outside, reading the newspaper, Ladispoli Oggi (Ladispoli Today). I poked a resentful finger at the banner and said, a frown on my face, “America – oggi.” She smiled, put aside the paper, and disappeared into her house. A minute later, she emerged, carrying in her long, olive hand a parting gift of the clay-colored fruit that would bind me to that autumn forever.