Beginnings are tough. I've been thinking about how difficult it was for Vera and Alla to begin new lives as they left Russia. While visiting our mom in San Diego, I've heard new residents sigh in weariness about leaving their old lives behind to live in a new way in an independent living residence. Leslie and I have talked about how much strength it took our mom to make her new beginning in San Diego after our dad died.
How to begin was a question Leslie and I did not face when we decided to embark upon our still unnamed book project. We simply started with the easiest chapter to write—Vera and Alla's meeting at the Institute. Both had colorful memories that intersected with each other but neither had reflected upon the feeling of meeting a "true friend," until Leslie and I pressed them to recall their registraion day at the Institute.
More difficult for us was the decision which chapter would be Chapter One.The stakes were high.Experts told us that to attract the attention of a literary agent, a publisher, or a reader, we needed to captivate them quickly. We knew we wanted to introduce our characters as they are today with a hint of their past floating through the chapter. But that still didn't provide us with enough guidance.Where would we set the chapter—St. Petersburg?Minnesota?Grand Cayman Island? How many characters could we introduce at once? Whose perspective should we adopt?
I was reminded of our start as writers when I heard story after story from residents of Seacrest where our mom lives and from attendees at my book talks in California. Instinctively, people seem to know how to jump into a story once they hear a prompt. Sometimes the prompt has been a theme from Jewish Luck like "how do you feel about your sister?'"Have you ever been betrayed by a friend?""Were you part of the Struggle to Save Soviet Jewry movement?"
But, sometimes, just being around to listen prompted people to tell me their story.I heard about Jewish life in small town Oklahoma after statehood including the family's delight when a company opened meat lockers in the 1920s and the family could ritually slaughter their cow and chickens and keep the kosher meat refrigerated. An octogenarian told about celebrating her birthday on the trans-Siberian express with a small piece of chocolate. It was 1940 and her family was fleeing the Nazis and her Berlin home on an epic journey to Mexico via Vladivostok. A surgeon told me about visiting Soviet Russia loaded with pharmaceuticals for Jewish dissidents denied medication and how he left his winter jacket and boots with a young boy in a refusenik family.Another woman unfurled the remarkable tale of her grandmother who kept the records of the 800 babies she helped birth in the Lower East Side. There were family sagas like the Mexican born woman who told me her mother had pushed her to acculturate but then wanted to prevent her from going to college.She defied her mother but later in life reclaimed her Mexican heritage.
I heard so many stories I fear they will jumble together in my mind.The most poignant comment made to me was, "thank-you for listening.I love telling those old stories, but who wants to listen?"
When I asked people if they have written their stories, the answer is usually no.The reason is usually—"I don't know where to begin."
I want to hear your stories and I think your children, your grandchildren, and future generations will want to hear.I plead with all of you, begin anywhere and write your story.We all have one..