Excerpts from Memories from Cherry Harvest
As it begins:
When I remember Russia, I ache with longing for the village of my birth, where the beloved grandparents magically produced candy in a handshake and told stories of long ago when God spoke to humans and enchantments filled the world. On the day we left our village, Mama covered my face with a shawl to prevent me from seeing the heads of our elders mounted on spikes at the entrance. My grandmother’s head stood on one of those spikes. Did I actually see the heads or merely imagine them? The images that remain with me from that leave-taking have a gauzy, grainy texture because of the shawl. Mama succeeded in protecting me and my sister, Ruth, from the details of the gruesome scene, a significant success since the details of life in turbulent times are the most poignant part of history.
Our village had experienced other pogroms, but none as brutal as the one that drove my family out. “This is no place to raise children,” Mama said. Papa seized the moment and persuaded Mama to emigrate to Palestine, the ancient Jewish homeland, the land of milk and honey. Mama hoped to find richness and sweetness there. I think she did for a time, and then she didn’t. Palestine was not exactly a safe place to raise children either. Now that I am a mother, I wonder if there is any such place on earth.
* * *
Rivka’s first encounter with the Communists:
We entered a dimly lit room furnished with a sagging couch and metal chairs that looked as though they had been dragged back into service from the trash against their will. The furniture was populated by a small cluster of people, most of whom looked to be in their twenties (certainly older than I), in the midst of a heated discussion about the ramifications of the hypothetical spread of communism in Europe. When Tamar and I entered the room, the others fell silent.
“What?” Tamar challenged. “What?”
“Don’t ask ‘what,’” chided a young man who, with his straight dark hair and piercing brown eyes, was a male version of Tamar. “We didn’t agree to this. We’re supposed to agree on someone. Who is she?”
“A friend from school. I had to bring her. You should have heard her in class today. The way she stood up to the teacher,” Tamar replied, embarrassing me. “She’s fearless. Don’t be rude to her.”
“The teacher made me angry,” I said by way of explanation, mostly for Tamar’s benefit.
“Just what we need around here, another hothead,” said the man who resembled Tamar, appearing more amused than disappointed. He offered me an unexpectedly deep smile that was as rich as good coffee, while the others looked me up and down as if deciding whether or not to purchase me.
“Rivka, may I introduce my suspicious and paranoid comrades; suspicious and paranoid comrades, Rivka.” The others laughed as they introduced themselves. Coffee-smile was Tamar’s older brother, Yakov.
After the introductions, the fellow with the thick glasses launched back into the heated discussion that Tamar and I had interrupted with our arrival. “As long as people remain ignorant, they can be manipulated by corrupt leaders,” he said. “Once they know the truth, then they will act on it.”
“That is assuming that they themselves are not corrupt as well,” a woman with a ponytail and blue eyes responded.
“We have to assume that the people are not corrupt,” Yakov said. “Nothing works unless people are basically good and want to do the right thing. If we can’t assume that, then why bother at all? We’re all lost.”
The woman with the ponytail crossed her arms against her stomach and shot Yakov a skeptical look. I filed away in my mind that she was a cynic and Yakov an idealist.
Then the fellow with the thick glasses said, “Knowledge empowers people against oppression. It equips them with the tools to see the truth and to fight injustice.”
Although I had just joined the group, I was not one to keep my thoughts to myself and I was bursting to contribute to the discussion, so I spoke up. “Knowledge is necessary for people to see the truth, but I think that it’s memory that empowers people and it’s memory that will inspire people to resist oppression.” I was thinking about our village, how we were forced to flee, and the anger and hurt that stayed with me from that removal.
“Memory?” Yakov asked, with a puzzled expression. “What do you mean?”
“Physical memory of what has been lost, including loss of place. Cultural memory of longstanding persecution. Deep memory of one’s birthright and the injustice that has robbed one of access to it. There are many kinds of memory. Separating people from their memories is a direct route to forcing them to submit to domination.” After I had spoken, the others studied me, a new and unknown entity within their field of activity. I hoped that I was beginning to prove myself to be one of their equals, capable of contributing value to the group discussion.
“She’s right. We learn from history. Forgetting what has happened is dangerous,” Tamar said.
“Forgetting is a form of complicity with the oppressor,” the woman with the ponytail added.
“Exactly,” I agreed with satisfaction.
* * *
Deep thoughts conversation with a child:
We arrived early and walked to the waiting area for international flights, where we found seats facing the windows. I gazed at the clouded sky until an earnest young voice next to me interrupted my thoughts.
“I don’t believe the stars created the Earth,” the voice announced.
I peered into the intent face of a girl of eight or nine years old. The child’s dark eyes approached black and her straight hair, which flowed past her shoulders, was the color of a raven’s wing.
“Pardon?” I asked, although I had understood exactly what the child had said. I wanted a moment to gather my thoughts.
“Martin said the stars created the Earth, and I don’t believe him,” the child stated quietly.
“Maman’s friend. He said the universe used to have gases and matter until it exploded and some of it became the stars and some of it became the planets and one of it became Earth. He said the explosion of the stars created Earth.”
“That’s called the big bang theory,” I told her. “Because everything supposedly exploded with a bang. Many scientists teach that theory and many people believe it. Other people believe that a god created the world. Those people don’t believe about the big bang. Different people believe different things.”
“I don’t know about god theory,” the child responded, skeptically. I wondered about her ethnic identity. She had honey-colored skin and almond-shaped eyes. She could have been Philippine, or Latina, or a member of an indigenous tribe from anywhere in the world. Perhaps she was multiethnic, maybe part Asian and part African.
I said, “Some people think that living things started as tiny creatures in the water and that they changed, over many long years, into other beings, that changed into other beings again and again, that finally became humans.” The teacher in me was gratified to have spontaneously simplified the origin of species.
“That’s evolution, right?” The child hooked her curtain of hair behind her ears. She tipped her head slightly to one side and studied my face. “I don’t believe the big bang. I don’t believe evolution either. And I think people made up God to explain things they don’t understand.”
“What do you think created the world, then?” I asked with interest. This conversation with this unusual little girl was like a gift that had dropped in my lap.
The girl’s mother appeared and tapped her daughter on the shoulder. “Have you made a friend?” the mother asked.
I addressed the mother: “We were discussing the mystery of creation.”
The mother laughed lightly. “That sounds about right,” she said.
The girl stood to follow her mother, but before she left, she leaned in close to my ear and whispered, “I don’t know how it was created or why it was created, but the world wasn’t created by accident.”
I followed the girl with my eyes as she took her mother’s hand and disappeared into the crowd.