©Evan Nichols 2012

Brown. Everything brown: the trees, the mud-packed streets, the houses behind the high mud walls, the old bearded men sitting in the tea khanas smoking their bubble pipes. Sarah pushed her hair from her eyes, shifted the weight of the large leather purse that contained her Minolta, her U.S. passport, her U.S.S.R. guidebooks, her rubles, and continued walking.

There was no need to wear her sun-glasses; the neutral April sky hid the sun. Sarah pulled up the collar of her raincoat and scuffed on. Fabled Samarkand. Now fabled Bukhara. What a bill of goods the Los Angeles travel agent had sold her.

At UCLA she had studied the glories of Tamerlane. She had dreamed of saffron and cinnamon and oriental carpets carried by camel caravans across Central Asia. But except for the ruins of Tamerlane’s mosque Samarkand had been dull and wet and lonely. Now here she was in Bukhara surrounded by brown. Sarah shuffled her boot-clad feet as she continued down the center of the street. No sidewalks. She had not seen a car since the In-Tourist guide deposited her at a modest hotel. No one in the silent town gave her more than an indifferent nod. Bukhara was no tourist mecca.

Victor, the youthful, squarely built Russian with Asiatic eyes, would serve as her guide at this stop in her three-week journey. But five minutes after he had met her Aeroflot jet, she had disappointed him.

“I wait your arrival,” he said, doffing his cap. “I read Westerns. I make list of words I don’t understand.” He pulled out his worn paper. “I wait for American visitor to translate for me. Not many come this year.”

Sarah took the list obligingly, glanced at the words, and shook her curly head. “Are you sure these words are from American westerns”? Her eyes scanned the list again, but except for “hoosegow” and “buckaroo,” she could offer no help.

The Russian frowned, his eyes narrowing. Her ignorance obviously annoyed him.

“I come from Los Angeles; it’s the West,” she apologized, “but I don’t read Westerns. I like poetry.”

At the hotel Victor turned her over quickly to the unexpressive desk clerk. “I see you tomorrow for sightseeing.”

But the walk had not shaken her boredom. She passed an arcade where only tin watering cans hung like chimes from the ceiling, clanging impatiently as the breeze butted them together. Bolts of drab gray material rested on a table in front of the shop. There was not much to inspect, nothing to buy.

Sarah considered a cup of tea –that would be easy –she was experienced with “tchai.” But she did not want tea, she wanted someone to talk with. Her Timex read 5 pm. She had more than an hour to kill until dinner at the hotel. She wished she had a nosey maid to talk with, like the one at the Europa Hotel in Tiblisi. That young woman had found Sarah’s colorful polyester pantsuit and her Clinique eyeliner the subjects of many minutes of bi-national chatter.

Outside the arcade Sarah spotted a wooden bench and sat down, suddenly tired. She had been on the move: Baku, Tiblisi, Rostov, Sochi. Now for the first time in days she thought of home. Her mother had opposed Sarah’s trip. It was the first time Sarah had been away from her family during Passover. She would miss the large family Sedars. Her mother would miss Sarah’s help preparing the gefilte fish, the chicken soup, the matzoh balls, the sponge cake.

And Sarah’s empty chair would sadden her father.

“Why can’t you travel to Russia in the summer?” her mother had asked. “Why do you want to visit the Soviet Union? Your father and I were born in Moscow, but who wants to return.”

Now as she sat alone, miles from home, Sarah tried to silence her mother’s voice. She sighed, rubbed her shoulder, which needed a rest from her heavy purse.

When Sarah looked up, she had an audience: a young girl, wearing a red sweater and a gray skirt and knee-highs, stood there watching her. She eyed Sarah silently, her dark eyes taking in the boots, the jeans, the leather gloves, the loud plaid scarf.

Sarah smiled, a smile she had used often on this trip.

“Pedagogue americanski,” she said. “Sarah Kaufman,” pointing awkwardly at herself, jabbing her forefinger into her chest.

“Rosa,” the little girl replied.

“Ruski?”

“No, Ivrit,” Rosa answered.

Ivrit. Sarah had met Georgians, Tadjiks, Armenians, Azerbaijanians as she moved from one Soviet republic to another. But Ivrit: the girl was telling her she was Hebrew.

“Ivrit,” Sarah smiled in response, pointing to herself.

Rosa laughed and waved goodbye to Sarah.

Alone again. Sarah had enjoyed the few seconds of company, but now she picked herself up from the bench, brushed the dust from her raincoat, and plodded on. A few minutes later Rosa caught up with her.

She whispered something in Russian and indicated Sarah should follow her.

After a five-minute walk down the road, Rosa unlocked a wooden gate, and Sarah stood in a modest courtyard where chickens pecked at the ground and the day’s laundry dried on the clothesline.

A tall woman, worn, but still youthful, appeared from the house. She was dressed in a 3/4 shabby, velvet coat, a full cotton skirt, dark hose and Oxfords, her head covered by a babushka. Then a man appeared in work clothes, suspenders holding up his gray pants, his face grizzled. They bowed to Sarah.

“Mamma and papa”? Sarah inquired. Rosa nodded.

The father carried a straight back wooden chair into the yard. Sarah knew it was for her comfort, but she wiggled as the wooden slats pressed into her back. The two adults studied her.

“Pedagogue americanski.” She offered her stock phrase. The parents nodded; they already had that information.

Sarah wondered how long she should stay. She glanced at her Timex. Dinner would be served at the hotel in 25 minutes. She appreciated the opportunity to observe the family’s courtyard–Rosa’s parents obviously had no intention of inviting her into their home.

Rosa’s father bowed again and left the scene. Meanwhile Rosa’s mother entered a small storeroom. When she reappeared, she was holding a large, flat, square cracker. Sarah could not believe what she saw: it was a freshly baked matzoh, not out of a Streit’s package, but homemade, here in Bukhara, Uzbekistan. In Los Angeles her family would be sharing the same Passover bread.

“Take it,” the woman said with her eyes and her outstretched hands.

“Spasiba.” The matzoh filled Sarah’s lap. She broke off a piece of the dry cracker and politely munched it.

Rosa and her mother watched, waiting for her approval.

“It’s very good; you baked it? “ Sarah asked. The on-lookers smiled. Sarah chewed the flavorless cracker pieces, her eyes surveying the memorable scene once more: chickens, laundry, woman in strange velvet coat, little girl in red sweater, the treeless courtyard — matzoh!

Sarah looked away from Rosa and her mother, her eyes filling with tears. She broke off another piece of matzoh.

A few minutes later she had digested all the cracker she could eat. Although she did not want to insult her hosts, she must leave. She still clutched half the homemade matzoh.

“I must go,” she said, indicating her watch, hoping Rosa would understand. Sarah rose from her chair and placed the matzoh into the outside compartment of her purse. An inch of the cracker with its crisp edges announced itself to any passer-by.

Rosa’s mother preceded Sarah to the gate, one hand on the lock. The other reached into the outside compartment of Sarah’s purse, finding the matzoh and deftly snapping it in two, without crumbling it, pushing the two pieces into the leather pocket, hidden from curious eyes.

The mother looked very wise. Opening the gate to allow her guest to depart, she said sadly, “Do svidanya.” Rosa stood by her side waving Sarah goodbye.

Sarah walked down the road, turning again to wave. She scrunched her fingers into her purse pocket once more to secure the matzoh pieces. Quietly she murmured a Pesach prayer.

©Ruby Bernstein, 2012

Ruby Bernstein, BAWP ’74, reports she had a terrific birthday trip to New York in April where she enjoyed The Public Theatre’s 6.5 hour production of “Gatz”, the complete reading and dramatization of Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby”, a novel she taught at least 20-plus times at Ygnacio Valley and Northgate High Schools (1962-1995). Knowing all the dialogue, she was prepared to sub for any missing stars!

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2 Responses to “Exodus by Ruby Bernstein”


  1. Ruby….Wonderful!! Thank you so much for sharing it with us!!! Cant wait to read it to Paul in the morning!!
    Bravo!!!

  2. tony giffone Says:

    Ruby:

    As always, you’re writing is so wonderfully evocative of place, so wonderfully reaffirming of the human spirit.

    Tony

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