Russian roulette

Paul DeLeeuw

February 25, 2022

Yaakov Krendle carefully rolled the empty stretcher out of the recovery room, out the door, and towards the elevator, which as usual in this inner cityNew York hospital, was slow in coming. While waiting, he reviewed for the thousandth time the questions and answers which would prepare him to take the exam, specially prepared for graduates from foreign medical schools, who wished to practice in the United States. He had already failed the exam twice and was grateful that friends had obtained this hospital orderly job for him, so he had a least enough money coming in to pay room rent and buy food.

Yaakov had always totally believed in the benefits of

the Russian revolution, even though his parents on both sides had been engaged in small retail trade in Moscow for most of their years. He was born around the time of the overturn of the Czarist regime, and although he had a few years of basic Jewish education before his Bar Mitzvah, his secular upbringing had dominated his life completely, first the sciences, then medical school, and finally specialization in urology, with an appointment to an elite hospital as head of a department. His superiors trusted his political outlook completely so that even though a few years ago he was made to resign from the Communist Party during the Stalin antiĀ­semitic drive, he was given permission to attend an international urology symposium in New York.

All the necessary papers, including exit visas, passports, and funds for staying in New York appeared without too much delay. Saving goodbye to his Russian wife was not painful; she was getting a little heavier, her hair was grey, as was her conversation, her eyes were usually dull and

 

without expression, except when she was with the “girls”. when they sparkled as of old. She had been a good wife, decent, always there when needed, but barren of children or any original thought. They had never fought or argued~ but really never loved either, so that in their last decade together they had returned to the ritualistic politeness of their dating years.

The hotel room reserved: for him in New York was, by city standards second rate, but to Yaakov, it was a palace; the dining rooms sumptuous, even the all-night coffee shop a wonder to behold. The city never stopped, just the quality of the light and the noises changed, but it remained alive and vibrant. The meetings of the urology society, on the other hand, were dull and uninformative and after the first day Yaakov decided to rent a car and see a little more of this strange country; he could always catch up and find the essence of most of the important speeches in the

international journals in the months to come.

The international drivers’ license he had been advised to obtain, came in good stead, but he had to go to an obscure car rental place, to get a car without a credit card and even then only after leaving a substantial deposit. The owner eyed his credentials, including his medical license with some curiosity. “Bist ein yidiach?” he asked, but when Yaakov obviously did not understand, he let the matter drop.

Driving an American car was an absolute delight; it seemed to glide, with all the buttons in perfect working order. Most of the day he listened to an FM station, which produced classical music and kept him in a perpetual dreamy state. On Friday night, nearing the end of his stay, while approaching a toll booth, the radio program unexpectedly shifted into a Friday night service at Temple Emanuel in New York. As the melodies and the Hebrew words filled his ears, he could see his mother standing before the candies, her eyes transfixed, making the blessings, the room in semidarkness with only his father’s eyes visible. The vision and the words triggered an emotion, thousands of years old, forever in his blood and he started to sob, tears flowing from his eyes in torrents. When he reached the toll station the attendant looked at him sharply: “Something wrong?” Yaakov could only shake his head, no, but instead of driving back to his hotel, he decided to go to a police station, ask for asylum, and defect.

Asylum was readily offered to him since as an internationally known physician and scientist he was considered a plum by the American authorities. But life in America turned out to be more difficult than he had expected: there were no automatic government checks coming in and in order to pay for shelter and food, he had to gratefully accept a job as a hospital orderly, pushing stretchers from floor to floor. After flunking his national boards exams twice, with no improvement in grades, it dawned on him that the likelihood of ever practicing medicine in the United States was slim indeed. Even his attendance at Friday night services at Temple Emanual, which initially had lifted his spirits gloriously, had begun to wane. Yaakov knew that he was a stranger in this new count