My very first memory is about being alone. I’m one or two years old, and I’ve just woken up from a nap. It’s pitch black, and I’m standing in a creaky wooden crib, holding the bars, looking out into the small, windowless room of our apartment on Kobylanskaya Street. I’m supposed to call my babushka when I wake up, I know this, but for some reason I can’t say the words: Baba. Baba. They keep running through my head but not coming out into the world, into the darkness of the room, through the cluttered hallway and into the kitchen, where my grandma is boiling milk to pour into cheesecloth, her thin hair drenched with sweat, my sister circling the floor near her feet, carrying her favorite doll.
When you cross the border into our state, whether on the highway or arriving in an airport, the first thing you see is a sign proclaiming that you have entered something called “Pure Michigan.” As an advertising slogan, this has always struck me as bizarre. For one thing, purity is not a high value of mine; there seems something vaguely Nazi-ish about it to my jaundiced Jewish eyes. (What next? A picture of Henry Ford accompanied by the words Arbeit macht frei?) Second, our state (like the country as a whole) is a congeries of contradictory populations—the heavily African-American city of Detroit balanced by the mostly white west side of the state; the wealthy, if not plush, suburbs balanced by the rugged and impoverished Upper Peninsula.