|Letter from Sasha|
AJC Executive Director David A. Harris writes a monthly letter offering his insights and analysis of current concerns facing American and world Jewry.
Letter from Sasha
August 25, 2003
My name is Sasha.*
Actually, my real name is Alexander, but we Russians love diminutives. Galina becomes Galya, Konstantin turns into Kostya, and even Sasha has its own diminutive, Sashinka.
I am part of the sizable Soviet-born Jewish population in the United States. In sharing my family's story before and after arrival in this country, I'm hoping to help deepen the ties between our community and other American Jews. I don't wish to suggest that our experience is necessarily typical, but then again it may not be entirely atypical, either.
I was born in Moscow in 1966. As with many urban Soviet Jewish families of that era, I was an only child. My parents, Boris and Svetlana, were also born in Moscow-just before World War II-but were evacuated to Kazakhstan with their mothers and returned to Moscow only at the war's end. My father, a graduate of the polytechnic institute, was an engineer; my mother, a university graduate, was a high school teacher of German.
We lived in a communal apartment in a relatively nice part of Moscow. My parents and I shared a room, my mother's mother, my Babushka, slept in an alcove nearby, and another family lived in the other large bedroom. We all shared the bathroom and kitchen. It wasn't too bad, except for the occasional quarrel over who needed the bathroom more urgently or who left the dirty dishes in the sink.
I should say a word about Babushka. Her real name was Sarah. She was born in Bobruisk in 1915, two years before the Bolshevik Revolution. Bobruisk is in Byelorussia, or White Russia as some people refer to it in English. It was enough to say you were from Bobruisk and your name was Sarah for people to figure out that you were Jewish.
In many ways, Babushka was-and remains-the most special person in my life. Her husband, Abram, was killed on the battlefront in 1942, less than a year after the Nazis invaded the USSR. She never remarried. Instead, she and my mother lived together, even after my mother's marriage to my father. That was rather common. And it was also typical that she would raise me while my parents spent much of their time consumed by their jobs.
It was really from Babushka that I learned I was a Jew. It's not that my parents entirely hid it from me; it's just that they didn't talk much about it. And when they did, it almost always seemed to revolve around concerns about anti-Semitism, whether at work, in the newspapers, or on the street.
But for my grandmother, being Jewish seemed different, more expressive and substantive. For one thing, unlike my parents, she spoke Yiddish and taught me a few words. She knew the Jewish holidays and tried to explain their meaning to me. And she cooked certain mouth-watering foods whenever it was holiday time.
School, of course, loomed large in my life. I attended Special School No. 45. You had to take an exam to be admitted, and it helped if your parents knew the right people as well. The USSR had a system of special schools that focused on a particular subject, such as a foreign language, math, a science, even chess. Competition for entry was fierce, both because the level of education was high and one's chances of admission to a prestigious university or institute after graduation were substantially enhanced.
My school concentrated on English. Like other academically oriented schools in the USSR, it had ten grades. I entered first grade when I was seven, the customary age, and by second grade, I was already getting a heavy dose of English.
Pupils in the younger classes had to join the Octoberists, then the Pioneers-the very first steps on the communist ladder. (In the older grades, we were supposed to move to the third step, the Komsomol.) We wore red scarves, learned about the unparalleled achievements of the Communist Party and our country's leaders, sang patriotic songs, and were taught to believe that the capitalist world-and America in particular-was our greatest enemy. Every so often, we also heard something about the evils of Zionism and the plight of poor Arabs at the hands of bloodthirsty Israelis.
I didn't quite know what to make of this last point, as I had never in my life met Zionists and didn't have a clue as to what they looked like. But I had no reason to doubt my teachers until one day I asked my parents why the Zionists were so cruel.
I quickly realized I had stumbled onto something significant. My parents looked at each other uncomfortably before dismissing the question by telling me it wasn't worth discussing. Of course, that only made me realize it must have been well worth discussing, but they wouldn't say any more. So I went to Babushka and asked her. She began whispering to me that Zionists were Jews who wanted a state of their own and that she, my beloved grandmother, was, in fact, one of those Jews. But all this should be kept under wraps, she warned me, because it could only cause trouble for the family. It was enough to say you were a Zionist to end up in prison.
Just after I turned eleven, I began to overhear my parents talking animatedly after they thought I was asleep. This would go on night after night. I strained to listen. When I finally figured out what it was they were discussing, I couldn't believe my ears. They were going back and forth on the subject of emigration.
I could just make out snippets of what they were saying: "Did you hear that the Shapiro family has just received a vyzov (affidavit) from Israel, thanks to the help of a caring American Jew visiting Moscow who conveyed their request to the Israeli authorities, and want to move there?" "I learned that Kagan, the fellow I studied with at the institute, and his family left last week for Vienna and hope to join a cousin in Los Angeles." "What if we apply to leave and get turned down? How would we manage without work and money? What would happen to Sashinka at school?" "I can't take it much more. I know I deserved a promotion, but they gave the job to that nincompoop Petrov instead. We Jews just don't stand a chance here. Sashinka has no future."
Months passed. My parents never discussed anything with me, but the nightly conversations continued. The only difference was that my mother and father seemed to be in growing agreement that we should try to leave. The talk increasingly shifted to where to go, Israel or the United States.
Papa clearly wanted to resettle in Israel. He said that was the one place where Jews wouldn't have to worry about anti-Semitism and where my future was limitless. He knew there were many engineers going there, but he heard through the grapevine that the Israeli government was investing lots of money in advanced training courses, which made him optimistic he could find a job in his field. I should point out that work was extremely important to both my parents. It practically defined them.
Mama preferred immigrating to the United States. She had three main arguments. First, she was troubled by the fact that I would have to serve in the Israeli army. She had already lost her father in war; she didn't want to lose her only child too. Second, she said that since America was such a big country, it would be easier to find good jobs. And third, she was concerned about the climate. We Russians are used to the cold and snow, and Israel is practically a desert country, she would repeat over and over.
My mother prevailed.
I'll never forget the day in 1978 when my parents said they needed to talk with me. It was clear they had something serious on their minds. Babushka sat with us. Everything was said in hushed tones. They didn't want our neighbors in the communal apartment to listen in on the conversation.
This is more or less what they told me:
Sashinka, we have decided to try to leave this country and move to the United States. We want you to understand why. It wasn't an easy decision for us. This is the land of our birth. Russian is our language. We love Russian culture. Pushkin, Chekhov, Turgenev, Gogol, Tchaikovsky, and Rachmaninoff are so much a part of who we are. We love Russian nature-our walks together in the woods to pick mushrooms, our time spent near the Black Sea, the long summer nights when it barely gets dark. We have many friends here that we don't want to leave. But we can't stay any longer. We are Jews and this country has never liked Jews, neither before 1917 nor since. We can't stand the constant attacks on Israel and Zionism. We don't see any future for you here. There'll always be barriers, no matter how well you do in school. And conscription into the Soviet army, with its rampant anti-Semitism, looms ahead.
We don't know if we'll be successful in our effort to emigrate, but we must try. There's a window of opportunity. Some Jews have received visas pretty quickly; others, though, have been given a very rough time. You need to keep our plan a secret from everyone at school or else it may land you in trouble. Don't breathe a word of this to your teachers or friends. I know that's going to be tough for you, but trust us, it's the best way. And one other thing: Don't believe what they tell you in school about America, even if you have to pretend to go along. America is a great country and Jews are treated fairly. You'll be very happy there.
I quickly learned the art of living two entirely separate, if not contradictory, lives.
By day, I was an exemplary student, getting "fives" in just about every course, while being the model Pioneer.
By night, I sensed my parents' tension as they faced the difficulty of trying to obtain an affidavit from Israel, the first step in the emigration process, but running into Soviet roadblocks. Then there were a thousand other details-birth certificates, death certificates, high school and college diplomas, documents from work, police records, etc., etc., etc. It never ended, and no one in the Soviet bureaucracy had any interest in facilitating the process unless it was for a big bribe, which was beyond our means.
Franz Kafka would have had a field day describing the whole story.
Moreover, every week there were new rumors swirling around: The emigration procedure was loosening up, said one family friend who assured us he was in the know; no, said another equally confident friend, things are quickly tightening up. Officials at OVIR, the Soviet visa office, are more sympathetic to those they think are headed for Israel rather than the U.S., or is it the other way around? On and on it went. Who knew what was true and what wasn't?
It's really hard to describe our lives during this period, especially to Americans who too often take their freedom for granted.
We lived in a twilight zone. We were no longer fully part of the Soviet Union. My parents lost their jobs and had to make do with tutoring and whatever other off-the-books work they could find to earn some money. We didn't know if our exit visas would come tomorrow or ever. We were worried that our neighbors would learn our secret and clamor to have us tossed out on the street as traitors to the motherland. I was petrified that one day the Pioneers would meet and I'd be denounced as an enemy.
Even when we allowed ourselves flights of fantasy and tried to think about our new lives in the United States, we had no idea what awaited us. None of us, my Babushka included, had ever been outside the Soviet Union. Maybe, I feared, the press was right and America was a country racked with violence and injustice.
Luck was with us. In 1979, we were notified by OVIR that the four of us could leave the country on visas to Israel. As it turned out, we were part of an enormous wave that year. More than 51,000 Soviet Jews left, far more than in any previous year since emigration began as a trickle in 1968. Unfortunately, the luck didn't extend to Jewish prisoners of conscience like Natan Sharansky, languishing in the gulag, or refuseniks unable to emigrate because of alleged possession of state secrets.
That reminds me of one of the many political jokes that Jews told each other at the time, usually in the privacy of a home and with a half-empty bottle of vodka nearby:
Rabinovich was called into the KGB and told that, as a scientist, he wouldn't be given permission to immigrate to the United States because he knew a state secret. "Are you kidding?" replied Rabinovich. "In my field, the Americans are decades ahead." "And that," said the KGB official, "is the state secret."
We were elated with our good fortune, but there wasn't much opportunity to celebrate. So many things still had to be done and there was precious little time before the visas expired. We had to arrange our plane tickets, ship whatever furniture we could to the West, sell the rest, exchange the legally enforced maximum of 90 rubles each for the $120 we would be permitted to take with us, buy a few matrushkas and other souvenirs we would try to sell in the West for extra money, say good-bye to all our friends, and pray that OVIR wouldn't have a change of heart before we left.
The big day finally came. Our friends accompanied us to Sheremetyevo Airport. All of us were crying and hugging and promising to stay in touch. We bid everyone farewell, then faced one last indignity before boarding the Aeroflot plane for Vienna.
Soviet customs officials, unlike their Western counterparts, checked travelers on the way out, not just the way in, and they reserved special treatment for departing Soviet Jews. They ripped through our luggage, microscopically examined each and every item, questioned us mercilessly, grabbed items for themselves and dared us to challenge them, and left everything in a big mess, knowing full well that we would have to rush to put things back in order and get to the gate in time for the flight.
It was toughest on Babushka. She was 64 and not in the best of health. We were her only family and she was determined to go, but you could see the strain on her face. This wasn't going to be an easy journey for her.
Not until the plane had taken off and the pilot had announced that Vienna was our next stop did we begin to breathe more normally. We had done it. We had ended one chapter in our lives and were about to start a second. For me, at the age of 13, this was quite an adventure.
We landed in Vienna, disembarked, and soon heard our names called. Oh, no, had the KGB followed us? When we saw the smiling face approaching us, we knew the answer. After all, KGB officials weren't exactly known for their warmth.
If I remember correctly, the man said his name was Ari and he was from the Jewish Agency for Israel. This was the first Israeli any of us had ever laid eyes on. He welcomed us to Vienna and told us there were a few other families like ours on the same flight. He asked us where we planned to resettle. My father hesitated. My mother gently poked him. That prompted Papa to say we were hoping to go to New York. Ari asked us if we had thought about making aliyah. My father explained that we had, but we decided against it and weren't open to reconsideration. Ari shook his head in disappointment.
Of the five families on our flight, two were headed for Israel and stayed with Ari; the rest of us were transferred to the care of HIAS and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC). We spent a few days in Vienna, which gave us our first glimpse of the West, while registering with these two Jewish organizations, answering a ton of questions, and settling into a modest hotel filled with other Soviet Jews in the same boat as we were.
I'll always remember our impressions of those days.
We were living in a dream. We kept pinching ourselves, wondering if it really was all true. Vienna was magical. The city was breathtakingly beautiful. People were polite. The stores displayed items we had never seen before. My father joked that in Russia we had money but the stores had nothing; here the stores had everything and we had no money. The supermarkets were from another planet. The Jewish organizations operated openly, not clandestinely, and they welcomed us as Jews. That was a bit confusing, as we had never before identified publicly as Jews except in trying to get out of the Soviet Union.
Speaking of the other emigrants, I'll never forget my parents' reaction. They had lived in a confined world in Moscow where all the Jews they knew were pretty much like themselves-highly educated, cultured, and secular. Now they found themselves surrounded by a profusion of diversity, and I think it was initially disorienting.
There were Bukharan Jews from Tashkent, Tat (or "Mountain") Jews from Baku, Georgian Jews from Tbilisi, and even Hasidic Jews from Uzhgorod. There were Jews from the so-called Jewish Autonomous District in Birobidzhan. There were doctors, scientists, and classical musicians, and there were truck drivers, welders, and short-order cooks. And there were even a few non-Jews, with exit visas for Israel like the rest of us, whom the Kremlin had been eager to kick out.
From Vienna, we went by train to Rome, or actually to Orte, an hour's drive north of Rome. The entire trip took about 20 hours. The security along the way was impressive. At the Sudbahnhof in Vienna, Austrian police carrying submachine guns patrolled while we boarded the railroad cars specially designated for us. Again, lots of armed guards in Italy. We were reminded that, in 1973, Palestinian terrorists had seized a train carrying Soviet Jewish refugees across Czechoslovakia en route to Vienna and demanded that Austria shut down its reception center in exchange for release of the hostages.
Buses met us in Orte and, with a police escort, took us to a pensione in Rome. The four of us held on to each other-and to our suitcases-for dear life, as we found ourselves in our second Western country in less than a week.
We stayed in Italy for about three months while our papers were processed for admission to the United States. After a few days in the hotel, like many of the thousands of other Soviet Jews, we moved to Ostia, the ancient port of Rome, while others found places in Ladispoli, another seaside community. It was easy to find an apartment since it wasn't the summer high season. Actually, we shared a flat, but at least this time we got to choose our housemates.
Ah, Italy. With the stipend we received from the JDC, we were able to live modestly well, especially since prices for pasta, fruits, vegetables, and, best of all, gelato (ice cream) weren't terribly exorbitant, even if many other things were completely out of our reach. Papa tried to make a few extra lire by going on Sunday mornings to the popular Roman flea market at Porta Portese and selling some items we had brought. I felt bad for him, but he never complained. The extra money certainly came in handy.
The Italians couldn't have been nicer or more sympathetic to our situation as refugees in transit. Somehow we managed to communicate with each other, even if almost none of us spoke any Italian and few Italians understood Russian. The Italians proved patient, though, and there were some funny scenes. Did you ever notice how, when language is a barrier, people think that all they need to do is speak louder and they'll be understood? That happened a lot.
The Jewish organizations were there to assist us. Our family was assigned caseworkers by both HIAS, which took care of our migration formalities, and the JDC, which handled our living and medical needs.
We met lots of other Soviet Jewish families while in Ostia. In fact, many refugees gathered daily at the post office square, which the local Italians began calling Piazza Rossa or "Red Square" in our honor, to exchange the latest rumors about immigration and resettlement, seek information from newcomers about friends and relatives who were still in the USSR, or just shoot the breeze.
There were opportunities for me to go to school with other Soviet Jewish kids. English classes were available for my parents. Celebrations of the main Jewish holidays were organized for us. Synagogues were available for those interested.
My family and I look back on that time spent in Italy with warm feelings. We loved the country and its people, even if we couldn't quite figure out why the Italian Communist Party enjoyed such popularity. We had a much-needed break from the gut-wrenching turmoil of our last year in Moscow. And we spent lots of time together.
But I noticed something that is quite normal for migrating families, but that no one had told me about at the time: I was adapting to our new circumstances far more quickly than my parents. They were emotional yo-yos. One day they were up, the next day down. They were plagued by questions: Will we adapt to the West? Can we learn to speak fluent English? Will we eventually find work in our specialties? What if we don't?
For me, on the other hand, my English from school came in handy and it didn't take long to pick up some Italian while playing soccer with local kids. My family began relying on me to get around. I kind of liked my new status.
Our American visas came through without delay. Sometimes, however, there were difficulties, we were told, especially for those who had once been members of the Soviet Communist Party or had had criminal records in the USSR.
We were informed by our HIAS caseworker that we would be resettled in New York. When Soviet Jewish families didn't have close relatives living in the U.S. whom they could join, they were sent to New York or one of dozens of other cities.
Another plane ride awaited, the longest any of us had ever been on. This time, though, there were no surly Aeroflot flight attendants, only the permanently smiling faces of the Pan Am stewardesses.
We arrived at JFK Airport and once again were met by Jewish representatives and escorted through the entry formalities. We looked around at everything with a special curiosity because this was it-our new home. Austria and Italy were transit countries for us, but America was where we would be living. There would be no turning back.
New York was different than Vienna or Rome. It didn't have the historical majesty of either city, and its size and bustle at first simply overwhelmed us. But it grew on us as we got to know it.
For one thing, we quickly came to understand how accommodating a city it was to newcomers. You didn't have to live here for three generations to make your mark. Opportunities abounded for those with the energy, drive, and vision to seize them. And for another, we were amazed by the size and confidence of the Jewish community. Jews not only lived proudly as Jews, but they also seemed entirely at home as Americans.
This, of course, was exactly the opposite of the situation in the USSR. There Jews couldn't live as Jews, yet no matter how hard many tried to assimilate-shedding every last vestige of their Jewish identity-they still were not accepted as full-blooded Soviets.
Describing our first weeks and months in New York would easily fill a book. We had no end of experiences, challenges, and mood swings. There was so much that was new and different. But slowly, ever so slowly, things began to fall into place.
We found an apartment in Rego Park, Queens, with the help of NYANA, our local resettlement agency. I went to the neighborhood public school. My studies were pretty easy for me, especially the math and science courses. Babushka found a circle of Russian- and Yiddish-speaking friends in the nearby Jewish community center and otherwise busied herself preparing us wonderful dinners of borscht, stuffed cabbage, cutlets, kasha, fruit compote, and other Russian specialties. Papa retrained as a computer programmer and subsequently landed his first job, though he quickly learned that job security in a free-wheeling capitalist society is not what it was in the centrally planned Soviet economy. Fortunately, he eventually found a stable position. And Mama announced to us that since there was no need for German teachers in New York, she was going to become a bookkeeper. Psychologically, this must have been a tough transition for her.
The years have flown by. My grandmother has slowed down, but I have no doubt that her new life in America gave her a second wind. Thanks to the miracle of satellites and cable, she's able to watch Russian-language television. With the boom in Russian Jewish life in New York, she now has her choice of two local all-Russian radio stations and a range of newspapers and magazines. And you have to see the joy on her face when she celebrates a Jewish holiday and no longer has to whisper to me-or now my children-its meaning. Her life has come full circle, she said, and it makes her feel good to know that Jewish life will continue in our family.
My parents are in their 60s and beginning to think about retirement. They have no regrets whatsoever about their momentous decision to leave Moscow 25 years ago.
Their English is accented, to be sure, but fluent. They've created a good life for themselves. Most of their friends here are also from the old country, but they've made a few other friends as well. Friends, you should know, are very important in our culture. We invest a lot of time in building and maintaining relationships.
My parents have traveled twice to Europe, taken a trip to Israel, which they loved and where they saw many of their old friends and colleagues, and even spent a week in Moscow last year. When they got back, their first comment was: "Moscow is a nice place to visit, but who would want to live there?"
I can't say that my parents have turned into devout Jews. The one thing communism managed to instill in them was skepticism about organized religion. Still, they have an active interest in all things Jewish-books, museums, historical sites, news. And when it comes to support for Israel, they are outspoken.
Like many Soviet Jews, they feel a strong, visceral connection to Israel and approach any peace process with deep-seated doubts about Arab intentions. They have no confidence in the word of despotic governments, be they Arab or communist.
My parents, like many other Soviet Jews here, often find themselves at odds with the majority of American Jews on key political issues. For our whole family, Ronald Reagan occupies an exalted place. He understood the true nature of communism and confronted it directly. Yet Reagan was too conservative for many of the American Jews we've met. In turn, we tend to find American Jews at times too naïve, too credulous.
As for me, I'm living proof of the American dream. I went to college, attended law school, and am now working in a good firm. I married a physician with a background similar to my own. We bought a home in Staten Island not too far from my parents' place in Queens, joined a synagogue, and send our children to Hebrew school. In just about every respect, they're typical American kids. They speak a decent Russian, though between them they always speak in English, and we're trying to give them a love of Russian culture. But that's turning out to be a steep uphill struggle. American popular culture exerts a strong pull on them.
Several times a year, we-all four generations-travel to Brighton Beach in Brooklyn, "Odessa by the Sea." We savor the sights and sounds of a bustling Russian Jewish neighborhood filled with restaurants, cafés, gourmet shops, and bookstores that continue to evoke an important part of the lives of my grandmother, my parents, and me, and perhaps will one day help explain us to my two young American-born children.
I am eternally grateful to Mama and Papa. Now that I'm a parent myself-in fact, only a year or two younger than they were when they first decided to emigrate-I can appreciate even more their courage and love. They took a leap into the unknown. They did it because they couldn't see a future for themselves, and especially for me. The step they took wasn't easy for them. Believe me when I say that. But they persevered, and I, and now my children as well, are the direct beneficiaries.
The time has come, I feel, for me to start giving back, especially to the American Jewish community and Israel. I wouldn't be where I am without them.
Through national and local organizations, American Jews-and many non-Jews as well, as I later learned to my pleasant surprise-advocated on behalf of the rights of Soviet Jewry while we were still behind the Iron Curtain. Moreover, they helped us along the way once we were able to leave. And now that I know something about the experiences of refugees from other countries who came to America, I realize all the more how fortunate we were to have such a helping hand.
Israel instilled in many of us pride and dignity, though we always had to hide it. Ask my grandmother's generation how they felt when Israel sent its first ambassador, Golda Meir, to Moscow. Ask my parents' generation how they felt when they read samizdat (i.e., secretly self-published) copies of Leon Uris's Exodus, translated into Russian, and came to understand the story of modern-day Israel. And ask them how they felt in 1967 when the Israeli army vanquished Soviet-equipped Arab armies in just six days.
Israel also gave us the affidavit, without which it would have been virtually impossible to emigrate from the Soviet Union in 1979. After all, officially this migration was referred to by the Kremlin, for its own domestic reasons and notwithstanding its anti-Zionist rhetoric, as repatriation of Jews to the Jewish homeland, Israel.
Organized American Jewry will find a tremendous potential resource in people like me. By now we number in the hundreds of thousands. We're roughly one-quarter of the New York Jewish population and as much as one-tenth of the total American Jewish community. We have passion, commitment, and real-life experience galore.
A number of local Federations have reached out to us, and one national Jewish organization I know of has made a special effort to integrate us into the framework of the Jewish community as full participants-the American Jewish Committee.
For the past six years, AJC has run a leadership institute specially designed for Jews from the FSU. I took the course and now feel empowered. They have a staff member focusing full-time on our community and a Russian-language website, and they've just started regular radio commentaries on Jewish topics in Russian.
As I stop to reflect on my life, it's simply mind-boggling.
In 1979, I was still wearing the red scarf of the Pioneers. Before the year ended, I had traveled through Austria and Italy and settled in a new home in New York. Today I'm an American-educated lawyer. Were we lucky! The gates began closing shortly after we left. In the next eight years combined, fewer people left than in 1979 alone.
But then the numbers started rising rapidly. Over one million people have streamed out in the past fifteen years-most on direct flights to their countries of destination rather than through transit points, reflecting the dramatically new political climate. Some have adjusted rather quickly; others, however, have had a difficult time adapting to a new world.
The impact of this modern-day exodus, of which we were a tiny part, has been profound not only on the U.S. and American Jewry, but also on Israel, 20 percent of whose Jewish population today is from the Former Soviet Union, and on Germany, whose Jewish community is now overwhelmingly from the FSU. To a lesser degree, its impact can also be felt in Australia and Canada.
And, of course, the pièce de résistance came in 1991 when the USSR collapsed from the weight of its own tyranny, corruption, and inefficiency, to be replaced by fifteen sovereign countries and the flowering of Jewish life in just about every one of them.
On second thought, maybe we weren't such atheists after all. Perhaps someone "up there" really had heard our most fervent prayers.
* Sasha and his family are fictitious persons. They are a composite of many Soviet Jews I have met since I first worked in the USSR as an exchange teacher in 1974 and then as a resettlement caseworker with HIAS in Rome and Vienna.
This is #33 in a series of occasional letters on topics of current interest.Date: 8/25/2003