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I am not impressed by ancestry, since if I could trace my origins to Judas Maccabeus or to King David, that would not add one inch to my stature, either physically, mentally, or ethically. It's even possible that my ancestry might not move in the direction of ancient Israel at all.
About 600 C.E., a Turkish tribe, the Khazars, lived in what is now southern Russia. They established an empire that reached its peak about 750 C.E., [and] about that time, the Khazars adopted Judaism as the state religion, [probably] to keep from falling under the influence of either the Byzantine Christians or the Arab Moslems, who were busily engaged in the first part of their centuries-long duel.
After 965, the Khazars were through as an organized power, but Judaism may have remained, and it may well be that many East European Jews are descended from Khazars and the people they ruled. I may be one of them. Who knows? And who cares?
My mother [Anna Rachel Berman] had blue eyes, and in her youth, light hair. Though my father [Judah] was brown-eyed and brown-haired, there must have been a recessive blue-eyed gene there too, for my brother, my sister, and I all have blue eyes. My hair was brown, but both my brother and sister had reddish hair. My brother's daughter has bright red hair and blue eyes; my own daughter has blond hair and blue eyes. What's more, I've got high Slavic cheekbones.
Where did all this come from? Surely not from any Mediterranean or Turkish people. It had to be of Slavic origin and Scandinavian beyond that—plus a bit ofMongol to account for my B-type blood.
The date of my birth, as I celebrate it, was January 2, 1920. It could not have been later than that. It might, however, have been earlier. Allowing for the uncertainties of the times, of the lack of records, of the Jewish and Julian calendars, it might have been as early as October 4, 1919. My parents were always uncertain and it really doesn't matter.
I was born in the little town of Petrovichi, in the USSR, fifty-five miles due south of Smolensk (where a great battle was fought during Napoleon's invasion of 1812, and another during Hitler's invasion of 1941). It is farther north than the territory of any of the states but Alaska.
According to my father's golden memories, I was "the healthiest possible" baby for two years and then I got double pneumonia. In later years, my mother told me that seventeen infants had fallen ill and that I was the only survivor [because after] the doctor had given me up she held me in her arms without ever letting go until I had recovered.
My father was fluent in Hebrew, Yiddish, and Russian. My mother was literate and could read and write both Russian and Yiddish. They spoke Russian to each other when they wanted to discuss something privately. Had they spoken to me in Russian, I would have picked it up like a sponge and had a second world language.
It would have been good to know the language of Pushkin, Tolstoy, and Doestoevski. [But] allow me my prejudice: surely there is no language more majestic than that of Shakespeare, Milton, and the King James Bible, and if I am to have one language I know as only a native can know it, I consider myself unbelievably fortunate that it is English.
THE UNITED STATES
In 1922, after my sister, Marcia, was born, my father decided to emigrate to the United States. My mother had a half brother living in New York who was willing to guarantee that we would not become a charge on the country; that, plus permission from the Soviet Government, was all we needed.
I am not sorry we left. I dare say that if my family had remained in the Soviet Union, I would have received an education similar to the one I actually did get, that I might well have become a chemist and even a science-fiction writer. On the other hand, there is a very good chance that I would then have been killed in the course of the German invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941 to 1945, and while I hope I would have done my bit first, I am glad I didn't have to. I am prejudiced in favor of life.
My father came to the United States in the hope of a better life for his children, and this he certainly achieved. He lived to see one son a successful writer, another son a successful journalist, and a daughter happily married. However, this was at great cost to himself.
In Russia, he was part of a reasonably prosperous merchant family, an educated man looked up to by those about him for his learning. In the United States, he found himself penniless ... and virtually illiterate, for he could not read or even speak English. He turned his hand to any job he could get and after three years had saved enough money for a down payment on a small mom-and-pop candy store and our future was assured—and shaped.
In Russia, my mother had been the oldest of numerous siblings and had to take care of them in addition to working in her mother's store. In the United States, she had to raise three children and work endless hours in the candy store ...
All in all, my family was never together and I never interacted with any of them except in the context of the candy store. It was in that respect that I was orphaned in a functional sense. In another sense, matters were quite the reverse. My parents were always home; I always knew where they were, so that I was too densely sheltered.
Then again [thanks to the long working hours], we could have no social life, so I interacted with no one but my immediate family. That, too, twisted and distorted my life and my personality in ways that must be all too apparent even now.
Despite all that education and experience can do, I retain a certain level of unsophistication that I cannot eradicate and that my friends find amusing ... I suspect that I am never quite as unsophisticated as they think I am, but I don't mind.
No one can possibly have lived through the Great Depression without being scarred by it.... No "Depression baby" can ever be a yuppie. No amount of experience since the Depression can convince someone who has lived through it that the world is safe economically. One constantly waits for banks to close, for factories to shut down, for the pink slip of discharge.
Well, the Asimov family escaped. Not by much. We were poor, but we always had enough to put food on the table and to pay the rent. Never were we threatened by hunger and eviction. And why? The candy store. It brought in enough to support us. Only minimally, to be sure, but in the Great Depression, even minimally was heaven [with the price of incredibly long working hours for Isaac's parents and for him]....
I am still and forever in the candy store. Of course, I'm not taking money and making change; I'm not forced to be polite to everyone who comes in (in actual fact, I was never very good at that). I am, instead, doing things I very much want to do—but the schedule is there; the schedule that was ground into me; the schedule you would think I would have rebelled against once I had the chance.
I can only say that there were certain advantages offered by the candy store that had nothing to do with mere survival, but, rather, with overflowing happiness, and that this was so associated with the long hours as to make them sweet to me and to fix them upon me for all my life. [And Isaac goes on to describe finding science-fiction magazines for sale in the candy store] ...
The science-fiction magazines were the first pulp magazines I was allowed to read. That may have been part of the reason that, when the time came for me to be a writer, it was science-fiction that I chose as my medium.
Another reason was science fiction's more extended grasp on the young imagination. It was science fiction that introduced me to the universe, in particular to the solar system and the planets. Even if I had already come across them in my reading of science books, it was science fiction that fixed them in my mind, dramatically and forever ...
However trashy pulp fiction might be, it had to be read. Youngsters avid for the corny, lightning-jagged, cliché-ridden, clumsy stories had to read words and sentences to satisfy their craving. It trained everyone who read it in literacy, and a small percentage of them may then have passed on to better things ...
In general, the trend over the last half century or so has been away from the word to the picture. The comic magazines increased the level of looking, decreased the level of reading. The television set has carried this to an extreme. Even the slick magazines found themselves dying because of competition with the picture magazines of the 1940s and the girlie magazines that followed.
In short, the age of the pulp magazine was the last in which youngsters, to get their primitive material, were forced to be literate. Now ... true literacy is becoming an arcane art, and the nation is steadily "dumbing down."
[About neighborhood games] I refused to play for keeps. What I wanted to do was merely win for the honor of winning and I did not want to confuse this with material gain. This was called "playing for fun." ... My father approved of my refusal to play for keeps. In fact, he was dubious about my playing for fun, since he felt that my time could be spent much more instructively practicing my reading or studying or trying to think great thoughts.
To my father, any boy who played ball in the street was a "bum" and was clearly in training to become a "gangster." ... "Remember, Isaac," he would say, "if you hang around with bums, don't think for a minute you will make a good person out of the bum. No! That bum will make a bum out of you."
The result was that since I didn't play punchball often enough to develop real skill, I was an undesirable choice for a team. I developed a series of solitary ball games ...
[In the neighborhood] the cheers, the arguments, the screaming must have been unbearable to people trying to carry on ordinary occupations. The thunk-thunk-thunk, steady and unwearying over the house, of my ball against a wall must have driven many a person insane, too. The noise was an inseparable part of the world.
And, of course, it was pleasure. I have never been able to work up much sympathy for those who mourn the plight of city children
Excerpted from It's Been a Good Life by Isaac Asimov. Copyright © 2002 by Janet Jeppson Asimov. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.