I was more New Yorker than Jew. More Las Vegan than landsman. More my father’s daughter than one of the Chosen People.
At least that’s what I thought, until I studied in the former Soviet Union when I was 21 years old. There, amid widespread and constant anti-Semitism, I embraced my Jewish identity.
Studying the Russian language in Moscow and Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) in the late 1970s, I was confronted with a nonstop stream of jokes about hated Georgians (the Soviet republic where Stalin was born) and the equally hated “yids.” I didn’t like the jokes, but “sticks and stones” and all that.
Yet, as time passed, other incidents and attitudes were not so easy to shrug off. Like when I took time off from my Saturday classes to attend Sabbath services at Leningrad’s one working synagogue. Inside the dilapidated building, a few elderly men worshipped without prayer books or a rabbi.
After the service, I spoke with the “cantor.” He questioned me closely about how I had learned about the temple — and how I had gotten there. When I mentioned that a non-Jewish friend had brought me and that my friend was waiting outside for me, his ears perked up. He asked for my friend’s name, and where he lived and worked. I knew this was more than idle curiosity. I stopped answering questions and left.
As we hurried away, my friend explained that the “cantor” was likely a KGB agent, or at least was required to report foreign visitors to the authorities.
The following Monday, back in class, one teacher kindly asked why I had missed class on Saturday, worried I had been sick. No, I answered, I was fine. I had gone to shul.
The look of concern on her face instantly morphed into one of complete contempt. No mind reader was needed to understand what she was thinking.
She asked what I thought of the experience, and, with the reckless arrogance of youth, I told her I hadn’t liked it, because the cantor worked for the KGB.
It was a stupid thing to say.
In Communist-era classrooms, instructors working with foreigners were carefully vetted (they probably were Communist party members), and the classroom itself was possibly bugged. I was putting my teacher in an awkward position. But I didn’t care. I was taking gleeful delight in making her squirm.
My teacher denied my cantor-is-a-KGB-agent claim.
She followed this denial with a “if that was so” theory — it was because there were probably “bad” elements at the temple. Now she had me going. I raised my voice and sarcastically said something about how those five 80-plus-year-old worshippers definitely looked like hardcore troublemakers, probably drug dealers. Wisely, one of my fellow American students put his hand on my arm and changed the subject, asking about some finer point of Russian grammar.
Even though I was sad about the dilapidated condition of the state-controlled synagogue, and infuriated about the overt anti-Semitism of my instructor, neither provided my proverbial come-to-my-Jewish-God moment.
That occurred just days before Passover.
I was out shopping with my Russian boyfriend, though to say “boyfriend” is an understatement. Sasha and I planned on getting married. He wasn’t Jewish, a fact that didn’t thrill my parents, but was a non-issue for 21-and-in-love-with-someone-behind-the-Iron-Curtain, non-religious me.
With us on our shopping expedition that day was the 6-year-old son of some friends of ours. As the line outside the bread shop inched forward and we finally approached the front door, Sasha told me to stay outside to watch our 6-year-old charge, so the boy could continue playing with the other children. I said something about it being OK to watch him through the bread shop’s big glass window, since there were lots of mothers around. Sasha hemmed and hawed, but finally stated that I needed to stand vigilant, explaining “It’s a dangerous time.”
I had no idea what that meant. So I asked. At first, he just repeated the ominous phrase. Then he said it was almost Passover, and “Well, you know, Jews kidnap non-Jewish children and murder them for their blood.”
Shocked, outraged, crying, I reminded him I was Jewish.
“Yes, but you’re an American Jew. You’re different. You won’t do that. I know.”
At that moment, I knew I would not marry Sasha. More importantly, at that moment, I knew that being a Jew mattered.
I didn’t need to recite to myself the terrors that family members — and countless other Jews — had faced as they lived or perished in pogroms or fled Russia or died in the Holocaust. I just knew in that moment I could no longer ignore my history and heritage and my people. I could no longer glide along enjoying my modern, easy life.
From that moment on, recognizing — and celebrating — that I am a Jew has become a vital part of my identity, as much so as the NYC part, the Las Vegas part, and as much as being my father’s daughter. I’m all that and more. I am one of the Chosen People. Not just by birth, but by choice. I am a Jew.