“Look, Mommy!” It’s pickup time at day care, and Sasha proudly hands me a small bag with a sloppily painted Easter egg in it. I praise her for a job well done. Later that evening, I keep thinking about this egg and my reaction to it. The closest word for what I felt would be heartache, but why?
It was the 1980s, and it had been more than a year since we had immigrated to the United States from the former Soviet Union.
The initial shock was behind us; I learned to drive, got a new profession and was gainfully employed. Sasha’s English was fluent and she seemed to be thriving at school and day care .
Because of my job, I needed a place where I could drop Sasha off at 7 a.m. and pick her up at 6 p.m., and I was happy to find one that provided transportation to and from her school. The director called the place “non-denominational,” which I took to mean “non-religious.” In fact, she meant “non-denominational Christian,” but my cultural awareness wasn’t quite up to speed yet.
My attitude toward all religions was simple. A product of the Soviet education system, I was an atheist. I had visited a few places of Russian Orthodox worship with friends, and I also had been to the main Moscow synagogue for Simchat Torah. But these visits were more out of curiosity and intellectual rebellion. Of course I knew I was Jewish, but that meant little more than the “nationality” line in my Soviet passport, identifying me as a Jew.
As a lover of literature, my cultural identity was Russian. Teaching Sasha the Russian language was one of my top priorities. I expected her to grow up an atheist internationalist, not burdened by her own religion or nationality, celebrating whatever holidays she wished.
I knew from books about the Easter tradition of painting eggs. As I stared at the egg Sasha made, I could not understand why it bothered me so much. I did not mind her knowing about and celebrating Easter, so why this reaction?
Clarity came after a few days of brooding.
The prospect of Sasha growing up not knowing she was Jewish felt like an unbearable loss. I didn’t know why, but I knew it was true. The only way I knew how to fix that would be through a synagogue. That’s how I found myself in a rather unfortunate conversation with a local rabbi. Condescendingly, I explained to him that, personally, I was not religious, but wanted my daughter to be Jewish. He did not throw me out, just sourly lectured me. I suspect I was not the only parent looking to outsource Jewish education.
This is how we became members of the congregation. For the next seven years, Sasha went to Sunday school and Hebrew school as I was attempting, not very successfully, to integrate into the community. At services I felt like a complete fraud. There were multiple cultural barriers, among them my still faltering English and different sense of my Jewishness.
In the Soviet Union, for me being Jewish meant embarrassment at school when the teacher asked about nationality. It meant getting a jolt when I heard “kike” in a conversation, and not knowing how to react. Thus, being Jewish was an immutable but not very meaningful fact of my life.
Growing up in Gomel, a small city in Belarus, I knew many culturally assimilated Jews. They were educated, well-informed, intelligent people who didn’t differ at all from non-Jews except for their names. It was not clear, in fact, what made such Jews Jewish.
Older Jewish neighbors, many of them former shtetl dwellers, were different: Though their Jewish culture was long gone, they never quite assimilated, what with the strong Yiddish accents, a focus on basic needs and their eternal skepticism about everything (from government to human motivations).
My first encounters with the established Jewish community in the U.S. were rather negative. I did know that American Jews put a lot of effort into pressuring the Soviet regime to allow Jewish emigration. At the same time, my Soviet upbringing made me suspicious of altruism; what were the ulterior motives behind their demonstrations in front of Soviet consulates? I was also offended by the constant invitations to join a synagogue. Did these American Jews think I was interested in the Jewish religion because of that line in my passport?
Attending a Passover dinner at a fellow congregant’s home only strengthened my negative feelings. Everybody was polite and friendly, but distant, and real human connection was not there.
Also, strangely surprising to me was the contrast between the affluence of the place and the very modest dinner offerings. In my friends’ tiny, ill-furnished Moscow communal apartments, there was always plenty of the best available food and drink. Thus, the Soviet stereotype of rich but stingy Americans was confirmed in my mind and promptly applied to American Jews.
I had a very different experience years later when I was invited to another seder.
It was an easygoing, casual affair. Along with reading the haggadah, there were jokes and light conversation. Seder in that house did not feel like a religious ritual, just a family gathering.
The Exodus story read in that warm atmosphere had an unexpected effect on me. In a sudden epiphany, I saw generations of Jews sitting at similar tables and telling the same story. It was my first inkling of a cultural legacy taken away from me and my parents by tumultuous Russian history. I wanted it back.
The next year I tried my hand at hosting a seder at my house. This started a slow discovery of Jewish tradition, a gradual learning process with starts and stops. Having grandchildren in the family gave me a second wind. We reinvented our holidays and made them our own, writing our own haggadah, choosing favorite Passover songs, authoring and performing our own Purimspiel, creating our family Sukkot traditions.
What about that painted egg? I am cool with it. In our blended family, we celebrate Hanukkah and Christmas, Purim and Easter. My granddaughter asks the Four Questions and also hunts for Easter eggs. We read the biblical stories, sometimes praising, sometimes criticizing the characters within, thus continuing our tribe’s long tradition of discussing and interpreting our history.
My previous notion of heritage as something monolithic and static has changed. Looking at the past, I understand that Russian identity has been in our family for only four generations. Before that, we were Jewish. Now we have developed a new, American aspect of our identity. Who knows what language, country, even continent my descendants will call their own? Will they take with them their Jewish heritage, that 2,000-year miracle of our people’s survival?
I hope so.