A Guest Post by Vicki Boykis
I had close to zero of my own Judaism until I was 17. This was for two reasons. First, I was born in Russia when it was still part of the Soviet Union, meaning my family’s Jewish identity had been stripped away by years of state-mandated atheism and fear of discovery of any religious practices, combined with the fact that just being ethnically Jewish (with “Jewish” written into your passport on line 5 under “Nationality”) meant that you were constantly denied any of the same rights as Russians. The second reason is that my mom had married my dad, a Russian non-Jew, meaning that I’ve been between the two identities my whole life.
When I was growing up, we never went to synagogues, never celebrated any holidays except for maybe just gathering for a dinner party for Hanukkah sometimes and my grandpa giving me gelt. My grandpa was brought up in the 1930s in Russia, speaks Yiddish, and is a complete atheist. In Russia, people are called by their first and middle name, their otchestvo, which comes from their father’s name. When my aunt wanted to teach kindergarten, her otchestvo would have been Zalmanova, from my grandpa’s name, Zalman. She begged him to change it so that she wouldn’t be embarassed, and everyone still calls him Zhenya, the diminutive of Evgeniy (Eugene), his new legal name. I didn’t even know he had another name until I was about 10.
The shame and stigma of being Jewish is still, to some extent prevalent in ex-Soviet Jews, and definitely had not yet worn off when I was little. I remember being in second grade and telling my friend that I was Jewish, not really understanding what it meant. When we were talking in class about different religions, my teacher asked if we knew anyone who was Jewish, and my friend said, “Vicki is Jewish.” I will never forget the fear, mortification, and embarrassment I felt when she said that and the whole class looked over at me.
All the while we weren’t celebrating anything and not really part of any Jewish religious community, my mom was constantly telling me I was Jewish, and that I needed to remember that I was part of an important people. Throughout my childhood she impressed this constantly and effectively on me. She sighed whenever my dad put the New Year’s tree up and didn’t let him wear a cross for at least 10 years after we came to America because of what it symbolized to her-oppression.
My dad didn’t care much about his own religious background, even when I became interested in Christian Orthodoxy. He had been secretly baptized when he was little, but never expressed interest in going to church. The only thing we did regularly after my grandma in Russia died was to seek out Orthodox churches and light candles for her there. I still do this as much as possible, and recently wrote about this experience on my blog.
When I was 17, I was suffering from a miserable breakup with my boyfriend and couldn’t concentrate on my last semester of high school at all. My mom heard about March of the Living and suggested I go to take my mind off things, and to see Israel. She had been the year before and had come back glowing, amazed. I went, and the trip changed my life and how I viewed myself as a Jew. Whereas before I had been ambivalent, rejecting both Russian religion and Jewish religion, as well as a Jewish ethnic identity, the concentration camps instilled in me the belief that, had I been born at that time, I would have died as well, which made it an imperative for me to embrace my Jewish identity. Israel was also amazing, and was the beginning of my love affair with that country.
In college, I immediately started taking modern Hebrew classes because I decided it was embarrassing to be Jewish and not to understand what Israelis were saying and also became extremely active in Hillel, eventually rising to position of Israel chair and planning more pro-Israel events than I could shake a stick at. During this time I was also introduced to aspects of Jewish religion I had never known about before:Shabbat, hand-washing, davening, the Jewish High Holidays. At first, I was extremely angry about having to go to Shabbat services as a Hillel board member because they made me uncomfortable; I didn’t know any of the songs, didn’t agree with the principles, and they took away from my Friday night. Then, I grew to embrace them as a place to meet with friends, and, most importantly, to have a free dinner.
Now, two years out of college, I am married to a fellow Russian Jew who grew up in much the same way I did-areligious but very strongly identifying with Jewish ethnicity. I don’t have a strict sense of religious Judaism and don’t feel comfortable delving into religion because I don’t even know if I believe in God. But I believe in the Jewish people and being part of a community, knowing that when I’m lighting Hanukkah candles, everyone else is, too, is important to me. For this reason I fast on Tisha B’Av, usually considered a religious holiday-for nationalism. I have a very strong connection to Israel and Hebrew and try to go back as much as possible. We don’t have kids yet (and won’t for another 10 million years, no matter how much certain bloggers inquire), but when we do, I hope to raise them as fully culturally Jewish and aware of their identity.
Vicki Boykis is a consultant in Washington DC and lives in the DC metro area with her husband. She blogs about Russian/Jewish and other issues on her blog, vickiboykis.com.
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