I was born in Ukraine in 1985, taking my first breath in the last gasps of the Soviet regime, before the country became independent. The city I lived in, Odessa, was considered an urbane cultural epicenter, bountifully spiced with humor and human fervor. A modern day “Ville Idéale,” Odessa welcomed Jewish intellectuals, Western European expats, and quick-thinking businessmen who helped propel the port city into one of wealth, prominence, and high culture.
My own knowledge of Soviet rule was reduced to a large, framed poster of Lenin hanging over the grey lockers in my kindergarten class, and my teachers’ constant reminder that “Grandpa Lenin likes clean plates,” after scolding me for holding the spoon in my left hand during lunch. Despite the anti-Semitism that permeated the former Soviet Union, I never felt the stigma of being Jewish in Odessa, though I never felt it glorified outside the house either. Born to a Russian Orthodox mother and an assimilated Jewish father, I considered myself a ‘halfie,’ delighting in the superstitious Russian Orthodox holidays and the fatty foods that accompanied them, while belting out “Chiribim Chiribom” in Yiddish, made popular by the Barry Sisters. Unlike my father and his family, who often found themselves working harder than their non-Jewish compatriots at school, only to be denied their legitimately earned “Red Diplomas” for highest academic achievement, I had no experience of Jewish struggle.
I was first made aware of my ‘tainted’ blood when my father’s family announced they were immigrating to America. It was fall of ‘91, and I recall commotion and hushed talk of currency exchanges and privatization of property. Following in the path of hundreds of Ukrainian Jews, my relatives were part of the fourth wave of Russian emigration. The early years following the collapse of the Soviet Union resulted in looting, inflation, and talk of pogroms. Flyers and graffiti blaming Jews for Ukraine’s unstable economy lined Odessa’s boulevards. Despite my mother’s efforts to christen me in hope of protecting my future, Jewish blood pumped through my heritage. And that was enough for my family to flee from our beloved Odessa to Brooklyn, where Jewish refugees were welcomed with open arms and resettlement aid.
America offered a different perspective on my Jewish-ness. Soviet Jews occupying Brighton Beach cautiously immersed themselves in becoming Jewish, trying to re-appropriate what had been denied to them for nearly a century. Many sent their children to yeshivas, while others tested out Jewish traditions and holidays, adapting them to fit their families’ likings and levels of religious tolerance. My family actively celebrated Rosh Hashana and Chanukah: my grandmother’s gefilte fish dazzled on the table, nestled between smuggled “salo” (cured pork back fat) and a traditional bottle of Manischewitz.
As years passed, I began to identify more with my Jewish half than with my Russian Orthodox one. I didn’t attend synagogue and heartily devoured all parts of the pig, yet I deeply connected with my father’s family history and eventually began working at the JCC in Manhattan, where I found my niche as an informal Jewish educator, teaching children of Soviet émigrés about Jewish holidays and traditions.
Despite my appreciation for Jewish culture and Yiddishkayt, and the accumulated years working with the Russian-speaking Jewish community, to many Americans and self-proclaimed “real” Soviet Jews, I am an impostor—a shiksa living under the guise of Jewish identity, with disregard for Halakhic law. And thus, the irony: In Ukraine, I was too Jewish. In America, I’m not Jewish enough. But I say, screw that. I am who I want to be: a multicultural, multidimensional me.