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How My Family's Judaism Changed, from Russia to the U.S.

How My Family's Judaism Changed, from Russia to the U.S.

Blue and white Jewish prayer shawl laying on a pew with Hebrew visible on the wall in the background

The first time I saw the word еврей (Russian for “Jew”) in a book, I ran to my parents, shocked and a little scared. I knew this word wasn't a regular word because my family members never used it in public, always lowering their voices when they used it in a sentence, or they replaced it with a Yiddish version, just in case someone was nearby to overhear.

I believed it to be a curse or an insult, especially because it was the word one of my classmates hissed into my face that same year in elementary school, when I won some game and embarrassed him.

I never thought it was wrong or bad to be Jewish; I just knew it wasn't safe to be open about it with strangers. The day I started first grade, I made a new friend. Katia was a friendly girl with blond hair, blue eyes, and a shy smile. Talking to her was easy and fun, so I ran home after school to tell my mom the good news.

“That's great, sweetheart,” my mother said. “You need to tell her you are Jewish, though. Do it tomorrow, before you become any closer. She may not be allowed to be friends with you, so we might as well find out right away.”

I couldn't sleep that night, and told Katia I was Jewish the next morning.

“I know!” she replied cheerfully. “I told my parents about you yesterday, and they could tell by your last name you were Jewish.”

“Wait, so that's not going to be a problem?” I asked, still holding my breath.

“Nah, it's cool. Half of my father's friends are Jewish. Let's go play!”

Katia and I are still best friends, despite spending most of our lives on different continents. She remembers hundreds of things about our shared past, but this conversation is not one of them. Nevertheless, I am grateful to her parents for not making “Jew” a dirty word in their house.

Growing up, Katia and I didn't discuss my Jewishness. At the time, I didn't know that being Jewish came with a religion called Judaism, and I wasn't aware of any traditions associated with it. There was a time we ate matzah at home, but I am not sure even my parents knew the significance of this strange, tasteless cracker they obtained through some back channels in secrecy, taking a risk just by bringing it into the house.

The transition to being Jewish in America was long and difficult.

Being told I wasn't being Jewish the right way, that I wasn’t being Jewish enough, or that I was “failing to take advantage of my religious freedom” was both insulting and confusing. One doesn't just find religion by crossing the ocean and getting new stamps in their passport. The process is deeply personal, time-consuming, and multidimensional.

Every Soviet Jew I know is somewhere on the journey of finding their own spiritual path in a way that feels authentic. I married a Jewish man whose own involvement with Reform Judaism was filled with joy, pride, and meaning. We decided to incorporate his traditions and religious practices into our daughters' lives, and their engagement with the temple youth group and NFTY – The Reform Jewish Youth Movement became a source of pride and gratitude for me over the years.       

Many years ago, my father started joining us at our synagogue for High Holidays. He doesn't read Hebrew, religious texts in English are a challenge for him, and the prayers don't necessarily resonate in his soul the way they do for so many – but he has a deeply meaningful experience that moves him to tears every year nonetheless.

My father always asks us to park across the street from the synagogue, even when there are parking spaces available near the entrance. Together, we stand at the busy intersection and behold the miracle of being Jewish in America – crossing guards and police officers, stopping four lanes of traffic so an old Jew and his family can safely cross the street to shul.

He walks and he cries, and they wish him l'shanah tovah – a happy Jewish new year – and nobody can tell him that he is not being Jewish the right way.

Masha Levy immigrated to the U.S. from the Soviet Union at the age of 16. She is a licensed psychotherapist and lives in Montgomery County, MD, with her husband, daughters, parrots, dog, and cat. The Levy family are members of the congregation at Temple Emanuel in Kensington, MD.

Masha Levy
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