I’m not an observant Jew. Maybe if I’d grown up in Montreal or New York or another Western capital, where WASPs drop “oys” like ice in scotch, and where being openly Jewish is a non-issue—maybe then I’d attend Kol Nidre or give up beer for Passover.
But back in the USSR, I knew next to nothing about Judaism. Religious practice as a whole was marginalized, and if you happened to be Jewish, keeping it to yourself was a survival skill. The sum total of my knowledge of 5,775 years of Judaism was equal to the contents of the cardboard box that landed on top of my dresser every spring. The box contained the spoils from my father’s clandestine run to the city’s old shul, which operated unofficially on some holidays. There, on Passover, a handful of resolute Jews lined up for boxes of matzoh to take home to their families. The matzoh sheets were stacked inside the boxes underneath pink paper napkins. As soon as one of those boxes arrived at our apartment, it was stuffed on top of the dresser to be accessed with caution, away from gentile eyes. To my non-Jewish friends, who sometimes spotted a renegade piece of matzoh lying around, I would nonchalantly offer said piece as a cracker. Frankly, that’s what it was to me anyway: a Jewish cracker.
We fled the USSR in 1988, when I was 16—thousands of Soviet Jewish refugees leaving in a modern-day Exodus. On our way to the States we were stationed in Ladispoli, a sleepy coastal town outside of Rome, where we waited for our U.S. visas. There, on the Mediterranean shore,we learned for the first time about Jews as a people. A Chabad mission was set up in town, headed by Rabbi Hirsch, who worked morning, noon, and night reaching out to every lapsed Soviet Jew. That spring, we sat down to our first seder inside an Etruscan castle. Hundred-foot tables were filled with families like ours, and we finally heard the story behind the matzoh we used to hide under the pink napkins. For many Soviet Jews, that first seder marked the beginning of their return to their lost faith. For me, it marked the beginning of a life-long love affair with jarred gefilte fish.
That year, I also heard the sound of the shofar for the first time. My main memory of that Rosh Hashanah was the rabbi talking about praying to be sealed in the book of life for another year, and the obligation to purge one’s pockets of ‘sins’ into the nearby canal. I had 2,000 liras in my jeans, which I lifted from my dad’s wallet earlier that day with the intent to buy licorice. Despite the Rabbi’s passionate sermon, there would be no purging on my end. I was not giving up my stolen licorice money, High Holidays be damned.
We finally made it to Chicago. No longer scared of being outed as Jews, we were now discovering what it meant to be Jewish. We settled in West Rogers Park, a predominantly Jewish neighborhood filled with synagogues and kosher pizza parlors. But there was so much more than Judaism for a curious a 17-year-old to explore: my daily existence was divided between running to painting classes at the School of the Art Institute in the morning, and running the cash register at Dog On It (a kosher wiener joint) in the afternoon. My classmates introduced me to their friends as “Inna, she’s from Russia.” There was no time to think about being Jewish: I was too busy trying to fit in as a Russian among non-Jewish, non-white, non-conformist art students.
I suppose the physical proximity to all things Jewish precipitated a gradual awakening of my Jewish identity. The Jewish holidays arrived in West Rogers Park with a bang; religious or not, you were greeted with a “Gut Yontif” at every turn. My first Yom Kippur in Chicago was appropriately bleak: my grandmother had just died in a Chicago hospital. She’d been ill for most of her life in the USSR, and arrived in the U.S. too late to benefit from Western medicine. Dog On It was closed for the holidays, so I spent my day shuffling around the neighborhood. I tried thinking about the meaning of Yom Kippur and my babushka being with God, but the concept felt as foreign to me as the rest of America did at the time. There was no God with her or me that day, just the bad weather and the reality of her death and—a combination that felt almost clichéd.
Then I went to Israel. In Ladispoli I’d met some Israelis who had come specifically to encourage the Soviet Jews to immigrate to the Holy Land. Some of those “ambassadors” were particularly good looking, and I decided that Israel was worth a visit. So, during my second year in Chicago, I saved my cashier money, enrolled in an overseas program at the Hebrew University, and flew to the land of milk and honey—and good-looking people.
In Israel, the divide between religious and secular Jews felt bigger than the divide between Jews and Arabs. A Jew like me would get frowned upon for wearing a sleeveless shirt on a bus full of religious Jews, while on her way to visit an Arab friend. Still, a measure of superstition infiltrated secular Israel on Yom Kippur: no one got behind the wheel that day, just in case there was a God, and He decided—God forbid—to punish you for driving. On the eve of Yom Kippur, crowds poured into the streets in every neighborhood and children skateboarded safely on car-free roads. People fasted because, you know, tradition. I fasted too, out of solidarity. God knows I didn’t do it out of faith.
I returned to Chicago a year later only to find that my family now kept kosher and went to shul on Friday nights. There was no picking up the phone or driving on the Sabbath. I didn’t get answers to how it happened—it just did. That’s when I first felt conflicted over competing definitions of Jewishness. I had just spent a year in Israel and felt more Jewish than ever; but I simply didn’t see how giving up the car on Saturdays would make me a better Jew. My parents eventually downgraded their religiousness and found a middle ground, which balanced their yearning for a Jewish identity with their modern-day needs. My brother continued on a religious path. Today he’s an Orthodox father of seven living a few blocks from our first home. He goes to the same shul, keeps kosher, and observes all Jewish holidays. As I write this, he’s probably saying selichot.
Perhaps the closest I came to the Jewish faith was during my return to the former USSR a few years ago. I came to Kiev to work as an advertising executive and went to shul on Yom Kippur to see for myself the state of post-Soviet Jews. They had come a long way from lining up for camouflaged matzoh; there was even jarred Manischewitz gefilte fish at break-fast. On that Yom Kippur, I felt thankful for their freedom and mine, though I still wasn’t sure who I was thanking.
On this Yom Kippur I’ll walk around my city as I often do, remembering past Yom Kippurs. I won’t be asking for forgiveness or praying to be sealed in the book of life. I will be thinking of that early Yom Kippur morning in Jerusalem, 20 years ago. I saw an old lady who seemed lost. She summoned me over and asked, “Is today Yom Kippur?” I said yes. “Oh good,” she said, “I’m glad I forgot to eat.”
I’d like to think God was good to her for another year.
Inna Gertsberg is an advertising writer. She lives in Toronto with her husband, two sons and a cat. You can follow her on Twitter at @twigstr.
(Main image: Yossi Gurvitz via Flickr)