I was born in Soviet Ukraine at a time when people were stripped of their spiritual rights and forced to conform to a colorless mass that was communism. How did I know that I was Jewish? It was written in the passports and legal documents of every member of my family, an undeniable truth that no one could question, abandon or deny. I was always amazed at how easily identifiable we were. We were different, something about our genetic makeup that made us sound and look and act as the “other.” And there was no shortage of tormentors to remind us of that.
But what did it mean to be Jewish? There were no working synagogues when I was little, just empty buildings where Jews once worshiped. There were fading memories of Jewish holidays once celebrated and Hebrew prayers once pronounced. There was a sense of regret for all that was lost.
My family left their home. We didn’t just walk out of the land where my grandparents and great-grandparents are buried — we ran. To be honest, we were not looking for a spiritual home. We were looking for safety, a place to live without fear of arbitrary persecution. I am almost certain that it wasn’t my family’s faith in God that gave us courage to leave. But I know that we were not alone when we leaped into the unknown.
Thousands of Jews we had never met before fought for our freedom. The Jews in America and in Israel, who had tirelessly petitioned the Soviets to let our people go, did have synagogues and rabbis and inspirational teachers to hold them up, to motivate them. God’s word and God’s promise lived through the courageous acts of many American Jews.
A few years ago, I had dinner with Rabbi Bernard Mehlman, my husband’s rabbi from growing up at Temple Israel in Boston. He told me that he traveled to Moscow in the ’70s at the height of the Soviet crackdown on the refuseniks, when families who tried to get out were harshly mistreated and imprisoned for treason. He went to Moscow in the dead of a miserably cold winter to bring a pacemaker for a Jewish woman who was refused the apparatus over and over on the grounds of being a traitor. She would have surely died had he not smuggled it into the country for her.
Now that I live in America, I sometimes struggle with my identity. I have an internal dialogue: What am I? How do I identify myself? Am I Russian? After all, I speak Russian and it is my mother tongue. But that’s not quite right, as my roots are in what is now Ukraine, and hardly anyone speaks Russian in Ukraine anymore, preferring their national language. Certainly, I am not Soviet, as that definition does not even exist anymore. I am American. Yes. American. But am I Jewish American or American Jewish?
This year, my intent during the Thanksgiving holiday is to honor my American story in a wholly new way, through the lens of a Jewish immigrant experience. Jewish religious observance requires retelling of the Exodus from Egypt story every year as if each generation personally experienced God setting them free from bondage. Thanksgiving is truly an American holiday. Whether your family came to this country during the Civil War, through Ellis Island or after the fall of the Iron Curtain, it’s a celebration that’s easily embraced by all. Breaking bread together and sharing gratitude transcends racial, ethnic and social boundaries.
Recently, my girlfriends and I shared our anxieties about the preparations for the upcoming Thanksgiving family gatherings. Most of my girlfriends in this particular group are relatively recent immigrants or first-generation Americans with parents who very much identify with the immigrant experience. We all laughed at the myriad different foods that show up at our Thanksgiving tables: Persian rice, pirozhki, dozens of pickled side dishes, mayonnaise-smothered potatoes and everything in between. We joked about overbearing mothers set in their ways and children who won’t touch the turkey and grandparents who think cranberry sauce is excellent for tea-sweetening. We shared stories of confusion between a multitude of languages and our poor, intermarried, American family members who get lost in the shuffle and are too polite to exert their preferences. This experience, we agreed, is the best of what America has to offer.
As I searched to label my identity, I thought how this year, Thanksgiving falls on a time during which we read the portion of the Torah VaYetzei. In it, Jacob’s wife gives birth to his fourth son, who she names Yehuda, which literally means “thanksgiving.” She says, this time, I will give thanks to God and name this child Yehuda. The Jews inherit Yehuda’s name and it becomes our own, as we are known as Yehudim, those who give thanks. Thanksgiving is literally coded into our very names. We carry within us a vision of a higher being, standing at the top of Jacob’s ladder, and a promise of a homeland, our safety and our continuity as a people.
So finally, I came up with an identity I am comfortable with: I am Yehudi. I am part of a grateful people. I am grateful to God. I am grateful to the people who fought for my personal freedom. I am grateful to the hundreds of thousands of Americans who lost their lives, as one mistake was made after another and continue to be made, as we strive for the vision of justice and freedom for all. I am grateful to the Founding Fathers of this country who wrote the Declaration of Independence with language of such clarity that we have aspired to honor it for more than 200 years:
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
They ended the document with a pledge of loyalty:
“And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.”
Thank you, America, for giving me the safety and the freedom to know that I am Yehudi. I am a Jew and a grateful one.
Originally published in Jewish Journal.