How Do I Tell My Russian Host Family I'm a Jew?

A Reporter Returns to Novgorod To Reveal His Secret

Family and Church: In 1995, the author (center) lived with his hosts (from left) Sasha, Nadya, Denis and Tanya.
Courtesy of Paul Berger
Family and Church: In 1995, the author (center) lived with his hosts (from left) Sasha, Nadya, Denis and Tanya.

By Paul Berger

Published March 10, 2014, issue of March 14, 2014.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

When I was 18 years old I lived for six months with a family in the provincial Russian city of Novgorod. It was 1995, just four years after the fall of the Soviet Union, and I was the first Englishman that most people in Novgorod had ever met.

My host family and their relatives had many questions: What kind of houses do English people live in? Which countries have you visited? What do people in the West think of us?

I became adept at answering everything from the mundane to the surreal. But the only information I was unwilling to reveal was that I was a Jew.

Like many British and American Jews, I grew up on tales of shtetls, the Pale of Settlement and the anti-Semitic evils of communism. At the turn of the 20th century, my father’s father fled the pogroms of southern Ukraine for the factories of Leeds in the north of England. During the 1980s my mother volunteered on the campaign for Soviet Jewry. Each winter, my family and I marched in a torch-lit parade through Leeds, calling on the Soviet government to release its Jews. In 1985 my mother went on an Intourist trip to Leningrad, during which she and a friend sneaked off regularly to visit refusenik families.

I have a distinct memory of how, before I left for Russia in 1995, my mother — though she remembers things differently — warned me not to reveal my Jewish background to my host family. It was not a difficult request to fulfill.

Although I won the Hebrew prize at my Jewish middle school and had once been a devout Reform Jew, I had long since abandoned religion. I had never kept kosher or been Sabbath observant. In my final year of high school, out of principle, I was the only one of my Jewish friends who attended school on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

Concealing my Jewish identity would have been unremarkable if my hosts had not become like a surrogate family for me. Nadya and Sasha became Tyotya, Auntie, Nadya and Dyadya, Uncle, Sasha. Sasha even took to occasionally referring to me as “sinok,” son. I was supposed to live with them for three months and then move on to another family. But a couple of months into my stay they decided that unless I wanted to leave, I could and should spend the rest of my time in Novgorod with them. Tyotya Nadya particularly worried about what she would do if her own son, Denis, had traveled 3,000 miles to live with a strange family.

My experiences in Russia that winter, spring and summer, in particular the family’s warmth and kindness, played a large role in my decision to study Russian at university. Over the next five years, I returned to Russia each year, and whenever I did, I always returned to Novgorod. But by not telling Tyotya Nadya and Dyadya Sasha I was Jewish in 1995, I locked myself into not telling them in each subsequent year right up until the final time I saw them in the first week of 2000.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • The images, which have since been deleted, were captioned: “Israel is the last frontier of the free world."
  • As J Street backs Israel's operation in Gaza, does it risk losing grassroots support?
  • What Thomas Aquinas might say about #Hamas' tunnels:
  • The Jewish bachelorette has spoken.
  • "When it comes to Brenda Turtle, I ask you: What do you expect of a woman repressed all her life who suddenly finds herself free to explore? We can sit and pass judgment, especially when many of us just simply “got over” own sexual repression. But we are obliged to at least acknowledge that this problem is very, very real, and that complete gender segregation breeds sexual repression and unhealthy attitudes toward female sexuality."
  • "Everybody is proud of the resistance. No matter how many people, including myself, disapprove of or even hate Hamas and its ideology, every single person in Gaza is proud of the resistance." Part 2 of Walid Abuzaid's on-the-ground account of life in #Gaza:
  • After years in storage, Toronto’s iconic red-and-white "Sam the Record Man" sign, complete with spinning discs, will return to public view near its original downtown perch. The sign came to symbolize one of Canada’s most storied and successful Jewish family businesses.
  • Is $4,000 too much to ask for a non-member to be buried in a synagogue cemetery?
  • "Let’s not fall into the simplistic us/them dichotomy of 'we were just minding our business when they started firing rockets at us.' We were not just minding our business. We were building settlements, manning checkpoints, and filling jails." What do you think?
  • PHOTOS: 10,000 Israel supporters gathered for a solidarity rally near the United Nations in New York yesterday.
  • Step into the Iron Dome with Tuvia Tenenbom.
  • What do you think of Wonder Woman's new look?
  • "She said that Ruven Barkan, a Conservative rabbi, came into her classroom, closed the door and turned out the lights. He asked the class of fourth graders to lie on the floor and relax their bodies. Then, he asked them to pray for abused children." Read Paul Berger's compelling story about a #Savannah community in turmoil:
  • “Everything around me turns orange, then a second of silence, then a bomb goes off!" First installment of Walid Abuzaid’s account of the war in #Gaza:
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.