Novgorod, Russia — 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.