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As my Russian improved, I discovered a different side of my personality. I was more expressive, more relaxed, more vulgar. After five months of living in Novgorod, although I could barely read or write, I was confident enough in my spoken Russian to take a 92-hour train journey to Irkutsk, sharing an open compartment with 53 people. I was as relaxed talking politely with fellow passengers about life in England and Russia as I was in bawdy conversation with soldiers in the smoking area at the end of the train car.
My Jewishness was rarely an issue. Until 1997, Russian passports still had a line for a person’s nationality that could be either “Russian” or “Jewish.” I quickly learned that if I told people I was “English” they assumed I was from a Christian background.
There were some awkward moments. Although I don’t remember the conversations today, Nadya, Sasha and others must have asked me about religion in the West, and I must have answered in any way I could without saying that my family was Jewish. I was nervous about going to a banya — a Russian bath house — with Denis, in case I had to answer awkward questions about why I was circumcised.
At a family event in a Russian church, I watched with dread as the priest moved toward me along a line of worshippers, holding out a cross for each of us to kiss. Nothing at Jewish middle school prepared me for this question: Is a Jew who is hiding his identity permitted to kiss a cross? Before I had a chance to give it a second thought, my turn came. My lips touched the cold metal. Something inside me recoiled. Then it was over.
I told myself that kissing the cross was harmless, a gesture carried out to avoid causing a scene. But the discomfort ought to have been a signal to me that the religious background I thought I had outgrown was still a part of me — that Judaism was more relevant to me and to my identity than I was willing to acknowledge.
Ever since I got married 10 years ago, even more so since the first of my two daughters was born five years ago, I have dreamed of returning to Novgorod to introduce my new family to my Russian family. I am traveling alone on this trip, and in some way, I am glad. Not telling Nadya and Sasha I am Jewish has weighed on me. Telling them is something I would rather do alone.
Nadya and Sasha are waiting on the platform when my train pulls into Novgorod’s station. They are a decade older, but unchanged. Sasha, tall and broad-shouldered, with a kind face, is wrapped up in an enormous North Face jacket. Nadya, shorter and with piercing eyes and a serious expression that belies her mischievous personality, is dressed in a fur hat and in a dark fur coat that reaches her ankles. We embrace and then hurry to take a bus home.
Apartment 38 is smaller than I remembered it. Everything has changed. Sasha has laid new wooden floors. In the apartment’s bedroom, the built-in cupboard that contained the fold-out bed I slept in has been ripped out.