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.
Now, here I am, 14 years later, on a high-speed train hurtling west out of Moscow toward Novgorod, a knot of exhaustion, excitement and nervousness.
It is the end of January. The Olympic torch is yet to arrive in Sochi; civil unrest in Ukraine rumbles on without a hint that it could devolve into the most serious standoff between East and West since the Cold War. The Russia I see around me is more confident, more vital, more — dare I say it? — “Western” than I am used to. Perhaps because of that, its social problems — the infringement of human rights and freedom of speech, the chasm between rich and poor — seem more acute.
But I can think of none of this now. I’m fixated on purely selfish concerns. What if 37-year-old me doesn’t live up to 23-year-old me? What if we don’t get along as well as we once did? It feels like a sin of omission not to have told Nadya and Sasha I was Jewish for all those years. Back then, Judaism played a peripheral role in my life. I am no more observant today than I was then.
So why do I have this urge to tell them now, after all these years, that I am a Jew?
My cell phone rings. It’s Nadya, speaking in Russian: “Paul, we’ll be at the station to meet you, me and Dyed. Okay?” I can hear the excitement and the concern in Nadya’s voice. I have to change trains in a small town called Chudovo at around 11 p.m., and she is worried I might not be able to find the correct platform.
“Look for the signs to the lastochka [high speed train],” she says. “Or ask someone. Okay, my dear.”
I rush to end the call, because my voice is beginning to crack.
When I first arrived in Novgorod, in 1995, the idealism that had greeted the dissolution of the Soviet Union four years earlier was a distant memory. Families were still recovering from the so-called economic “shock therapy” of the early 1990s that had wiped out meager savings and had triggered hyperinflation and long lines for bread. Corruption, crime and alcoholism were rampant. Just two years earlier, President Boris Yeltsin had turned Russian tanks on his own parliament building. Hundreds of poorly armed young conscripts were dying in the First Chechen War.
I traveled to Russia with Gap Activity Projects (now called Lattitude Global Volunteering), a British not-for-profit organization that places young people on work placements overseas.
Initially I had wanted to go to South America, but all the spots were taken. Next I applied to Indonesia, but I failed the interview. (My request to live with a non-Muslim family so that I could smoke, drink and spend time with girls did not go down well at the interview.) In my resubmitted application, I listed, in rough order of preference, India, Pakistan, Nepal, Israel, Turkey and Russia.
I was selected for Russia. I told the project coordinator that I was thrilled.
I arrived in Novgorod late one January night, in a minibus with four British boys and one girl. One by one, we were delivered to different apartment buildings. When my turn came, at House 25 Block 3, I was led up five flights of stairs in a stairwell that smelled of cold earth and stale cigarette smoke. The door to apartment 38 was covered in dark faux leather and metal studs. Inside I met Nadya and Sasha; their 19-year-old son, Denis, and their 15-year-old daughter, Tanya.
The family lived in a two-room apartment. I shared the sole bedroom with Denis, while Nadya, Sasha and Tanya slept on a fold-out sofa and a fold-out chair in the living room.
It’s hard to imagine now, but back then, in the days before iPhones and laptops, before the ubiquity of the Internet and email, living abroad was an act of emotional as well as physical separation. Letters and parcels took about one month to travel between England and Russia. If I wanted to phone my parents or my girlfriend, I had to book a call that was so expensive, I could speak for only 10 or 15 minutes.
That profound sense of separation is now replaced with trepidation about what I will find. I know that I have grown and changed during these past 14 years. I don’t stop to consider that my hosts have, too.
My first couple of weeks with Nadya and Sasha in 1995 were pleasant but full of forced politeness, as you might expect when a family invites a foreign 18-year-old who cannot speak their language into their home. Tanya’s English was excellent. But whenever she was not at home, I had to communicate with Nadya, Sasha and Denis using a mixture of sign language and trial and error.
The family was expecting a textbook “Englishman” — someone reserved, well educated: a tea-drinking, hat-doffing character from a British drama series. So it must have come as a surprise when they discovered that their impish, long-haired “Englishman” was polite but mischievous, had never drunk tea and was proud that his sole Russian sentence was “Zdravstvuite, menya zavut Ira,” or, “Hello, my name is Ira” — short in Russian for Irena.
Gradually we relaxed around one another. I believe the real ice breaker arrived toward the end of my second week, when I returned home one evening and announced that I had learned a new Russian phrase: “Zdravstvuite, menya zavut pushistaya zadnitsa,” or, “Hello, my name is fluffy buttocks.” Nadya, who had a wicked sense of humor, thought this was the funniest thing for an Englishman to say.
“Paul,” she said, “it’s time you learned Russian.”
From then on, Nadya would point out different objects in the apartment — a table, a chair, a spoon, the television — and tell me the word or phrase in Russian. Soon she began to teach me Russian mat, or curse words, drawing from a reservoir of thousands of words and phrases that the writer Victor Erofeyev once described as “linguistic theatre [and] verbal performance art.”
My experience of Russia was of a people who had little but gave everything, rather than what I saw in England, which was of a people who had everything but gave little.
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.
In 1995 the room had a small icon shelf, but now the collection of icons has multiplied. Bottles of holy water, a prayer book and a crown of thorns from the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, in Jerusalem, have joined the rows of beatific faces.
Twenty years ago, these icons were part of the background noise of my life in Russia. I didn’t pay attention to them, because religion did not matter to me. But their existence meant that they mattered to someone.
In the living room, my favorite artwork — a wooden bas-relief that Sasha carved of the Novgorodian medieval folk character Sadko — has been replaced with Sasha’s paintings of Russian village scenes and a fairytale.
In both rooms, I am surprised to see so many photographs of me. There are several photographs of Tanya and me during her visits to England in the late 1990s. There is even a photograph of my graduation from London University, in 1999, showing my father, mother, sister and I wonder whether the photographs have been put out to make me feel welcome or whether they have stood here for the past 14 years. I have the same sensation I have experienced once or twice before when I returned to Leeds after my parents moved house, a feeling of returning to a place that is at once unfamiliar and yet still home.
It may come as a surprise to non-Russian speakers, but Russian mothers and Jewish mothers have much in common. Both are obsessed with food and warm clothing. Even though it is past midnight, Nadya hustles me into the kitchen, where she lays out a spread of cabbage soup, meat cutlets, salad and pickled vegetables. (It isn’t until the following day that she notices that my coat is too light, and then insists that I borrow a scarf.)
Sweeping generalizations extend only so far. No Jewish mother would insist, as Tyotya Nadya does that first night, that several shots of vodka are necessary to toast my arrival. As usual, the first three shots come in quick succession. Warmth resonates outward and upward from my stomach. My muscles relax. The conversation glides by easily as we catch up on each other’s lives.
My fears of Russian anti-Semitism were not the only reason I had kept my Jewish identity a secret; growing up in a provincial British Jewish community, my ethnic or religious background was not something that I volunteered easily. Anti-Semitic taunts and vandalism were a sporadic fact of life growing up in England during the 1980s. British Jews might be confident and secure in their own enclaves, but just outside north London or north Leeds or north Manchester there is an entire country that is largely unfamiliar with Jews and Judaism.
Although most British people are not anti-Semitic, ignorance is widespread. How many British Jews have had to deal, upon telling an English colleague they are Jewish, with the response: “You? Jewish? But you don’t look like a Jew!” Or had to deal with inadvertently offensive remarks, like the joking: “I like you, even though you are Jewish.” Or avoided altogether the topic of Israel-Palestine for fear of getting drawn into an argument.
If you were born and raised in a large American Jewish community, you probably take for granted that non-Jews know what a Jew is and that not all Jewish men wear black hats and have peyes. There are probably several other Jews (if not more) in your office, in your neighborhood, in your building or on your street.
You may think nothing of taking your religious celebrations into the public square. Your public schools might close for major Jewish holidays. You rarely think twice when telling other people who you are. You are a part of American society, not a tolerated interloper in another culture.
Some British Jews will reject my characterization of British Jewish life. They will say their Jewishness has never been a problem. My own reticence to reveal my identity has certainly receded as I have gotten older. But I don’t think a British Jew or any other European Jew, for that matter, however he or she perceives the situation, would argue that Jewishness is not an issue in his or her country in a way that it is rarely an issue for a Jew in New York or New Jersey. That’s one of the things I have enjoyed so much about living in this region for the past 10 years. As a secular Jew, my Jewishness means nothing to prospective friends, colleagues and bosses, in a way that it might mean something in London or in Paris.
Twenty years ago, layered on top of this sensitivity was my awareness of the deep roots of Russian anti-Semitism. In 1995, a long period of state-sanctioned anti-Semitism, stretching for generations under Soviet leaders and Russian czars, was only just coming to an end. During my college years, from 1995 to 1999, I lived in two provincial Russian towns: Kazan, in the southern Russian republic of Tatarstan, and Petrozavodsk, in Russia’s northwest near the border with Finland.
I did not tell either of the host families I lived with in these places that I was Jewish, just as my gay friends did not tell their host families that they were gay.
In the kitchen of flat 38, Nadya and Sasha tell me that Novgorod is more peaceful now than it was during the late 1990s. Corruption is still widespread, infecting business, politics and private lives, but today this is largely irrelevant to them. They are pensioners now, as well as grandparents to four children, ranging in age from 18 months to 18 years.
Their worlds seem smaller than they did 14 years ago, but Nadya and Sasha seem as happy and as relaxed as I remember them, perhaps a little more carefree. And there is something else new in their lives.
When they married during the 1970s, church weddings were forbidden. So five years ago they organized a small church wedding in Novgorod to make up for what they missed. Sasha tells me that he will be going to church the following morning, a Sunday, for the Feast of Epiphany.
And then comes the question I have dreaded, and the opening I have hoped for. Tyotya Nadya asks me, “Do you believe in God?”
Here is my chance to tell them I am Jewish. I pause for a moment, struggling to find the right words. Then I say: “Ya ateist,” I am an atheist.
Technically this is not untrue. I have crossed the border between agnosticism and atheism so many times over the past 20 years that either definition would suffice.
But it was not what I wanted to say. What a wimp! There’s no time to rue my cowardice.
Nadya offers me a second chance to redeem myself: “Do your parents go to church?” she asks. I pause again. There is no escaping it this time.
“My parents are Jewish,” I say. Then I continue: “They don’t go to synagogue very often these days, but they used to go quite regularly.” It’s all pouring out.
“I also used to go to synagogue regularly when I was younger, too,” I say. “But I haven’t been for a long time.”
I expect a look of surprise. Maybe a question about why I have never mentioned this before. Instead, the conversation continues as though my Jewish background, something I have kept hidden during the five years our lives were so intertwined, were the most natural thing.
Had I been building up all this for nothing? Was it all in my head?
Russia felt different in 2014. It seemed more open not only to Jews, but also to religion in general. During my three nights in Novgorod, religion came up every evening — at Nadya and Sasha’s apartment, at an uncle’s apartment and at Denis’s home — in a way that I could not imagine it coming up in conversation in liberal-secular New York. People wanted to know about religion in America and whether I believed in God. Each of these conversations took place in the warm fog of a vodka-fueled meal, so my recollections are hazy.
But my overwhelming impression is that on each occasion, while I had difficulty saying the words “I am Jewish,” my Russian family had no difficulty accepting it. There was never a look of shock or surprise.
I may have imagined it, but the only time I thought I saw a look of discomfort flash across Nadya’s face was when I explained, for a second time, that although my parents are Jewish, I am an atheist. After 70 years of state-enforced atheism, who can blame Russians for having an instinctive mistrust of atheism?
These conversations took place against the backdrop of the Feast of Epiphany, a holiday that marks the baptism of Jesus Christ. For two days, Russian television broadcast images of Russian men and women across the country stripping down to their bathing suits in subzero temperatures and plunging into icy lakes and rivers. Some walked into the water stoically, others squealed as they dunked their heads under the water three times before climbing out.
When I arrived in Russia in 1995, the Russian Orthodox Church seemed like a quaint sideshow as it reawakened from its 70-year slumber. Now it seems like an integral part of Russian identity.
Indeed, Russia has become much more religious. Between 1991 and 2008, the percentage of Russians who identified as Orthodox more than doubled, to 72% from 31%, according to a recent analysis by the Pew Research Center. Although the majority of Russians surveyed did not attend church regularly in 2008 — just 7% said they went at least once a month — 54% described themselves as “somewhat religious,” and 56% said they believe in God.
On my last full day in Novgorod I took a walk through town. Novgorod’s apartment buildings were as bland, decrepit and crumbling, as they had always been. The side streets were potholed and uneven. I crossed Lomonosov Street, where the steel skeleton of a new shopping mall was already taking shape; I wondered who in Novgorod could possibly afford to shop there when it opens. I passed underneath the railway tracks and then made my way up the broad avenue that runs toward Novgorod’s kremlin. During the 1990s this was Karl Marx Street, but it had now reverted to its pre-revolutionary name, Voskresenski (Resurrection) Boulevard.
I crossed the bridge into Novgorod’s kremlin, marveling at the citadel’s enormous brick walls and majestic towers. As the bridge gave way to cobblestones, the enormous bronze, bell-shaped monument to the Millennium of Russia, built in 1862, came into view. The figures on the monument — Russian rulers, generals, artists and writers — were dusted in a light covering of snow. Among the figures was the Viking prince Rurik, who ruled Novgorod in the ninth century and gave birth to what would later become the Russian state. Looming over Rurik was the cross, held upright by an angel.
I turned and crossed the street toward the Cathedral of St. Sophia, an elegant whitewashed church decorated with gold and silver domes. The cathedral, built almost 1,000 years ago, was the first Russian Orthodox Church I’d ever visited, and easily my favorite.
Inside, the air was heavy with incense. My eyes had to adjust to the low light as they traced the iconostases several dozen feet up into the cathedral’s gloomy cupolas. Elderly women stood and prayed next to the sarcophagi of long-departed princes and bishops; candles flickered in front of the icons.
At the main iconostasis, in the center of the cathedral, an elderly woman stood, murmuring a prayer and crossing herself continuously. She was in her 80s or 90s; her face was creased with a lifetime of suffering and struggle. Before the church there was the party, I thought. But before the party there was the church.
That evening, at his apartment, Denis took me into his 18-month-old son Kolya’s bedroom to show me an icon that Dyadya Sasha had carved by hand. It was a painstaking copy of an icon of Saint Nicholas that Denis had seen and photographed in a monastery in Kostroma. It had taken Sasha one year to re-create the icon, right down to the delicate lines of Russian script at the bottom.
It seemed somehow fitting that he had progressed from carving the medieval adventurer Sadko to this Saint Nicholas. Christianity was a part of the family, as it was a part of Novgorodian history and of Russian identity. Just as Judaism was a part of me.
Several weeks after my return to New York, a question continued to niggle at me: Why had Nadya and Sasha not reacted more strongly to my declaration? Perhaps, I thought, they accepted my Jewishness because at least it was a belief in God.
In February I called Tanya in Moscow to ask why her parents did not seem surprised to learn that I was a Jew. “Because I told them you were Jewish,” she said.
I had disclosed my Jewishness to Tanya back in 1995, but I had asked her not to tell anyone else. She said that she could not remember when she finally told her parents — perhaps after I got my job at the Forward, in 2011.
That still did not explain why Nadya and Sasha would not have been curious as to why I had not said anything about being Jewish earlier.
“I think that it’s not that big of a deal for them,” Tanya said. But she offered to call her mother to find out for sure.
A few minutes later, my phone rang.
“My mum says, ‘I really don’t care,’” Tanya said. “‘He’s a good person. Everything else is not important to me.’”