My introduction to the world of Judaism began soon after my family moved to the United States, when I was enrolled in an Orthodox school for Russian immigrants. I was young, and the lectures seeped in quickly.
Within months, I had learned all about the Torah, High Holy Day rituals and the importance of mitzvot — all 613 of them. I played a Maccabee in a school play about Hanukkah, and I was able to sing along with the blessings over wine and lighting the candles.
I learned many things about Judaism in school, but I would still come home full of questions.
Why was it, I demanded to know from my parents, that they knew nothing about these traditions? Why had we never observed Shabbat — or for that matter, any Jewish holiday? How was it that we had retained none of our ancestors’ Jewish identity?
It was only later that I would discover how much my accusations as a 6 year old had stung my parents, who even today, after years of living in the United States, still struggle to assimilate into Jewish America.
This past year, our Rosh Hashanah celebration yielded a few minutes of dipping challah into honey before the kitchen TV was turned on to the nightly news. Passover Seders have lasted an equally meager time. It’s hard for us to get through even a few pages of the Russian-language Hagadah before everyone at the table succumbs to the hunger pains. We don’t ask the four questions, we don’t sing “Dayenu” and we don’t consume the ceremonial four cups of wine.
“Four cups?” my sober-as-stone parents always laugh. “You give us four cups, we’ll be under the table in five minutes.”
In less than two generations, the repressive Communist regime erased any trace of Jewish tradition, from both sides of my family. My great-great-grandfather was a rabbi in Poland. My grandfather speaks of him fondly, regaling us with stories of how he was one of the most famous and wisest rabbis in all of Warsaw. Supposedly there was even a book written about him.
My great-grandmother came from a proper Orthodox family and never ate shellfish or pork or mixed dairy with meat. Everyone originally spoke Yiddish, of course, but after Stalin came to power, everything changed. You wouldn’t dare speak Yiddish at home, lest someone overhear.
And overhear they would. My grandparents grew up in Moscow apartments with communal kitchens and a single bathroom shared by no less than a dozen families. Antisemitic slurs were frequently tossed about. They were raised as children of the revolution, with little knowledge of the faith that made them outcasts among their comrades.
My own parents were born into households in which the only major holidays celebrated were national worker’s day, the anniversary of the revolution and the anniversary of the Nazis’ defeat. The holiday feasts featured herring, caviar, boiled potatoes and pierogies — the same foods enjoyed by every other Russian family. Gone were the kugels, kishkes and knishes their grandmothers had proudly baked less than a century earlier.
Neither of my parents had the slightest inkling about Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur until they arrived in America. My father would sometimes frequent the synagogue in downtown Moscow, but not for spiritual reasons. A meeting ground for wealthy foreigners during perestroika, the temple became his means of communication with the outside world.
In 1988, after he had already decided to take us out of Russia, my father would attend services each Friday night and hand out small pieces of folded-up paper, on which was written my family’s name, address and phone number. He handed the little pieces of paper to anyone and everyone who would take them, hoping that one of these people would be willing to sponsor our emigration.
It seems impossible to erase years of not knowing about Judaism, but my parents do their best. A fan of Jewish melody, my father doesn’t bother learning the temple prayers. Instead, he just hums along in his screechy, tone-deaf voice, sometimes making up the words. He obsesses over “Fiddler on the Roof” and recently purchased a compilation CD of Hanukkah music. He has never been one for jewelry, but wears his flashy gold Star of David chain with pride.
My mother has started lighting candles every Friday night, despite not being completely comfortable with the required blessing. She has also slowly and methodically begun teaching herself the Hebrew alphabet, because she wants to read the prayers as they were meant to be read: in Hebrew.
Mezuzahs adorn our doorposts and Marc Chagall prints hang on our walls. If it took two generations to erase our customs, my parents’ hope is that it will take much less time to reintroduce them.
My boyfriend, whose family has grand get-togethers for all of the major holidays, recently told my mother that when he was young they used to say a prayer for Soviet Jewry whenever they lit the candles on Friday night. Jews over there, he and his family had been told, didn’t have the privilege of practicing their traditions so freely.
“It’s not so much that we weren’t allowed to light Shabbat candles,” my mother replied. “It’s that we didn’t know we were supposed to. We barely knew what Shabbat was.”
Yulia Khabinsky is a writer living in New York.