On Finding Out I am a Jew

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By Oleg Dulin

Leviticus 19:34 says “The stranger who shall reside with you shall be to you as one of you shall love him as yourself for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” Being a stranger in the country I was born in was probably the best way to describe what it was like growing up as a Jew in the USSR.

We came to the United States in 1994. I turned sixteen that fall. In the USSR, I could tell that my family, our family friends and relatives, were somehow a bit different from  others. I had a grandfather named David, a grandmother named Sofia, another grandmother named Rachel, and another grandfather named Pinchas.  None of those were traditional Ukranian or Russian names, but I didn’t give much thought to it. In my family, we didn’t talk about it.

During the first month of elementary school in Soviet Ukraine, one of the kids got a hold of a class register from the teacher’s desk. Back then they tracked kids’ nationalities and next to my name it said “Jewish.” I didn’t know what it meant, but I could tell that my life has changed fundamentally from that moment on. I came home that day and asked my parents “What is a Jew? Why does it say I am one in the school register? And why am I being bullied about it at school ?”

Here in the USA, when my daughter was three years old, we went for a walk around our neighborhood in late December. A well-wishing neighbor who didn’t know any better said to Miriam “Merry Christmas! Are you looking forward to Santa’s presents?” and my three-year-old replied, “I am Jewish! I don’t celebrate Christmas.” That made me proud.

Today, both my kids can say they are Jewish with confidence and pride. Being different from the dominant culture is not only okay, it is something to be cherished. One can be different because of their ethnicity, their accent, their religion, color of their skin, and they should be proud of it and never feel that they must hide it. I want my children to know that and to appreciate that – they can be different, they can be great in life, and they can embrace their and other differences.

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