30 Years Later: Reflecting on a Soviet-American-Jewish Journey

Yeghishe Tadevosyan. “The Genius and the Crowd” (1909)

By Ilya Trakhtenberg

Editor’s note: Thirty years ago, 250,000 American Jews gathered on the National Mall to call for USSR General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev to “let our people go.” Once the gates opened, more than 1.5 million Soviet Jews were able to come to Israel and the United States between 1989 and 1992. U.S. Jewish Federations raised millions of dollars to support the resettlement effort. Last week, Chicago’s Jewish United Fund held its first Russian Jewish Division Gala to celebrate the 30th anniversary of Freedom Sunday. To honor the anniversary, Ironed Curtains is featuring excerpts from the speeches by the evening’s hosts. See more videos from the event

I came here in 1990 when I was 4 years old from Lvov, Ukraine with nearly my whole mishpacha, 12 in all. Our family’s path to America was winding, bumpy, and uncertain, leading us from Vienna to Italy and, ultimately, to Chicago.

When we arrived in the U.S., life was a blur. With $500 and the limited possessions we were able to bring from the Soviet Union, my parents pieced together a home and worked incredibly hard to build a new life.

As a father of three, it’s hard for me to understand how, despite the stresses of those early years, my parents managed to provide my sister and I with a normal, happy childhood.

We grew up pretty much like all the other kids—except, of course, that we had an uncommon affinity for tea and an unusually festive celebration on New Year’s Eve.

When I was 21, I had a defining moment that vindicated my parents’ decision to come here. As I finished my undergraduate studies, I realized that my resume heavily emphasized my Jewish leadership experiences. I faced a choice: to take it out or to leave it in. Aware of the anti-Semitism that my parents faced in their careers, I remember thinking that if a company wasn’t comfortable with how involved I was in the Jewish community, that wasn’t a company for which I wanted to work.

That moment represents the incredible gift my parents and grandparents gave to me. It isn’t even the simple fact that I had more opportunities than they ever imagined.

No. More importantly, I had the luxury to assume that merit would determine what I could do with my life, and that my Jewish identity would NOT stand in the way of my success. And moreover, I could not even fathom it being any other way.

That certainly isn’t the world in which my parents grew up, but it is definitely the world that they dreamed of for their children, and it is the world in which I gratefully raise mine.

Tonight we celebrate our stories and our triumphs, and we honor those who helped us get here.

There are approximately 300,000 Jews in the Chicago area. About 40,000 of us are Russian-speaking with roots in the Former Soviet Union.

Our Russian-speaking community, aided by Chicago’s broader Jewish community, has navigated the social and economic dislocation of immigration remarkably well and integrated effectively into the broader fabric of American society. My peers and I are privileged to serve as the first generation of Russian-speaking Jewish leaders in Chicago’s community, and we are ready, and honored to give back to this community.

One comment

  1. I so enjoyed reading your story and experience. I also have some Jewish in my ancestry on my paternal grandfather’s side, and their whole family were immigrants to the U.S. from Odessa, Russia in 1889. They homesteaded and settled in the Dakotas after immigration. I did over 30 yrs. of family research on my grandfather’s family and was able to visit Russia in 1989 on a tour of Moscow, Kharkov, Kiev, Odessa and Leningrad (named at that time). Because it was before the dissolution of the Communist regime in 1991 I was able to talk with Jewish people in Leningrad about their desire to immigrate to the U.S. They wanted so bad to get out of there, and be free, under the iron curtain. Things were better after Gorbachev and Perestroika, but I can certainly understand and relate to your joy and enthusiasm to becoming a new American and free, as it is just what my own grandfather felt. He was only 3 yrs. old when he immigrated to the U.S. Thank you for sharing your story.

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