Light in the face of darkness

Soviet passport with “Jew” written in the 5th column for “Nationality”. Via Boris Rzhevsky at otvety.mail.ru

In 2018, the rise of anti-Semitism in the United States has led many Soviet-born Jews to remember the discrimination, hate, and fear that we hoped to leave behind us. A striking majority of the USSR-born Jews learned that they were Jews early on – and not in their own families – but in school, hospitals, from others who wanted to ostracize them. Understanding the social mechanisms of racism is important. Hearing the voices of real people reliving the childhood pain is sobering. Ironed Curtains and Zarina Zabrisky hope that the stories of suffering and pain inflicted on small children will make our society reconsider its moral fiber and revive what we need right now the most—empathy.

***

We are talking about racism and religious discrimination here because in the former Soviet Union the majority of population was atheists. Passports listed citizens’ national identity (национальность) on the fifth line from the top. The personal information identifying people was categorized in the following way: 1. First Name 2. Patronymic (Father’s name with a suffix) 3. Last Name 4. Date of Birth 5. National Identity. Thus, “Jew” appeared on the fifth line and was considered an ethnicity, not religion. A religion category did not exist.

Due to institutionalized discrimination and daily anti-Semitism, many Jews forged their nationality and wrote “Russian” in the fifth line. However, typical Jewish names (first, last and patronymics) differed from ethnic Russian names/combinations. For instance, the combinations of the first name and patronymic Boris Mikhailovich or Ilya Iosifovich were likely perceived as Jewish as well as certain last names like Rabinovich, Levikov, Bernshtein and many names ending in -sky. Finally, even if the names were changed, in most cases Ashkenazi and Sephardic Jews were easily identified by their facial features that differed from Slavic features. Hence a wide-spread expression loosely translated as “they will beat you based on your looks not based on your passport.” In other words, hiding your Jewish identity in the former USSR—similarly to the Nazi Germany—was extremely challenging.

 

My Gosh, how similar our stories are. Yet, we are all so different. — Y J

It’s comically sad as to how common our experiences are… but again how ridiculous it is that our counterparts in the “other” groups probably went through similar experiences and now comfortably do this to people of other nationalities. —S M

This is so therapeutic and surreal—to hear experiences of people who were in “my shoes” so to speak and had similar experiences. —J

Being non-Jewish and having Jewish relatives and friends, I am deeply ashamed that Jewish people had to go through this and that there is still anti-Semitism in my native Ukraine. —L O

 

“I FOUND OUT AT SEVEN”

I found out because my best friend from kindergarten told me in the summer before first grade that her parents told her that “now as we are grown up” she was not allowed to play with me anymore because I was Jewish. I totally convinced her that they must have been wrong and then went home and found out that she was, in fact, right. Oops. The insane thing is that for a long time I thought I was one of a few with a story like that but it is super-common. —O S

Around six, when I returned to my grandparents’ for the summer, some of the kids that had played with me in previous summers suddenly stopped playing with me. Some said offensive things. My grandparents were probably the only Jewish family in that neighborhood. I guess, their parents decided that they were old enough to understand the world at that point. —A G 

A stranger asked me if I was Russian when I was six. I said, “Yes.” She said, “No, you’re not. Ask your mother.” —L G

I was informed I was Jewish at almost seven before school. My mom said: “Kids will make fun of you and this is why.” She turned out to be wrong. —A I

I learned pretty early on about being a Jew, in the first grade at the ripe age of seven, in a small town in Moldova. I was the only Jew in my class. In the back of the teacher’s journal there was a column for nationality and the teacher pointed out early on that I am the only Jew in class. The teacher always made fun of me—even at the way I walked. She made me walk in front of the whole class and taught me how to walk properly. I liked to “skip hop” and it used to drive her mad. She made me sit next to a boy that constantly had a runny nose and wiped his snotty nose against my uniform. I wore a uniform that had buttons on the back and the boy used to unbutton my uniform daily. He did not get in trouble for that. I was called  “Zhid” (editors: a racial slur translated from here and on as “kike”), “malanka”, etc. We had to do “shifts” after school when you had to stay late and clean your classroom. Usually, my partners wanted me to clean because, you know, “Jewish people are lazy and do not know what physical labor is.” So, once after I cleaned the floors, my partner threw dirty water at me. I bit her with all my might, and her mother was demanding that I got a tetanus shot and I was called “a mad, crazy kike.” I really wanted to switch schools. My mom only did that after my classmate tried to set me on fire. Even now, at times, I am afraid to say that I am a proud Jew. —G G 

I found out at five from other kids! (How did they know?) Came home and asked my parents what it meant. I thought I was a Muscovite! —N S

I found out I am Jewish because at seven we visited Moscow and my grandmother heard me telling other kids that I was Ukrainian. I came from Kiev so I thought it was a no-brainer. So she explained to me. —I A

My best friend’s parents wouldn’t allow her to invite me over because I was Jewish. We were kids, lived on the same floor in our building. I was crushed. —I L

I remember I was about eight when kids started taunting me for being a Jew. My parents invested exactly zero into educating us what being a Jew meant and why we should be proud of it. —B R

Learned on the playground when my “best friend” called me a zhidovka and I had to go home and ask my parents what that meant. The rest is fuzzy. I was somewhere between six and eight. —L Z B

I was barely seven when I was in a children’s hospital and a mother who was there with her child told me that I was Jewish. —L L

A Soviet birth certificate showing nationality of the person’s parents as Jews. Via news.jeps.ru

THROWN OUT OF THE WINDOW

My husband tells a story of how in the second or third grade he was thrown out of the school window suffering a concussion, and the teacher took the class out for ice cream for “taking care of the Jew.” It was in a remote neighborhood of Kiev, early/mid-80s. —V P

 

“KIDS AT SCHOOL TOLD ME I WAS JEWISH:” SCHOOL JOURNAL

I was four years old and it was a daycare provider who decided to play a game of “who is who.” —Y K

I don’t think it was ever hidden from me but I do recall the anti-Semitism at school. It started when someone got a hold of the school journal and the nurse’s notebook during a hospital stay, too. I was at a day camp, around 10. Some of the student aides were filling out paperwork and asked me my nationality. No way was I going to blow everything up by saying “Jewish,” but I also didn’t want to lie since it would easily be caught.  So, I gave them the dumb child look and said, “I don’t know.” That was always a major point of shame for me. Once I was in the U.S., I became adamantly “out and proud” and really frowned on hiding one’s Jewish identity (i.e., name changes, etc) given that in this country we don’t have to cower and hide. —X.

We lived in a small town near Moscow, which was “closed” to foreigners due to a large military plant where my parents worked. We were one of the very few Jewish families in town. Kids at school used to call me Georgian or Armenian because of my distinct appearance. I would come home upset and asked who we were. Finally, my parents had to explain about Jews. Then some kids found the last page of the class journal listing. Besides kids’ names and addresses, there was a nationality. I was the only one in the class listed as a Jew. That discovery started a frenzy of name-calling. Fortunately, I was prepared by my dad who, after explaining about Jews, warned me what was going to happen once my classmates found out. What a horrible experience to go through as a child… —K M

My parents tried to protect me from anti-Semitism by not telling me we were Jewish until I was seven or eight. I was shocked when they finally told me—after I asked why Jews were bad. Kids at school discussed it. I recently heard Madeline Albright talk about how her parents kept it from her, too, so it’s not that unique, I guess. —X

That journal thing happened to me, too, but by that point, I was in the 4th grade and friends with everyone, so I didn’t get any abuse.  Still, the girl who read “Jew” out loud after my name was visibly shocked. —I F

I was in the second grade and eight years old. The boy I shared a desk with in class, who I knew from the age of three, called me a “kike” because I didn’t let him copy my assignment. I had to ask my dad what it meant when he picked me up from school that day. This lead to the conversation about us being Jewish…. still remember like it was yesterday. —A N

I remember on the first day of school I had to fill out some form. One of the questions was “Nationality” and I didn’t know what it meant as a six-year-old. I saw other kids filling out “Russian.” Since that’s what we spoke at home I put it down. There were three other Jewish kids in my class and, from what I remember, one of them spilled the beans in the third grade. My parents went through great lengths to make sure I didn’t know that we were Jewish, probably because I had a big mouth.–G N

Reading all these posts and thinking, how did it happen that non-Jewish kids knew about it before we did? It means that their parents talked about it quite a bit and kids picked up on it. —R L

I found out about being Jewish in elementary school. The back of the class journal had all the nationalities listed. All of it was right there for my classmates to see when teachers were out of the classroom. I’ve had plenty of teasing mostly from boy bullies about being Jewish. Therefore, I clearly remember the feeling of gratitude to my friends who were friends with me DESPITE my being Jewish. It was the feeling that they had to overcome or rise above the fact that I was Jewish in order to be friends with me. —J R

I learned in daycare. Kids were talking about who was Russian and who was Ukrainian so I asked my mother and was very upset to find out that I was neither. I wanted to be like everyone else. While the news was upsetting for me, it was nothing in comparison to what I experienced in my preteen years. Our home class teacher was filling out our class journal with all the personal data. Background noise, laughter, and then it was my turn. When the teacher asked my nationality, it became really quiet in the room. Everyone turned to look at me to hear me say: “Jew.” —O T

It was very stressful because it blew my “cover.” I was the only Jew in the class and because of my Russian-sounding last name, most kids didn’t know about me until they saw that journal entry. —A G

The essence of the Soviet system: everyone is supposedly equal, but we need to know exactly what you are to determine just how equal. —Y I

 

JEWISH FACE”

I’m only a quarter Jewish. My paternal grandfather was a Jew and I remember when I would come to their home to visit I heard him speaking a different language—Yiddish. My dad is half-Jewish but he was always bullied as a Jew in school. He was that smart small Jewish boy. And I remember that we had “nationality” graph in passports and he had “Russian.” He is very smart and finished school with straight As but received the silver medal instead of the gold one. He couldn’t enter the college of his choice despite perfect grades. He looked like a Jewish boy! It didn’t matter what was written in his passport. —M K

Бьют по роже, а не по паспорту. They hit you on the face—not on the passport. —A I

One thing I have to confess now is that there is a huge former Soviet Union community in my area which is predominantly non-Jewish. I do get a bit nervous around them. I have a clearly Jewish face and the possibility of reliving my Soviet childhood still gives me anxiety. —L S

I do not remember when I found out I was Jewish, but I remember asking my grandmother how she and her lady friends who spoke Yiddish knew whether a neighbor was Jewish or not. She patiently explained about noses, curly hair, names… Funny that in the greater world, beyond highly insular Ashkenazi of the Pale, most of these signs are no longer valid. Just look at the widest range of ethnic types among Israelis! —O P

I don’t remember when exactly I found out. My parents must have told me because I do not “look” Jewish, nor does my maiden name sound Jewish, so other people didn’t necessarily know. One of my earliest memories of knowing that I was Jewish was eating matzoh and knowing that it was a Jewish thing to do. While I was mostly spared overt anti-Semitism, I had a Jewish friend who looked very Jewish, and I witnessed a lot of abuse she was getting from people in the neighborhood, not knowing how to respond or what to do when she was called a “kike.” I remember getting a group of friends together and confronting one of the bullies who was always on my friend’s case, after which he was after me, as well. —H G

 

GYPSY FACE

My daughter was in her stroller, and about three months old. Some mean Moscow babushka comes over and asks, “A little gypsy?” (Her tone is not promising anything good.) “No,” I say. She sighs and says, “That means she’s Jewish.” I never quite got whether it was better… but this unpleasant feeling stayed with me for the rest of my life. —M N 

Oh, the number of times people told my parents I looked like a gypsy. As a kid, I thought it was cool. —M L

My husband and I visited Belarus in 2007; my only time back. My friend took us to her village for an overnight trip. In the morning, a super excited babushka came running in.  “I heard you have real Americans visiting! I dug out some potatoes and came over for a chat!” She let herself into the room, looked me over and in a disappointed tone said, “Oh, but they are Gypsies!” (“Дык они-ж цыганята!”) —O S

 

“BLONDE HAIR, BLUE EYES”

 Growing up in Lviv, Ukraine, I didn’t know I was Jewish. When I was nine, as we were getting ready to emigrate and our apartment was filled with the big boxes of our belongings, my precocious cousin, who was one year older, asked me if I knew what my nationality was. I was confused by his question but answered “Russian, what else would I be?” That’s when he swore me to secrecy and told me I was Jewish. I had no idea what that meant. I’d never even heard that word еврей (Jew) before. I was spared direct anti-Semitism, probably because of my blond straight hair, blue eyes, and the last name that sounded German rather than Jewish. —M B

My parents didn’t tell me until we moved to the U.S. from Kiev when I was almost 8. My mom recalled how relieved she was that as a kid I had blonde hair and blue eyes so I could “pass.” —Z S

I knew early on because we always celebrated Jewish holidays. I’ve often heard either,”Whoa, but you don’t look like a “Jew” or “You are not like other Jews…” I tried my best to assure that I both look like and act like other Jews… —M T

 

NAME IS TOO JEWISH

I knew early on. In first grade, my class teacher, a die-hard anti-Semite and a Stalinist, was ranting on Jews. I knew I was Jewish. Came home to retell the story to my family. They were terrified and asked me if she was mean towards me. My response was rock-solid: “How would she know?” I have probably a more Jewish last name than the Rabinowitzes of the world. Mine literally means “Jew-ish.” —Y Y

I do remember a funny story told by my Dad. He was chasing a boy while playing outside. The boy’s last name was Abramov so my dad was screaming: “Abrasha! Abrasha!” (a diminutive for Abram or Abraham, a typically Jewish name–ZZ) when his mom (my grandma) caught him by the collar and said: “Abrasha is you; he is Russian.” —N N

My great-grandfather changed his name to a Russian one and my grandma changed her patronymic. They also burned all the photos of relatives who emigrated. —O E

My parents didn’t want my son born in the U.S. to have a Jewish sounding name so he couldn’t be identified as Jewish. —M T

I found out we were Jewish when someone told me that my last name was Jewish. My parents always told me it was German. I don’t remember how old I was, maybe around six. —G G

I was seven, in the first grade, when I found out I was Jewish. By the time I graduated from high school in Moscow, I was the only Jewish kid in the entire school, who didn’t hide behind some extended relative’s Russian last name. —O U

 

FIST FIGHTS IN THE STREETS

My parents had told me when I was around five or six. For some strange reason, my parents were proud of that. This pride passed on to me. I had many a battle with my fists due to being Jewish but it was in the Kyiv streets. Most of the places where we congregated, schools, circles of friends and family were heavily Jewish. —E B

I was about five or six and a neighbor told me. I had no idea what it meant. Actually, I can’t complain as I don’t look the part—most people didn’t know. Although every time I heard kids saying anything bad about Jews, I confronted them and they backed down. I guess at ten or twelve, it makes a difference if you are fierce and large for your age. —Y Z

A fellow first grader’s mother called our apartment with a “poll” on student ethnicities, except she knew. It was in Dnepropetrovsk, in 1983. I quickly recovered and have been a rebel since. —E S

It was our dirty little secret. I literally found out the summer before first grade when a boy who was a good friend of mine called me a “kike” in front of all our friends when we were sitting on a bench playing something. I had to go home and ask. The same summer, my parents finally moved out of my grandma’s apartment, and I was sitting on a similar bench outside my new apartment building. Two older girls were snickering and whispering something to each other. Then they asked me, and I said, “I’m not sure.” I went home to ask and my other grandma said we were half-Uzbeki and half-Moldovan…. She couldn’t bring herself to admit we were Jewish. My dad got very mad at her and from that day on started teaching me two things: about the misfortune of being a Jew in Ukraine, and how to box. —L C

When I was in second grade, I came home and told my parents that letters “OEE” on the car plate meant, “Careful, Jews in the car” (“осторожно, едут евреи”) and “ОЕЖ”: “Careful, ‘kikes’ in the car.” (“осторожно, едут жиды.”) As we lived in Odessa, many car plates had these letter combinations. My parents had to explain to me that I was also a “kike” so it was not really funny. After that, I was allowed to smack on the face anyone who puts down my national dignity. As my father said, “I will go to prison for that but I allow you to hit them.” I only “smacked face” once, as a result of long bullying. I was tolerating it for a long time and then I could not stand it anymore. It was around the fifth or sixth grade. —X

REBELS

I was always told that I was a Jew and that other kids in school may not like it but most of them were idiots anyway. My parents fostered a very rebellious attitude in me at an early age, teaching me that a lot of stuff I learned at school was propaganda and lies, people, for the most part, were not to be trusted, and Jews were a unique, super-intelligent group of people who were discriminated against, abused and killed. —J B

The craziest memory I have is of my sixth-seventh grade teacher, who liked to do a roll call by asking “all Ukrainians, raise your hands; all Russians, raise your hands; all Jews, raise your hands; everyone else, raise your hands.” Yeah, that really happened. My friend, of Maryian ethnicity, raised her hands with the Ukrainians. I felt that I had to represent and raised my hand high when the Jews were called. It was probably one of the most daring things I’ve done as a child. I refused to be quiet about it. The kids in my class never gave me a hard time. By seventh grade, I was the only Jew left in my class. This was in Western Ukraine. —H G

 

“A SHOCK: HE MIGHT AS WELL HAVE TOLD ME WE WERE SERIAL KILLERS”

I was called a Jew the first time at the age of five or six, thought it was expletive, was corrected and educated that I couldn’t call a Russian boy a Jew but he can call me that. I couldn’t believe it was true and run home to ask parents for confirmation. Their answer came as a shock. —N M

I found my birth certificate when I was twelve. Asked my Dad if it was true that he was Jewish and he said, “Yes.” I was shocked. He might as well have told me that we were a family of serial killers. —C L K

I found out at six from the kids at dacha (country house.) Neighbors’ kids refused to play with one girl “because she was Jewish.” I thought it meant something bad, like “greedy” or “whiny.” I asked my family and still remember sitting on the swings in my nice blue dress listening in disbelief that yes, we ALL were Jewish. They didn’t explain what it meant and I still thought it was a bad word and cried. A few years later, my friend from a speech therapy group fled her house and arrived at our door, announcing that she would not live with her Jewish parents. Was shocked to hear bad news… —Z Z

My dad said he was horrified once he realized that terrible zhid thing was him. —O T

I was eight or so. I came home after a day at summer camp to tell my dad that a couple of my friends and I had decided not to play with one of our friends “because she was a Jew.” My Dad sat me down and told me that he was a Jew and I was a Jew. I demanded some proof and he showed me his passport. I cried hot, bitter tears. Turned out my grandmother—who had a death grip on my Dad—insisted that he conceal our Jewishness from his kids. —V T-F

I was five and nearly cried when I found out… I said, “you mean, WE are those people everyone hates?!” —X

I thought my story was unique. This totally happened to me! A neighborhood teenage bully asked me if I was Jewish. I told him I didn’t know. He said if I didn’t know that meant I was. He pushed me to the ground, and I landed in broken glass. I was about five, and he was about fourteen. I remember this intense feeling of shame thinking how awful this “Jewish” thing must be if that was his reaction to it and how badly I wanted my parents to confirm that he was wrong and I actually wasn’t. —J G

 

“KIKE”

At six, I first heard “kike” on our playground in Kiev and my mom sat me down and explained about this word and many other things. —R K

I think I found out I was Jewish first when I was called “a kike.” —N Y

I was seven and a first grader. I asked my Mom what a “kike” was after my classmates brought it up. That’s when I was told that in order to succeed, a Jew must know twice as much as a non-Jew and work harder than anyone. —Y J

Seven is when most of us went to school and that’s where we learned “kike.” —

I think I heard it way before but didn’t know it applied to me. —I F

My Grandpa was a high school teacher in Minsk and he had a lot of issues like the word “kike” written next to his name on the school wall by kids who weren’t happy with the grade he gave. —J W

 When I was called “kike” in Kiev it meant exactly what we think: a slur. —L S

 I only encountered the word “zhid” when I was in high school.  And, weirdly, my Jewish classmates called each other “zhid,” “little zhid,” or “zhid’s mug” in a sense of “f-ing smart.”  It was used with tenderness, in a super friendly context. —G S

I remember in preschool hearing a teacher and kids sing a song about blaming “zhidy” for no water in their pipes and no chicken in the stores. It was in Minsk, Belarus. —M S

“If there is a water outage, kikes drank the water.” I remember it very well.

More here: http://kbelyaev.ru/txt/pro_evreev.htm  –O D

My grandma, unlike my parents, who had no recollection of the event, remembered it quite well. I came home very worked up and wanted to know what a “kike” was. It was around the time that we were getting ready to leave, so my family knew people must have been talking. My grandma explained that “kike”  was a bad word but that we are all Jewish and good people. –L Z B

 

RELIGION VS ETHNICITY

When I came to the U.S., I knew I was Jewish but assumed it meant my ethnicity. I had NO CLUE that it was a religion. —V N

It was a shock to learn that it was a religion and also a culture. For me, it had been a line on a birth certificate. —R R

I was also told that we don’t practice Judaism and that we are Russian but that the Soviet Union wrongly thought of Jews as a “nationality,” which is why my birth certificate said “Jew.” We did not believe in God and did not know any Jewish holidays. —R R

 

NOT TELLING CHILDREN UNTIL THEY ARE OLD ENOUGH TO KEEP THEIR MOUTH SHUT

I was always told I was Jewish—and taught to be proud of it. I had some friends who weren’t told. One of my friends is still not telling her children until they are old enough to keep their mouths shut. That kind of upbringing is so engraved in us. It’s hard to work out in one or two generations. —Z H

 

NOT TELLING KIDS, PROTECTING FROM GOD KNOWS WHAT

In the US, I hadn’t thought about it until my daughter was about that age asking questions and I found myself fighting the urge to protect her from I don’t know what… —O S

 

IT’S GERMAN

My mom found out by once overhearing her grandparents speaking Yiddish—but they just told her it was German. —Y B

 

DIFFERENCES IN FAMILY 

My brother grew up in the same family [as me] but didn’t want to think that he is partially Jewish. —M K

 

DENIAL

I grew up in Donetsk, Ukraine, in a tough new neighborhood on the outskirts of the city. The childhood itself was pretty cool, I was in an advanced class, and somehow everyone in the class had no problem with me being a Jew. In fact, I was a notorious class clown and all the teachers hated me and I took great pride in that. —A F

There were times when I overheard snickering or Jewish jokes but it wasn’t anything that I couldn’t handle. First time I recall being singled out for being a Jew is the first time I had to run for my life in foot-deep snow. I was eleven. I almost got surrounded by a bunch of neighborhood punks, but was able to dash for my building before they caught me. I had to hide in the special spot in the building as they went searching floor to floor for me. From that day on until we left, I was pretty much hunted daily. I got away, and we were able to move out of the neighborhood within a couple of months. However, my best friend, a Russian kid named Sasha, who remained my best friend and would come to my place even when I became public enemy number one, was beaten so badly by those same street kids for being my friend that he ended up in the hospital. I always felt that I was personally responsible for what happened to him. What an amazing person that Sasha was. 

The shame/anger/ self-hate/fear I brought with me to this country traumatized me terribly. I literally refused to admit to any of my friends here for years and years about being Jewish. I remember how I used to justify it – “I want to be judged on my own merits and not on something I have no control over.” I remember hearing from my American friends anti-Semitic jokes and stereotypes and it would push me even deeper into the closet. I remember being so ashamed and disgusted with my nose and promising myself that I’ll get plastic surgery as soon as I could afford it, so I could look “less Jewish.” It got to the point where I became so good at lying that I actually believed it. It wasn’t until I was more than 13 years in this country before I started being open about being Jewish. —X

I knew early on, but remember that in retrospect shameful moment of writing my nationality as “Russian” on some school form. —M L

My husband, upon hearing that his dad told the census worker that the family is Jewish, threw a tantrum and said, “You are Jewish yourself. Mom and I are Muscovites.” —V S

My Jewish grandma was a die-hard atheist. No one spoke Yiddish in my house, and my parents and she had gone to great lengths to erase any trace of Jewishness from our lives—as a matter of survival, I’m sure. When I found out, I still wasn’t sure what that all meant for years. In my late teens, I pressed my mother to leave Belarus and join our cousins in the U.S. I’ve come to realize that if me, my daughter, her children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren would all be still considered Jewish enough to be killed for it, even if they know nothing of the religion or culture of the small part of their gene pool, then I might as well embrace it. I should at least know what the hell it is that others hate us so much for. —N S

My best friend at the time told me, “Don’t worry, Jews can be good, too.” Years later I found out she was Jewish herself. —N B

 

“I DON’T EVEN TASTE THE BLOOD!”

Once a year, on Passover, we walked to the synagogue for three hours—it got all mixed up (should have been Yom Kippur.) The KGB dorm was strategically placed next door to the synagogue. My parents—as Refuseniks—were often threatened with incarceration by the police, often in my presence. I once shared matzah with a friend during Passover. She was NOT an anti-Semite at all but said: “Funny, I don’t even taste the blood!” —X

My parents were compliant Jewish atheists. They were and are genuinely militantly atheistic. I knew that I was Jewish with all the subtly discriminatory stuff attached, and I had Jewish friends with better-preserved roots. Still, my young brain was overloaded by too many incomprehensible riddles. —G S

 

GO TO YOUR ISRAEL!

I found out I was Jewish at the age of ten or eleven from a neighbor who said, “Go to Israel, skotina (animal)!” So, I went home and asked my mom, “What is Israel and why should I go there?” —K S

Same but it was “Go to your America!” —A K

My parents told me I was Jewish all along, and the first time I encountered it as an issue was when we were asked about nationality in first or second grade. My best friend from school at one point also told me that her dad told her that I was a Jew. She asked me why I did not just leave to “my Jewish land.” I found it puzzling coming from a girl I considered a friend even though we were both only seven years old at the time. When I asked my parents about what she meant, they said my friend didn’t have to worry because that’s where we would be going soon enough. —Y S

I didn’t find till a was about twenty-five. Of course, I knew my grandma was Jewish but honestly I didn’t think it had something to do with me. I lived in a very multicultural small observatory town. We never did anything Jewish – no food, no cultural stuff. And once when I came to visit my parents—I lived in a different place by then—I found that somebody wrote on my parents’ door something like “get out of there, dirty Jew.” It was a very straightforward way to learn things. —M C

 

JEWISHNESS: I DON’T UNDERSTAND

I think the issue for me is that Jewishness isn’t very well-defined and I’m kind of a computer that needs very precise definitions before being able to meaningfully engage with concepts.

The structure of it doesn’t really cohere for me. Like, if someone called me black and wanted to kill me for being black, I still wouldn’t have a basis for identifying as black. —P K

 

JEWISH ENOUGH FOR ANTI-SEMITES, NOT JEWISH ENOUGH FOR JEWS

I’m a mutt, just like the vast majority of people in the US. I’m not religious. Which culture should I identify with? Russian? Belarusian? Jewish? American? I sort of embrace parts of them all. They are all a part of who I am and what makes up my identity. We eat takeout pizza, and I’m doggedly after my 3-year-old daughter to make her put on her tapochki and my purely German genes Catholic American husband to take his shoes off in the house. Even though I’m myself not into slippers. I’m Jewish to anti-Semites, not Jewish enough for some Jews, Russian to Americans, and it’s just too complicated to explain it all to every person you meet. So, I usually stick with “my family is from Belarus” if they pick up an accent. Most people here have no clue where it is and lack the cultural stereotypes to ask about vodka and bears. Let’s just say in terms of Jewishness, I’m defensively Jewish if that makes sense. —N S

I knew about it by school age from family in a context that we were discriminated against (plus Holocaust/Babiy Yar) and that I had to be ready for someone to say something in school. Nothing ever happened there but I was ready. No religious or whatever stuff, though. Most likely nothing happened at school because my family was making sure with volunteering, proper gifts, “donations” etc. to school officials and the teacher. —I G

 

POSITIVE?

 One of the most bittersweet part for me is “positive.” “Didn’t notice anything—just changed the last name,”didn’t look Jewish, or people were nice to me despite…” Internalized shame. The status of being different, and somewhat inferior, gets integrated and becomes a part of identity.

 

POSITIVE EXPERIENCES

My parents used to tell me “if someone asks if you’re Jewish, don’t tell them.” Nobody ever did. —T N

When I was a child in the Soviet Union, my parents and grandparents taught me that being Jewish—even though we weren’t allowed to practice religion—meant not to be racist, respect all people, and help other people in need. We weren’t allowed to use racial slurs or take credit for donations for the needy. We volunteered outside of the usual obligatory school stuff (like recycling or collecting potatoes at collective farms.) As a teenager, I went with my dad to clean out dirty houses for Russian alcoholics. I also met black people in the local International Marine College as my parents wanted me to know that black people are the same. I was never allowed to say things like “uzkoglazyye” (derogatory term) about Asian people, which is what everyone else said, even so-called Jews… and when we made donations for the needy for holidays, my dad and I dressed like Santa Claus and Snow Maiden, to be incognito, and we just dropped things off for people anonymously. That’s what my dad said meant to be Jewish, living in the Soviet Union, and that’s what he told me I should be proud of. —Z H

I’m amazed at how many people hid that they were Jewish. I guess, perhaps, I did live in a Jewish bubble in Vilnius (or mostly in a bubble). My grandparents spoke Yiddish to each other so I can’t imagine not knowing we were Jewish. 99% of my family are Ashkenazi Jews—and I was taught from a young age about their WWII experience. My grandmother has the number tattooed on her from being in a concentration camp so they made sure it was a huge part of our identity.

When I was five, a kid called me “zhid.” I didn’t think much of it but my dad gave the kid a super angry look. I really didn’t know what it was about until he explained it to me. But “zhid” is also short for “Zydas” which means Jewish in Lithuanian. So, it too has a double meaning. But it was a rare experience for me. —I D

The stories of the Vilnius Jewish bubble sound unique. My grandfather’s father was a Litvak, left the Kovno Gubernia for Petersburg in the 1860s, and his descendants, who lived in St. Petersburg /Leningrad, eventually lost Yiddish and assimilated. He spoke German to my grandmother (according to family lore, it may have been Yiddish) so that their kids would not understand. —N C

One of my best childhood friends was non-Jewish. She lived in our apartment building. Her mom was a single mom, and my dad was a single dad. She and I spent most of our time together. We volunteered at my Jewish stuff together and at her non-Jewish stuff together. We were literally inseparable. She taught me about her Polish culture and I taught her about Judaism. When she was eleven, she was baptized and she wore this beautiful white dress to the event. I later borrowed this dress to wear as my Esther dress/costume for Purim. It was pretty funny. We are still really close, and I’ve lived in the U.S for fifteen years. So, we really taught each other about our similarities and differences. I get so upset when I meet racist people, especially Jews. —I D

I’m from Lvov. My school had probably 40% Jewish kids or Jewish mix. My teachers were mostly Jewish. Lots of them live in Israel now. —M K

I apparently stood up in my first-grade classroom and proudly announced I was a Jew. —A U

I learned when I was seven years old. But from my parents, not from other kids. And I was pretty much never teased (just a couple exceptions.) I was very self-assured, very confident and comfortable in my skin as a kid. If I was bullied, it was for being the ‘social justice’ enforcing kid, and even that was relatively minor. —I M R

I dunno. I always knew. Was hard not to know; my family celebrated Passover and Purim and the Jewish new year, and my name was…. always unusual. —B A

I did not experience any anti-Semitism in Russia. My family may have in prior years, but it was rarely talked about and certainly not dwelled upon. I found out just before we came to the US. —R R

I don’t remember exactly when I found out, but definitely no later than the first grade (I was in the third grade when we left.) It wasn’t a huge issue for me personally, but I did get called names once or twice in the yard (where else?). We only had three or four Jewish kids in my class, and I don’t remember experiencing any anti-Semitism in school. I suspect that it was more prevalent in later grades but my own memories of those three years are pretty positive. I should mention that it’s been almost twenty-eight years so it’s possible that some of the negative experiences if those did take place, have been repressed. —Y I

My step-mother’s high school friend moved to Israel when she had the chance. She had a cute boy and named him Leor. When they came back to Kiev to visit our family, he decided to go clubbing with my brother and I. As we were leaving, his mother told him not to say his real name but to say Lenny and that he was from Israel. He went out with us, met cute girls and said he was Leor from Israel. Girls all loved him, and he got laid because he had such an exotic name from an exotic place. Things change… —K Y

 

A CONCENTRATION CAMP EXCURSION

 

I had an interesting experience finding out I was Jewish and exactly what that meant. I had heard it around before, probably during Passover because it was the only Jewish holiday my parents celebrated. Anyway, when I was seven and lived in Germany, where there weren’t a lot of Jews (people were really excited to meet our family), my family went on a summer vacation to a lake in Hungary. Driving back to our town in Germany, we hit a really massive traffic jam. Our car either didn’t have air conditioning or it broke, and my sister Julia was a baby. Our parents began to worry that we’d overheat in the car. They decided it would probably be a good idea to pull off at whatever tourist attraction came up next that would allow us to kill a couple of hours. That tourist attraction happened to be Dachau Concentration Camp. So, we get there and it’s actually a very lovely day and a lovely park. Europeans are great with including public green spaces, so I wasn’t really thinking much about where we were until we got to this big iron sculpture in the front of the park of emaciated bodies. I had never seen bodies like that before and I asked my dad if they were birds. “No, they’re people,” he explained. “People look like that when they don’t eat for a long time.” So I began to question from there: “Why didn’t they eat?” “They weren’t being given food.” “Why not?” “Because they were prisoners here.” “This is a prison?” “It’s a labor camp, for Jews, like us.” And he went on and on. At some point, I said, “Wow, so if I was alive back then, this is where I would live?” My dad, who has oh so many social skills, said, “You? No, of course not. You’d be killed instantly.” My dad explained every part of the camp in excruciating detail for some reason, from the gas chambers to the ovens. My parents were really surprised that I did not handle this field trip well at all and had trouble sleeping for several days after we got home. But I really knew what being Jewish meant after that. I probably left Russia before I could experience the direct anti-Semitism from others. —D M

 

IF YOU WERE ALIVE DURING THE WWII…

I didn’t find out from friends or school. My grandma told me. She also told me it was a huge secret and that I have to be better and smarter than everyone in class… there were only a few instances during my childhood when I saw the true colors of some people. First, we were is history class, I didn’t remember which grade, but fairly young… the topic was World War II and the teacher talked about Jews hiding from the Nazis and asked the class: “If you knew that Jews lived in your building and the Nazis held a gun to your head, would you tell them?” And everyone, every single kid in class, with the exception of one—my best friend—said they would tell. A second story: I called my best friend to see if she wanted to play outside and her brother who picked up the phone said: Natasha, come, your “kike” is calling. Couple years later my parents sent me to a Jewish school in Kiev, and a year later we were [in America]. —I L

 

KARL MARX WAS JEWISH, TOO

I was five. Boys in the daycare called me names. Went home, asked my parents. My mom said, “Karl Marx was Jewish, too.” In the first grade, the teacher would not let other kids play with me, “Don’t play with Bella. She will spoil you with her Jewish nonsense.” —B Y

 

THINGS YOU COULD NOT DO AS A JEW: ATTEND GOOD COLLEGES, BE EMPLOYED AT CERTAIN JOBS AND GO ABROAD

I always knew that I wouldn’t be able to apply to certain colleges because of being Jewish. —A L 

I was in the Ukrainian national skating team along with my skating partner who also had a Jewish name. We were good enough to go to the junior world and international competitions, but we never did. Every year, we would compete at all competitions, including international ones held locally, except for the national selection for going abroad under a funky pretense every year, such as one of us not being ready because of being overweight, or airplanes not flying that day and thus we missed going to nationals and on and on every damn year….but I subconsciously knew that our names and families/background/nationality had something to do with that along with the fact that my skating partner had Jewish grandparents living in Columbus OH since 1977. One time, we were walking home from the practice and one of the older skaters in the group, also a Jew, explained why we would never go anywhere. Years later, my coach who was still very close with me, told me that there was a direct order from the headquarters of the sports club, the skating federation and the KGB, instructing the coaches: [sending Jewish athletes to international competitions] was a “strictly enforced no-go.” —J B

My mother had been teaching math for over twenty-five years in an evening school, adult education, traveling from for over one and a half hours one way, coming home past midnight because she couldn’t get hired to a regular/day public school. Both the school principal and vice principal had been her best friends, yet she’d gladly move to a school close to home had anyone hired her with her “telling”  last name. 

It was a survival mode indeed—secretly celebrating Passover with grandpa, who, after nightlong prayer, was picked up by my dad two blocks away from a synagogue as to not being noticed by authorities. Double load at school—to get somewhere, dropping after 8th grade with straight As, because the home room teacher strongly suggested “in your situation” going to a technical college, as the school district superintendent would not allow the school to have a Jew graduating high school with a gold medal, etc. —I M

 

PUMPKIN JUICE

I found out in the fourth grade. I was sent to a “sanatorium,” a hospital where I stayed without my parents. The doctors recommended it to get rid of allergies. My roommate asked me my nationality, and I told her I was Jewish. And the torture started, which did not prevent her from drinking the pumpkin juice that my parents brought me—this was the only type of fruit that we had in Leningrad (St. Petersburg) in winter. —D B

 

I DIDN’T KNOW

I knew there were people who were called “Jews,” but had no idea who they were and why there were mean words/expressions reserved for them. Always pictured some ancient tribe beyond the borders of the USSR. In reality, it was obvious—now, in retrospect—that many of my friends and my grandfather were Jews. It just never came up. Not until I was in the USA, past my eleventh birthday. In an interesting and unexpected twist of fate, however, shortly after I learned that I had Jewish ancestry, I was labeled an anti-Semite by a kid in middle school because I was Russian and therefore a “Commie” and an “anti-Semite.” The first time that I was genuinely speechless… —V D

 

A GOOD JEW

I don’t remember overt anti-Semitic comments but there was a lot of “You’re nice even though you’re Jewish” type of thing. —I D

 

FAMILY SECRETS

My dad always assumed his maternal grandmother was Polish although, somehow, she identified as an Eastern Orthodox. As a very blonde-haired, blue-eyed kid, at no point in his life did anyone tell him he even remotely had Jewish ancestry. Until at one point, my mom and I pressed him to research his family tree and he thought back to a drunken conversation with a distant uncle It turned out to more than drunk talk and he uncovered a number of relatives who had since migrated to Israel. And this was someone who’s very neo-Stalinist and whom I would recall hearing the most anti-Semitic jokes from. I guess that explains why some of our earlier conversations went like this: “Dad, how can you tell if somebody’s Jewish?” “You see, Jews always have big noses.” “Dad, no offense, but have you taken a good look at your schnobel lately?” “Well, technically, Ukrainians can have big noses, too.” —Y B

 

WE DON’T CROSS OURSELVES

I was five when my neighborhood friend Christina showed me how to cross yourself. I showed my cool new trick to my mom. She told me that we didn’t do that because we were Jewish and told me not to tell anyone. I didn’t understand what being Jewish meant until I came to America later that year. —M L

I found out I was Jewish when I was sitting in front of the TV as a five-year-old, mimicking the program, crossing myself over and over. I guess it got to be too much for my mom. —M K

 

AN AWKWARD PARTY

Not sure exactly how old I was when I found out I was Jewish but before I was ten. My only cousin, who happened to be on my dad’s side (Belorussian), told me at the dacha over the May holidays. We were playing in the back of the house while our parents and some of my mom’s friends were partying on the veranda. Something didn’t go my cousin’s way, so he called me a “kike.” Now, I knew what that meant since I had some friends in school who were Jewish and in our house, we never used pejorative names for ethnicities. So, after a few back and forth of ”No, I’m not,” “yeah, you are a ‘vonuchaya zhidovka’ (‘stinking kike’),” I ran out on the veranda crying loudly and demanding that my mom told my cousin that I was not a “kike” and to stop calling me that. Given that my cousin was two years younger than me (really not old enough to have come up with this on his own), and that our Jewish heritage had been apparently a big and well-guarded secret that pretty much only the family and a few close friends knew, let’s just say that you could probably cut that silence with a knife. My dad’s sister, the little shit’s mom, was all “I don’t know where he got this from” but really, come on! It was a very awkward holiday since they were all staying with us an hour away from Minsk by train, and by then they were in day two of celebrating, where the hangover just transitions into a new round of drinking. Yeah… —N S

My mom was little, maybe four or five. Standing in the middle of a sandbox, hands on her hips. A boy said, “Why are you standing here like a ‘kike’?” Not knowing what it meant, my mom smart-mouthed him right back “I stand the way I want.” It was 1956. —D B

 

ALL YOU PEOPLE CARE ABOUT IS MONEY

In the second or third grade, I brought a collectible coin to show to my classmates. One boy said: “All you people care about is money.” “What people?”…I was incredibly confused and upset that he didn’t appreciate my cool coin. Even though I didn’t understand at that time, for some reason this memory always stuck out for me and only years later did I learn about the negative stereotype he was referring to. —L L 

 

GROWING UP JEWISH IN DIFFERENT REGIONS

 

LATVIA—BUGS IN FOOD

My proudly and vehemently anti-Semitic kindergarten class cook clued me in at five years old. I was the only Jewish kid in the class and she forbade other kids to play with me. She also would put bugs in my food. I stood out physically, too. Dark complexion and black hair compared to my pale and blond Latvian classmates. My last name (maiden name) didn’t help disguise me, either. I was born in Latvia, unlike the rest of my family who moved there when my mom was pregnant with me. I’d come home from kindergarten crying and insisting that it was all of them who were Jewish but I was Latvian. Fortunately, there was one little pale and the blond girl in the class who never listened to the cook and was great friends with me anyway. I was always welcome in her home. I named my oldest daughter after her. I didn’t realize how much it affected me until recently when I noticed my daughter doodling the Star of David on her school notebooks. I had a weird sense of fear and a really strong desire to ask her to erase them and to stop doing that in school. I’m restraining myself from such commentary, but the desire persists. —V D

I lived in the same town in Latvia. Your post brings back some very bad memories from my childhood like my third-grade teacher announcing in front of the whole class that I was a Jew traitor after we had received permission to emigrate. My parents pulled me from school for the next several months until we left because they were concerned about my safety. —X

 

MOSCOW

I think I was nine. I was in Moscow, attending an elite school. There were whispers over a lunch table, such as “my dad says you are a ‘kike.’” This turned into an interesting dinner-time conversation. I am pretty sure the culprit is now a Facebook friend who is a relatively lefty young woman living in Russia. —S M

I clearly remember my first day in the Moscow State Pedagogical Institute, when a girl asked me, “So, looks like we two are the only “idishki” in our group?” She lives in Maaleh Adumim now. —O P

 

KIEV

I grew up in Kiev and [experienced] rampant anti-Semitism—like, people threw stones at our windows one night—long story. —N ZM 

The apartment building where we lived in Kiev and the nearby neighborhood had a good 10 percent Jewish families population. Or, maybe, this was the circles that my family had or seemed to me like that. And papa bringing matzah every April and the family gathering for some holiday in April with matzah blintzes and something similar without the matzah in September eventually in early teens led me to interrogate my folks to explain. —J B

I thought my mom took me to a church in Kiev. And when I told a friend of hers, my mom stared at me in total horror. Obviously, it was the gray synagogue of Kiev. I had no idea; it’s not like anyone talked to me about anything. —J F

I was about eight, I believe. An overweight Jewish boy in our class was called a “kike” by another boy. The teacher quickly acted and disciplined the name-caller. Then there were direct questions about my “nationality” (by the same boy, I think.) Most kids in my class were nice, though. But the moment I really had to confront it was when filling out a registration form to the Children’s Library in Kiev, also around eight or so. Of course, one of the questions on the form was “nationality.” I was so scared and embarrassed that I whispered to the librarian, ”I don’t know.” She said, “How come you don’t know?” I said, “Let me ask my grandma.” Grandma was there with me and said it was okay just to write “Jew” on the form. Which I did. And then again and again, on various forms, many times. I don’t miss that part of my Soviet childhood/adolescence. —V S

I went to a very different school. It was in the middle of the area populated by engineers, very prestigious, and Jews flocked there. We lived in a building co-op that belonged to an engineering organization. So, there were very few non-Jews in our 102-apartment building. —E B 

In my first grade we had 42 Jews out of 44 students, so we were fine. We still are. —M S

I’ve known as long as I can remember. My mom was a teacher in Kiev, in a special academic campus, and we had several Jewish teachers but not that many students. I was probably the only one in my class. I got lucky in school, very few incidents. It was quite different at dance class. I was always able to stand up for myself despite my being the smallest in class, though. —I K

I was very lucky to be surrounded by amazing friends in Kiev: Ukrainians, Russians, all still my best friends, but [while applying to university,] having the best possible grades, I was told in admissions, “R K…. we can’t accept you…” that was a first, big one… —R K

 

CHERNOVTSY

I’m from Chernovtsi, a very Jewish city, but the thing is that they never spoke about being Jewish. —J F

 

ODESSA

I think [the situation with anti-Semitism] depended on location. In Odessa, Jewish culture was very dominant. Same goes for Kishinev, Moldova. 

 

MOLDOVA, KISHINEV

It all depends on where you lived. I am from Kishinev. It was a very Jewish city in Moldova (when we were born it was still Moldavia.) In parts, it was mainly Jewish. But, I also found out when I was seven and started music school. One day—I do not remember the reason for my conversation—my cello professor asked me about me being Jewish (and she knew me, my family very well, so she knew I was Jewish). In my family at that point, that specific topic was never raised. I guess it was not that important. I was brought up to know that the only thing that matters was whether you were a good or a bad person and it did not depend on your nationality. My mom used to always remember how I came home crying that day. My professor told me I was Jewish and I thought it was something bad since I did not know about that. Also, if we are talking about a regular school: I went to Russian-Moldovian school. In my class, we had only five Jewish kids. —L S

My uncle was called “Davidik-zhidik”  (David the Kike) in school. He married and lived in Lviv. I remember walking the streets with him there and calling him by name. He asked me not to call him by his name in public. I remember some neighbors asking me whether my sister and I were adopted because we did not look Jewish. When we received our immigration papers, the envelope was opened. Soon after that my mom, a kindergarten teacher, lost her job and people started asking us when we were leaving. I can write a book on how my family and I were treated back in Moldova. —G G

 

BASHKIRIA

In Bashkiria, we did not have this problem at all. My grandmother, who was born in Ukraine and then lived in the Moscow district, was exiled to Bashkiria. She said she loved it the best there and no one ever bothered her there for being Jewish. I found out that I was Jewish and about the importance of having a nationality only after I arrived to the USA, and from the Russian-speaking immigrants. In Bashkiria, there are Bashkir, Russian and Tartar people. You stop noticing the nationality, especially when they all mix. —N T

 

THE UNITED STATES

I remember being nervous seeing for the first time a menorah openly as street lights/decorations in NYC along with a Christmas tree. First thought was: “how come they are not afraid to identify themselves?” —I M

No one can be prepared for that. I’ve been fairly insulated in diverse and liberal places since we came to the States, but my husband is from Colorado Springs and tells me of some downright medieval stereotypes and fears about Jews among neighbors and classmates when he was growing up. —L G

When I was 16, new American in Houston, TX, I was working at a coffee shop as a waitress. One elderly gentleman heard my accent and asked where I was from. When I told him he said, “WHERE ARE YOUR HORNS?” I was just stunned, wasn’t sure what to do or say. —Z G

We did not practice any religion, but somehow Jewish motifs, music, Judaica art always resonate although our early exposure was very limited for obvious reasons. I did not, luckily, feel any overt anti-Semitism. Maybe, because we had very Jewish surroundings in my hometown. Interestingly, during immigration and upon arrival to the US, I became painfully aware of many not-so-pretty aspects of some of our “tribesman” behavior and it is always very painful for me to encounter what I call “Brighton Beach Syndrome.” —J S

I found out when I was older than ten. Here, when my grandparents came, and let me tell you, there was quite a ruckus because we lived in a very anti-Semitic community. Quite an identity crisis! —M S H

I come across non-Jewish immigrants from the former Soviet Union [occasionally]. Just like with everyone else, I insert the fact that I am a Jew in the conversation early on. So far, I have yet to come across anyone, the former Soviet Union immigrant or not, who has had an issue with it, not to my face at least. And if someone does have an issue with it, great, I am glad to know that right away. I don’t need assholes and dicks in my life, and so I move on. —O D

Unfortunately, I experienced it here in the US. Since then whenever conversation going in a certain direction, I immediately inform a company that I’m of Jewish origin. —S B

 

LIGHT AND TOGETHERNESS IN THE FACE OF DARKNESS

 A note on redemption: We immigrated to Israel when I was sixteen. It was a different experience from American immigration and deserves a separate discussion. But when I became a psychology student and went to therapy myself, what poured out of me was the trauma of being “othered” and bullied.  Last year, my daughter went on a mindfulness retreat. For a talent show, she organized a secularized Hanukkah service for more than one hundred kids and proudly led them in a prayer about light and togetherness in the face of darkness. Needless to say, I was all tears when she told me all this. It definitely felt like closure. —L C

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