From Odessa, Jewish Identity Over Tea

by Violetta Shmulenzon

For five months, I was an enthusiastic member of one of the former Soviet Union’s largest and most vibrant Jewish communities. For me, the poignancy of this experience has as much to do with my work at the Beit Grand Jewish Cultural Center (through the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee) as it does with the fact that my time in Odessa was truly a homecoming of sorts.

When my family came to America in the late 1970’s, only a few members of the extended family were left behind. And it was not until one early Saturday morning that I realized how deep – and eye-opening – my Jewish connection to this city would be.

I was woken up by a knock at my door. I jumped out of bed to see who it was as it’s rare to get visitors you are not expecting in Odessa. To my surprise it was my Great Aunt.

I had recently found out I had Great Aunt with a daughter and two grandchildren who remained in Odessa after my family’s departure. And although we had previously talked on the phone and I mentioned where I lived, I was not expecting to find her standing at my door.

As I welcomed her in she began telling me how she had just woken up the entire building asking for the “Jewish apartment.” Thoughts of hostile neighbors aside, we sat in the kitchen over a cup of tea and talked while I showed her photos of my grandmother, aunt, and mother (it had been over 30 years since she has seen any of them).

She also told me stories of how my grandfather’s workshop (he was an artist) was right underneath her balcony, and how they would talk every afternoon, him in his workshop and her overhead. Of course, she asked about my family in New York, about me, and why I was in Odessa.

The first question was if I was religious – and if not – how it came to be that I was in Odessa to work with the Jewish Community. I didn’t know how to answer – no one had ever directly asked me these kinds of questions.

She told me she just arrived from Shabbat services and asked if I attended synagogue. I told her with my grandmother on high holidays sometimes. She began to tell me about her family: her daughter worked as an instructor in the Jewish orphanage in the center of the city. Both her grandchildren (around my age) were Orthodox, finishing yeshiva, with one even studying in Israel. They both worked in a synagogue in town.

When I asked if I could meet everybody, she said of course, but it would be a little difficult because her grandsons don’t often come over and can’t have dinner at her house due to kashrut issues. At that moment, I realized how strange it was to be a Jew in Odessa, especially because for more than 70 years this city (like most of the Soviet Union) suppressed any kind of active Jewish life or memory.

Stranger yet, I was being examined by my Great Aunt – who never left this city – about the extent of my “Jewishness.” I couldn’t help wondering out loud why they had decided to send my cousins to the city’s Jewish schools instead of the public schools. It is the same question I posed to my grandmother back in New York when she attended synagogue for Shabbat services. How do you know you are Jewish if your entire life you weren’t allowed to know or practice?

In the fifty-plus years my grandmother lived in Odessa, she never once stepped foot into a synagogue. My grandmother’s only Jewish memory was as a child going to her grandmother’s house on Friday nights, seeing her close the curtains, light candles, say something in a language she did not understand, and eating apple pie. She didn’t know what was Jewish about that tradition, but she knew it was other, and thus, Jewish.

Yet on arriving in New York her first destination was a synagogue. Why? How did she know?

Her answer always astounds me: even if it was never said out loud, she recalls, she always knew she was a Jew. As she said, “only in America could I actualize it – but I always knew, it was always in my heart – I was a Jew.”

I guess the core of the question I was asking my grandmother in New York and now my Great Aunt in Odessa was the same: what is Jewish renewal? How do you revive a lost heritage, a fragmented history, a feeling of otherness and transform it into one person’s or one community’s Jewish identity?

It’s certainly not about location: New York or Odessa, both communities struggle to find paths to Jewish identity and take many different turns along the way. In Odessa, for instance I worked on youth programming for the Beit Grand and a variety of leadership development programs with young adults.

But, of course, after finishing my visit with my Great Aunt, I realized some things are definitely “local.” She asked me to go to synagogue with her and I agreed quickly.

“Just make sure you bring documents that show you’re a Jew,” she added.

“What documents,” I asked. The nationality/religion of a person is not written on their birth certificate in the U.S. as it was up to a few years ago in Ukraine, I reminded her. “I have a star of David and my lifetime of belonging to Jewish camps, schools, centers,” I said.

“Well,” she said, “you can get your parents’ birth certificates or a letter, but either way make sure you have it or else they won’t let you into the synagogue. You don’t look Jewish.”

Reflecting on the complexities and choices of Jewish identity in the former Soviet Union, I found myself not thinking of the diversity or difference but of the connection. Whether my family would have remained in Odessa or chosen to immigrate to New York, there would have been a path for them to reconnect and renew their Jewish heritage and identity.

I was reminded of the words of the leader whose name I carried all year with me, Ralph I. Goldman, who said that there is “a single Jewish world, intertwined and interconnected,” and everyday in Odessa I saw aspects of this single world.

Violetta Shmulenzon, a native of Brooklyn, was the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee’s Ralph I. Goldman (RIG) Fellow in Odessa and Jerusalem. She now works for the Edith and Carl Marks Jewish Community House of Bensonhurst.

Violetta’s story, and her connection to the Jewish world, is just one of several we will be bringing to you this year.

image: outside the Beit Grand Jewish Cultural Center at the opening ceremony; courtesy Claims Conference