My Freedom in Three Objects

By Zhanna Beyl
Illustrations by Yelena Yafe

Passover Haggadah

Yelena Yafe-HaggadahWhen my husband and I were still dating, he invited me to a Passover Seder family reunion somewhere in the suburbs of Philadelphia. His mother’s family rented a large reception hall, ordered Kosher for Passover food, and invited close to 60 relatives. The tables were beautifully set and by each place setting there was a yellowed family haggadah complete with wine-stained pages. On the cover of the haggadah there was the name of the family matriarch. I was moved to leaf through this booklet that was used every year for so many generations – tradition uninterrupted. In my family, no physical object, no story reaches that far into the past. My roots, just like the roots of so many other European Jews were severed by WWII and the Holocaust.

Photograph from 1987 March on Washington

Yelena Yafe-Let My People GoYears ago, we visited my husband’s family to celebrate my father-in-law’s 60th birthday. When we walked into their house, the dining room table was covered with old photographs illustrating the last six decades. One little picture caught my attention: my then 14-year-old husband with his dad in Washington, D.C. My father-in-law told me the story of how they participated in the “Free the Soviet Jewry” movement and I said, “Here I am.” In 1987, I did not know any Jews besides my family and was unaware of the people who were advocating for my freedom from across the ocean.

Birth certificates of my children

Yelena Yafe-Shmuel and NaomiI live in a place where I am free to be Jewish and not worry about the safety and wellbeing for my family and me. I am happy to be able to give my children Jewish names as their only names. It is a perfect finale to the struggles my family experienced. The birth certificates of my children proudly state: “Shmuel Matan Wasserman” and “Naomi Chava Wasserman.”

Zhanna Beyl, LMSW, is a Communal Education Networker at The Jewish Education Project. Her sister, Yelena Yafe, is an animator working at an ad tech company in NY. They moved from Moscow to NYC as children with their younger sister, mother, and grandparents in 1994.