There are positive moments in childhood that can define us as adults. Looking back at these moments gives us a sense of pride. However, there are moments in childhood that are filled with shame and fear. They, too, define us. These difficult moments are like the seeds of a defiant plant that live beneath the frozen soil. At a time when you least expect, they will make their way above the ground. They have the power to redeem us and those we touch.
There is a moment in my childhood that I wanted to forget. It took place on a bus in Kiev, the city of my birth. A woman greeted my babushka, kissing her warmly. It was her old neighbour. They spoke together in Yiddish. Hearing Yiddish outside of our home – out in the open – felt like trouble to me.
Sitting a few rows ahead, a middle-aged Ukrainian woman turned around and threw us a hostile look. Babushka and her friend did not notice, but it made me afraid. “Just look at them talking!” the woman said loudly. “We do not speak that language in the Ukraine. If you want to speak Jewish, get out of here.”
Babuska’s friend murmured, “They want us dead.” The two neighbours fell silent. I wanted to disappear.
The bus stopped at Syretskaya Street. Babushka didn’t see the second attack coming. This time it came from me. My voice trembling, I said, “Babushka, don’t ever speak Yiddish outside again. It makes me embarrassed.”
Babushka’s shoulders slumped as if someone had landed a blow. She remained silent the rest of the night. I knew I had hurt my grandmother much more than the Ukrainian woman ever could have, but I could not apologize. My shame was greater than my love for her. This, I wanted to forget.
Years passed. Our new life in North America demanded hard work. There was language to acquire, a culture to understand and Judaism to embrace. My volunteer work in the Jewish community, work as a marriage and family therapist, led me to the doors of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.
I was to become the first female rabbi born in the Soviet Union and ordained in North America, a responsibility I did not take lightly.
For the ordination, my family and friends joined hundreds of others at the large temple. Five years of rabbinical school gave my parents time to adjust to their daughter’s odd choice of profession. Even though the freedom of practicing our tradition was granted to us, very few Jewish Russian-speaking households adopted traditional Jewish life.
However, behind the curtain of our new freedom lurked the faces of our grandparents and great-grandparents. They were traditional Jewish people who lived a Jewish life before the Soviet system took that life away from them. My recent ancestors spoke and wrote in Yiddish, learned Hebrew and contributed to Jewish religious and cultural life. My Soviet Jewish soul was cradled by the grandmothers who sang to me in Yiddish, retold stories from the Torah and endured their granddaughter’s shame of their fluent Yiddish spoken on the streets of Kiev.
My classmates were called up in alphabetical order to an open ark containing several Torah scrolls. I was about to be invested as a rabbi, an interpreter of tradition. I faced the ark to receive a blessing and froze. I saw Babushka Bronya’s face peering softly at me from behind the Torah scrolls. She looked amazed. Amazed, because the Jewish life she so much loved did not perish with her, but pulsed through the most unlikely channel – her granddaughter.
There are moments in one’s childhood that define us, some are moments of pride and some are moments of shame. These moments are like the seed of a defiant plant that lives beneath our frozen soil. But when those seeds bloom, they have the power to redeem us and others we come to touch.