I was born in Kiev, Ukraine in 1983 and lived there until 1988. The last memories I have of Kiev are of just receiving my first "big kid" bed, no longer needing to sleep in a crib. I was five at the time. I remember going to a school where I had a lot of fun. I recall my parents sending me to figure skating classes and gymnastics. No, I'm not gay; these were two popular sports for a young Russian boy. Given my petite frame at the tender age of five, I sure did not scream future hockey player. I remember in the corner of my room stood a toy box, filled with all my toys. This was not one of those tiny toy boxes. This box was huge, so huge that I could hide in it. It was so huge that when I did hide in it, I got stuck and had to get help to get out of it.
One day in 1988, I was given a tiny backpack and told the family was leaving to go to America. I don't remember if I understood what that meant but I do remember being told I could only take what would fit into the backpack. The choice of what toys to take was agonizing. I did not want to leave. I was happy. Why would I want to leave everything behind?
My family and I first stopped in Italy on our way to America. I remember doctors and getting lots of shots. I also recall some guy in Italy giving us Italian sodas. So I guess there were some good memories and some bad ones. We lived there for about six months before landing at JFK International Airport in June 1989. At this point, I was six years old.
We first lived in a hotel, if you can call it that. I remember getting robbed but the details are not clear. Within a few months, we moved into a one bedroom in Brooklyn. The neighborhood was not Russian and definitely not Jewish. It was very hard to adjust to the life that I gave up my box full of toys for. I was living in a one bedroom with my parents, my aunt, my uncle, my newborn cousin and my grandmother. I slept on a pull-out bed a whole 2 feet away from my grandmother. I had no space to play and had zero privacy. I could not go outside, as I needed someone to watch me. Out of my entire family, the only person not working was my grandmother, since she was babysitting my young cousin. Essentially, to pass the time, I would sit on my bed and stare at the wall. I longed to go back to my former life and my box full of toys.
After many boring days stuck inside my tiny apartment, I got restless and went looking for trouble. I did so by taking the keys to my parent’s car and almost succeeded in taking it for a joyride. It just so happens that as I was putting the key into the ignition, our neighbor walked by and stopped me. Instead of grounding me, my parents took pity and allowed me to go outside on my own as long as I stayed on the block. It was not long before I got beat up. I could not defend myself physically or verbally, as I was still learning English. However, I knew the word Jew. I was six and my first lesson in America was if I had a Star of David around my neck, people were going to beat me up. All I wanted was go back to my box full of toys.
Since going back was not an option, I had to make the best of it. The first thing I did was concentrate extra hard on learning English. I also started asking questions about why we left Kiev and why people did not like Jews. I never got the truth from my parents. They always felt a need to protect me. By my 9th birthday, we moved to a nearly all Jewish neighborhood and there was a synagogue half a block away. I spent a lot of time there. I went to services almost every Friday night. I started to learn and understand what it meant to be Jewish. When I was younger, I would play hockey on Sunday morning, but Friday night and Saturday were reserved for synagogue. It was a place where I got the truth. While it could never replace my beloved toys, going to services gave me something I never knew I was missing.
At a very young age, I learned the truth and ever since, I have been proud to be Jewish. I may not have always been the most religious person, but I did my best to celebrate the major holidays like Passover, Purim, Yom Kippur, Chanukah and others -- although Chanukah required adult supervision after I almost burned down our apartment. My parents eventually enrolled me in an after school Hebrew school, where I educated myself and had a bar mitzvah. For some reason, when I started high school, I gave up religion. I did celebrate some holidays here and there but I lost myself as a Jewish person. I had many chances to go to Israel and never took them. It was like I had a second chance to play with my box of toys and I left them in another country.
Fourteen years later, I made the proactive choice to sign up for the RAJE program and it was the best decision I ever made. I had the opportunity to educate myself on what it means to be Jewish and then I got to go see the land of my people.
In closing, I'd like to say that I am not only grateful to be an American but just to exist at all. As I grew up, my family finally told me more of the truth. They told me my great grandmother took my grandmother and escaped capture into the forests of Russia, when my grandmother was not much older then I was when I left Russia. My grandmother watched her entire family get executed. She did not get to bring any toys at all. For the next several years, she was on the run and avoiding ending up in a Nazi concentration camp. Thankfully, she avoided capture and later, gave birth to my mom. My mom is from Minsk and somehow meet my dad who was from Kiev. They carried out a long distance relationship during a time without modern conveniences. They had me at a young age and never truly deprived me of what I needed.
So what is my story? I’m grateful the worst of it is about a toy box that I left back in Kiev…