I am a first generation Russian Jewish émigré, a law professor, and a mom of four very American sons. My life was defined in the moment that my parents, Vladimir and Ida Bychkov, made the momentous decision to try to leave the former Soviet Union. Their bravery brought us to the United States in 1975, and I am grateful to them for every day of freedom that I have enjoyed since I came here as a shy six year old. The opportunity for our emigration was created by negotiations between the US and the USSR, but was made a reality by HIAS and by the American Jews who fought for us. I am the result of a unique time in history, and I treasure my heritage. This is my story.
When we first arrived in the US, we settled in Forest Hills, NY: an early enclave of Russian-Jewish émigrés. I remember a small apartment, and I know instinctively – and probably knew even as a child – that times were tough, and that we were struggling, but what I remember most are voices - Russian language being spoken – big family style dinners, and lots of laughter and hugs. I was a protected, safe child in a warm nest.
I started at an Orthodox Jewish day school. Many such schools were opening their doors to the émigrés, and I think part of my tuition was waived. My mom, who had been a lawyer in the USSR, worked in the cafeteria there to help cover the rest of my tuition. As a child, I was lucky enough to absorb English rather than learn it. A summer watching Scooby Doo cartoons gave me enough to run with at school, and within half a year, I was fluent. In those early grades, my best friends were other émigré children. We shared a common bond and it resulted in seamless friendships. Many of the families we knew had come as nuclear units – without the extended family help that was part of life in the USSR – so we forged those extended families ourselves. There was a gaggle of young kids, all of us so similar, and our lives were not difficult: unlike the adults around us, we had nothing to compare our lives to, and so this became our “normal”.
When I was ten, my father got a job at the University of Illinois at Chicago, and we made our second big transition: we moved from New York to Chicago. In Chicago, we were helped by other Russian-Jewish families, and even though I did not appreciate it at the time, it was just a bigger nest welcoming us to this new place. It’s just what people did for each other. Here, too, our extended family was other émigré families, and for me, that continuity gave me comfort and confidence.
In my middle-school years, I started feeling more American than Russian. I was a good student, my Hebrew was strong and my English was flawless. My parents sometimes asked me to draft letters in English for them and I happily obliged: I liked being the conduit between them and American society. My best friends were now Jewish American kids. At that time, there was a new flood of émigrés arriving – my Mom resettled thousands of people in her job at Jewish Family and Community Service – and I certainly felt less kinship with my newly arrived cohorts than their American counterparts. My best friend was the daughter of a local rabbi, but our different upbringings and lifestyles did not weaken our bond. I credit both our families for that. As an émigré family, we were not religious, and the orthodox schools tended to look the other way as long as we did not, for example, bring the pork chops that we were of course eating at home into the school. My friend’s family allowed her frequent visits and sleepovers at our house: they knew that at our house, we would only give their daughter Kosher foods, on paper plates. They welcomed us to their house as well. They did not try to convert or persuade us: they just accepted and understood us.
There were times, of course, when those of us who were more recent émigrés would be mocked, and I remember one particularly cruel incident very well. One of my classmates in our tiny 30 person class was being bar mitzvah’d, and the norm was to invite the whole class. This boy did, but he excluded the three of us who were Russian émigrés. It was said that the family, who came from German Jews who had come over at the turn of the century, looked down on us. This kind of discrimination was incredibly upsetting, but it did not completely shake my confidence for two reasons: first, because I knew in my heart that this was foolish and wrong and not the norm, and second, because my best friend, the Rabbi’s daughter, boycotted the bar mitzvah because of his meanness, and got some other kids to do the same.
I graduated valedictorian of my 8th grade class, and despite some pressure to go on to a Jewish high school, moved on to a public high school. Now, as a completely American teenager, I befriended mostly American kids. My parents did something right though: I was never embarrassed about who I was, and if I had to call them from school, I would speak Russian on the phone to them. It helped that we were in a heavily Jewish community, and that there were various immigrant groups around. My friends loved coming over for Russian food at my house, and my parents welcomed all of them. I cannot say enough how much their willingness to allow me to be who I was strengthened and bolstered me.
I was accepted to attend the University of Chicago, found my intellectual home there, and in seven years got my Bachelor’s, Master’s and Law degrees. The University of Chicago is a collection of different, smart people, and our individuality was celebrated and embraced. In college, I majored in political science with a focus on US-Soviet relations, I took some graduate level Russian linguistics and literature courses, and I tutored people in Russian. My Mom and I collaborated on an article about how to raise bilingual children to be fluent in their new language while never forgetting their mother tongue. My parents continued welcoming my various friends into our home, and I loved how my heritage now made me not just different but “cool” and “interesting”. I knew exactly who I was. I got my Master’s in International Relations, writing a thesis paper called “Language of Lullabies”, about the forced Russification of the Baltic States. As part of the Model United Nations team, I found am amazing group of people who loved foreign cultures. I found some of my best friends. And without even looking, I found the man I would marry.
My husband, Colby, is from an American family that traces its roots back to ancestors from the British Isles, Germany, native American tribes, and Holland. He is actually descended from William of Orange (a small strand: we’re not in position to reclaim the throne or anything!) He grew up in Iowa, as did his parents, and his grandparents. He loves my passion and the fact that there was never just one conversation at our dinner table. I love his calm. Our parents formed an amazing bond despite their huge differences, and they embraced our union. It may be that because intermarriage was so common in Russia that my parents never blinked when I chose a non-Jewish man: I think it’s likelier that they just knew that I had found my perfect mate. Our wedding was a great combination: one third college friends from everywhere, one third Russian Jewish émigrés, and one third Iowa folk. It still makes me smile to think of Colby’s family dancing the hora, while our klezmer band played.
Once Colby and I married, we started building our own nest. It was not without heartache. We battled years of infertility and loss, including a son who was stillborn. In the USSR, miscarriages and losses were sadly all too common, and there was, and maybe still is, a strong desire to wash it away quickly and move on. I understood that, and I saw it in my parents’ reaction: their hearts were breaking for me, and they were doing what they thought best. Colby’s parents treated our losses as something greater, and recognized the lives that could have been. To me, this felt more natural, and this might be when I felt most at a distance with my heritage.
In time, and with the amazing doctors and assisted reproductive technologies available here, we had our first son, Harrison, and then four years later, twins Holden and Langford, through in-vitro fertilization. When the twins were six months old, I became pregnant with our “gift with purchase”, Davis. Three of my four boys have an immunodeficiency, but we are lucky to have treatment that keeps them healthy and monitoring by the National Institutes of Health. Between my fertility problems and the fact that I am a carrier of this condition, I do not know if kids would have even been a possibility had we not left the USSR.
My immediate family’s nest is rich with the heritage that Colby and I bring, and our boys, with their WASPy names and American confidence, self identify as Jewish and are used to hearing Russian around the house when I speak to my Dad. Our boys celebrate Christmas and Hannukah and Russian New Year’s. This year, one of my nine year olds announced that he knows that Santa is not real, but that he firmly believes in Dyed Moroz (Russian “Uncle Frost”, who brings presents on New Years Day.) I regret that I have not spoken Russian to my boys from the start, but I am teaching them, and they are curious to learn.
It is axiomatic that each of us is formed through our life experiences, but I think that for those of us who are “first generation”, we are particularly defined by our past and by the emigration process. My core, for better or worse, was borne in my nest: a superstitious nature, a love of pelmeni, a profound belief that we can survive anything, and an instinctive need to reach out to those who are different. My story is that of an American woman with a Russian-Jewish core. I would not change it for the world.