“Thank G-d that you are in America, and not back there!” These were the words of my parents, who, as would I assume, used this phrase as a way to make me feel bad about all my little complaints throughout my childhood. To my young, carefree self, “back there” was just a phrase my parents used redundantly that lost its meaning and emotion after hearing it so many times, as I was completely oblivious to the memories, pain and hardships two simple words stood for.
As we grew up, our schools tried to instill history into us from a young age. As Confucius said, “Study the past if you would define the future.” However, until my last few years of high school, European immigration was barely mentioned in our textbooks, usually overlooked by students rushing to skip the chapter. Luckily, I became more exposed to my own family's experience after having to write a college essay about a major world issue. When asking my parents for help with a topic, my mom said, “Why don’t you write about anti-Semitism?” I dismissed the idea, thinking this issue lost its significance from the world wide phenomenon it used to be in the mid to late nineteen hundreds. “What would I even write about?” I asked. This question led to a two hour long discussion with my parents about their childhoods and how being Jewish impeded their ability to lead happy, successful lives back in Belarus.
Going to school to learn and make friends was no simple task for my parents. Suddenly exposed to the harsh realities of the world when starting their first years of school, they were too young to understand what separated them from other kids. My mother recalled a day in the third grade when she casually approached a girl from her class who was standing with her mother. The girl’s mother turned to her child and softly stated, “Don’t talk to her.” Bewildered, my mother ran to my grandmother who simply said, “They don’t like Jews.” How could someone learn to become approachable and make friends like all the other kids do if she did not know if they would realize she is Jewish and suddenly hate her? “I had a few good friends I was close with in school.” My mom said, thinking back to her high school days. “Kids would turn to me and call me names. Not curses, but actual names. They would refer to me as ‘Sarah,’ because apparently my name ‘Anna’ was not Jewish enough for them to make fun of.”
Hearing this, my dad suddenly recalled a day from the sixth grade, when he returned to his locker from gym to see a Star of David scribbled on his book bag. Situations like these made it difficult for them to make friends, and they had to learn to judge a person’s true intentions from a very young age. While this instance was one that stayed in father’s memory forever, it was definitely not the only. Throughout my life, I heard my dad tell stories about the army to his friends and family members, but I never heard him talk about what he told me that day. “I took classes to become a sergeant, so I can have some sort of power while I’m there, but that did not even help in situations. If there were a bunch of ‘goys’ and one of me, they already felt like they have advantage.” This implied a significant amount of physical attacks, aside from the rude, offensive comments that were made constantly.
Thankfully, their lives in Belarus did not have to last forever. Shortly after a year past my birth, my parents found out that my grandfather’s sister was moving to America, particularly New York. Life was not the same after that, since back in Belarus, it was all about having connections and knowing the right people to make things happen. The fact that there was already family in America would make it easier for the embassy to allow them to move as well. For my parents, who were both only in their twenties, this was a great opportunity that they did not want to miss. America for them really was the “land of the free,” in which they would be equals to everyone else, regardless of the fact that they are Jewish. This was not the same for my grandparents, who were all in their early sixties and lived most of their lives in Pinsk, Belarus. While they suffered through hunger, loss of jobs and death during the years of the war, their lives were going better for them in the late nineties, and the move would be extremely hard for them to adapt to. However, after speaking to my grandmother about the immigration, she said, “I could not imagine in a million years that I would come to America and have a home attendant helping me cook and clean if I had gotten sick, or get food stamps to buy food and never having to be hungry.” While they do miss many things about their past, such as the neighbors they had, the life- long friends they were close to and the comfort of homes they had for many years, they know that they are much better off growing older in America than back home.
For my parents, the move to New York with a baby in hands was far from easy. Even with the help from programs like “NYANA,” which helped Russian Jewish immigrants adapt to their new life through help with money and obtaining jobs, getting by was difficult mainly due to language barriers. My parents recalled the many odd jobs they worked when first coming to New York. “We stood early morning to night, snow or heat, handing out flyers on Broadway for a mere few dollars an hour. We barely knew any English, but we learned a few words, since the store we were working for was multi-leveled- we shouted and pointed, ‘upstairs, downstairs!’ We even learned those words in Spanish, since there were many Hispanics in that area. ‘Arriba, Abaja!’”
After settling in to a small apartment on the streets of Ocean Parkway and Foster Avenue in Brooklyn, my parents switched up their roles, as one went to college while the other worked long hours. My grandparents also tried to work. One grandma would take care of me while the other worked as a babysitter for a few dollars an hour. Eventually, my dad finished “Global Institute of Technology” and looked for a job in programming. My mom, on the other hand, was trying to juggle her job in a day- care with trying to go to classes at Mercy College. Over the years, my parents both settled down in their careers; my dad found a job at a “Litigation Support” company in New Jersey and persisted to move up in the field while my mom continued working with kids. When I was in the first grade, we moved, yet again, to an apartment in the “Trump Village” buildings near Coney Island and Brighton. This neighborhood provided a sense of comfort to my family, since it is a Russian speaking community, giving them a taste of home. I went to school in the elementary school across from my house and after a few years, I barely remembered life before the move. But now that I think of it, I can clearly picture my mom’s face as she ran, screaming, from the kitchen in the first apartment we lived in, after seeing a mouse jump out of the oven.
With our lives now, characterized by our gadgets and designer bags, it is almost inevitable for some of us to forget where we come from. Without asking our parents to remind us or getting direct accounts of our history from our grandparents, we may easily lose the link that connects us to our past. As Jews, we must always remember how our parents and grandparents were deprived of their Jewish heritage, and mainly their opportunity to show pride of who they are. Although they may not know the six hundred and thirteen commandments in the Torah, my parents are very proud to be Jewish and do not refrain from wearing a “Magen David” necklace or holding Yom Kippur and Passover, which they could not openly do back in Belarus. As I continue to attend classes at the “Russian American Jewish Experience” center in Brooklyn and prepare for my second free trip to Israel, I cannot help but be grateful for living in a place where I can learn about my roots so freely and openly. Now I know that I have the tools to pass down my Russian Jewish heritage, as well as my newly obtained knowledge of Judaism, to my kids and future generations.