I am of Jewish ancestry and I am not afraid to share that now that I have the freedom to do so.
My name is Fanya Shabshayevitch and I am of Belarusian-Jewish descent. I am 83 years old and I was born into a religious Jewish family from Bobruisk. With this geographic location came many hardships that my family and I had to face in the former Soviet Union.
Naturally, I am proud of my heritage, but at some point the option of pride was not available like it is now.
Firstly, we did not have synagogues, but instead prayer houses. We had to secretly go to the prayer house because no one was to find out about it. When we had the chance, we observed the Sabbath. My whole family was Jewish, but we were all religious to a different degree based on where we lived.
In Russia, my parents and my whole extended family had to constantly keep our faith a secret and could not be seen walking into a synagogue. When possible, we celebrated the holidays and my parents made the traditional holiday food.
For Hannukah, my grandmother made latkes and we ate homemade matzah for Peysach. However, we had to constantly hide everything. We went to the synagogue to get matzah and had to hide it once we came out so that no one could take a picture of us bringing it out. If we were caught, we could have had some very serious consequences. We tried to go late at night as well.
We made the galushki and babki at home in our traditional Russian oven. During Yom Kippur, before we cut up the chicken, my father prayed and put the hen on top of his head and swirled it. He was “sacrificing” the chicken for all members of our family that had passed.
Prior, when my grandmother died in 1952, she had a traditional Jewish funeral ritual. She was wrapped up in a white cloth called “hrihem” and was not wearing any clothes. She did not have a coffin and they carried her on cardboard and lowered her straight into the ground. After the funeral, my father and the other men sat for 7 days on a small chair in memory of her passing. It was a tradition for men to do so.
Once we immigrated to the United States in the early 1990’s, I felt the wrath of my new freedom. I was able to go to synagogue and pray on the Sabbath without fearing for my life. I am now also free to go to the supermarket and purchase kosher food and matzah whenever I choose to do so. I feel like Jewish people are finally getting to live out their religion and we are professing our religion more now; it makes me proud.