February 18, 2010

Jewish Renewal Over Tea

In this briefing from Asher Ostrin, Executive Director for FSU Programs, Asher shares a story about Jewish identity and renewal from our current Ralph I. Goldman Fellow, Violetta Shmulenzon. 

Dear all,

When our teacher Ralph Goldman retired as Executive Vice President of the JDC the board honored him in a way that strikes anyone who knows Ralph as extremely appropriate. A fellowship was established in his name for a young person who shows extraordinary promise for a career in the Jewish community. I have had the privilege of working directly with a number of fellows through the years. It has been one of the most rewarding experiences in my JDC career.

This year's fellow is Violetta Shmulenzon. A native New Yorker, she has spent the last 2 months in Odessa. This past week I read her blog that uses a reunion with a member of her family who did not emigrate from the region as a stimulus for ruminating on an issue dear to JDC: Jewish renewal in the FSU. It's an issue that has appeared in these weeklies in various forms through the years. Her piece is one of the finest and most sensitive on the topic that I have ever come across, and I am therefore sharing it with you in its entirety. Violetta blogs at http://rigidsearch-violetta.blogspot.com/

Sunday, January 31, 2010
Jewish Renewal Over Tea with my Great-Aunt
Early today I was woken up by a knock at my door. Startled, I jumped to see who it is; it is rare for me to get visitors I am not expecting in Odessa- as I don’t really know too many people. To my surprise it was my Great-Aunt. [I had recently found out I have a great-Aunt, with a daughter and two grand-children- my cousins who remained in Odessa after my family’s departure in the 1970’s.] We had talked on the phone, and I mentioned where I lived and were planning to meet, and would hopefully visit the Jewish Cemetery- where many of my great-grandparents are buried. But here she was standing at my door, completely unexpected – my family in Odessa!

As I welcomed her in she began telling me how she had just walked the entire building asking for the Jewish apartment (oy…now that the whole building was awoken due to me and knew I was Jewish, I am definitely going to have some hostile neighbors).

As we sat in the kitchen over a cup of tea talking, I showing her pictures of my grandmother, aunt, and mother (over 30 years since she has seen any of them), she telling me stories of how my grandfather’s workshop (he was an artist) was right underneath her door, and how he and she would talk every afternoon, he in his workshop and she on her balcony.

Of course she asked about my family in New York, about me, and why I was in Odessa. The first question was if I was religious and if I was not how it came to be that I was in Odessa to work with and in the Jewish Community here…to which I didn’t know how to answer- no one had ever directly asked me these questions.

Then she told me she just arrived from synagogue, Saturday services- asked if I attend synagogue; I told her with my grandmother on high holidays sometimes…She than began to tell me about her family, her daughter worked as an instructor in the Jewish orphanage in the center of the city (also her son-in-law used to work there). Both her grandchildren (one around my age and another a few years older) were Orthodox, finishing yeshivas here, one even studying in Israel, both of them now working in a synagogue in Odessa. I was also surprised to find out that one of them had two children; she even had great-grand children. As one of the oldest in my extended family (my siblings and most of my cousins are younger) I couldn’t believe that someone from “our generation” in my family already had children.

Of course, one of my first questions was if I could meet everybody, she said of course but it would be a little difficult as her grandsons don’t often come over, and can’t have dinner at her house due to kashrut issues.

It is hard to be in Odessa, realizing that for over 70 years this city as most of the FSU suppressed any kind of active Jewish life or memory… Why than am I sitting having tea with my great-Aunt who never left this city and being questioned on my “Jewishness”. I couldn’t help wondering out loud why they had decided to send my cousins to Jewish Schools v. Public Schools in Odessa. It is the same question I pose to my grandmother back in New York when she attends synagogue for Shabbat Services. How do you know you are Jewish if your entire life you weren’t allowed to know or practice? In the over fifty years my grandmother lived in Odessa, she never once stepped foot in a synagogue. My grandmother’s only Jewish memory was when she was a child going to her grandmother’s house on Friday nights, seeing her close the curtains, light candles, say something in a language she did not understand, and eating apple pie- she didn’t know what was Jewish about that tradition but she knew it was other-thus Jewish. Yet on arriving in New York in the late 70’s her first destination was a synagogue…Why? How did she know? Her answer always astounds me…Even if it was never said out loud she always knew she was a Jew (even if in Odessa, it was just being other). As she says “only in America could I actualize it but I always knew, it was always in my heart-I was a Jew.”

I guess the core of the question I was asking my Grandmother in New York and now my Great-Aunt in Odessa: what is Jewish Renewal? How do you revive a lost heritage, a fragmented history, a feeling of other all into someone’s or a community’s Jewish identity. It is not about location: New York or Odessa, both communities (populations: Russian Speaking Jews) are struggling to find the path, of course along the way they take many different turns (it’s all about the context as I have learned here).

After much getting to know each other, my great-Aunt invited me to go to synagogue with her, of course I agreed quickly, she added right after "just make sure you bring documents that show you’re a Jew". “What documents ?” The nationality/religion of a person is not written on their birth certificate in the U.S. as it was up to a few years ago in Ukraine. I have none I told her, I joked “I have a star of David and my lifetime of belonging to Jewish camps, schools, and the JCC.” Well she said you can get your parents’ birth certificates or a letter from the Joint, but either way make sure you have them or else they won’t let you into the synagogue…especially since you don’t look Jewish…you look so Russian.”

As she left, I sat to reflect on our conversation- while nothing she said astounded me, they were all things I had been observing myself in my time in Odessa, the complexity and choices of Judaism in the FSU, it all became very personal when I was confronted with it in on a familial level. While there is much diversity in the Jewish Community in Odessa, and much more in New York, and even more between my family here (Odessa) and family back home (New York). I found myself not thinking of the diversity or difference but of the connection. Whether my family would have remained in Odessa or chosen to immigrate to New York, there would have been a path (very different from each other but still there) for them to reconnect/renew their Jewish heritage and identity (much due to the work of the Joint).

Not to steal the words of the leader whose name I carry all year with me, Ralph I. Goldman: but there really is “a single intertwined and interconnected Jewish World.” And every day in the field, I see first hand aspects of this single world, which I am a part of.

Posted by Violetta at 3:09 PM

Addendum to the post, sent to me by Violetta in an email:
Reading over the post, I realize now that I forgot to mention one important fact, which really highlights for me the extensive and invaluable work of the Joint: which is that my Great-Aunt (who the post is about) receives services from the Hesed in Odessa, which she would not be able to make it without, which just happens to be located in the Beit Grand: Jewish Cultural Center just completed by JDC – where I am working on Jewish renewal projects.


Hesed, Beit Grand Jewish Home (named for Nancy and Stephen Grand), JCC, Jewish Peoplehood, Jewish Renewal – and a thoughtful, "next gen" woman with a career in Jewish life in her future. It's all there.

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