Milwaukee Jewish Federation >> Women’s Philanthropy April Jewish Moment
By Marina Chester
Ever since I can remember, I knew I was different. Although I didn’t look different from people in daycare or school, my last name – Morgulis – made me stick out.
My family was Jewish in the Soviet Union, a country predominantly filled with ethnic Russians. Sure, there were other nationalities – Ukranians, Armenians, Tatars, etc. but Russians were the superior ethnic group. Ethnic minorities in the Soviet Republics were discouraged from speaking their native languages and Russian was the official state language. Since the Soviet Union was a communist and atheist state, being Jewish was not a religious affiliation. We were ethnically Jewish, and that presented problems. Each Soviet citizen was required to list their ethnicity in their passport on Line #5, which was also in school records. Jews were not liked in Russia — as documented by the musical Fiddler on the Roof, and survivors of pogroms — and although it was not officially endorsed by the government, it was much harder to get into a good school, be promoted at work, or simply avoid offensive remarks from others if you were Jewish.
That my family was Jewish was a secret that I grew up learning should not be shared with just anybody. One would need to build up a relationship with a non-Jewish friend or coworker for years to feel safe enough to share this information — though I was never brave enough to do so.
We knew of people that would bribe government officials or falsify documents to change the infamous Line #5 to say Russian instead of Jewish in order to have more opportunities in the Soviet Union, but my family never considered that option. Despite the baggage that came with people knowing I was Jewish, I was proud of my heritage. I wore a Star of David necklace under my school uniform, and celebrated Jewish holidays with my family and certain friends. We celebrated each Jewish holiday in the same way – we got together and ate. Except for one night a year when we got together and didn’t eat. We always ate gefilte fish made by my grandmother, my mom’s chicken soup with Matzah (matzah balls were a wonderful American discovery for me), and either a roasted chicken or a beef stew. We said no prayers, we had no religious discussions. To tell you the truth, I only found out we were supposed to light candles for Hanukkah when I moved to America.
BBYO, JCC, CTEEN, going to temple were not a part of my childhood or teenage years. I never had a bat mitzvah. I did not have a Hebrew name. I wore my Star of David, I read Sholom Aleihem and Isaac Babel, I knew which Russian celebrities were “really” Jewish, liked gefilte fish with beet horseradish and matzo brei and never considered myself Russian. A Jewish classmate and I were the only ones who were not selected to join the first wave of Young Pioneers in fourth grade, although we met all of the requirements. I was just too Jewish to fit in.
But one magic airplane ride changed all that.
On August 23, 1991, my family boarded an PanAm airplane and crossed Atlantic Ocean and then some more land to end up in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. We got off the plane, were greeted by my dad’s family and even got on WISN TV Channel 12 for being the first family to arrive to Milwaukee from the former Soviet Union after the failed 1991 coup.
On August 24, 1991, my family became Russian, and being Jewish became really hard work.
Who knew there were so many holidays and traditions? Shavuot? Mishloach manot? Who knew that you had to go/belong to the temple to be Jewish? Is my last name not enough? Women’s circle what?
All of a sudden, I wasn’t Jewish enough.
For the first several years in Milwaukee I tried to be properly Jewish — there were attempts to join BBYO at Shorewood High School and Hillel at UW-Milwaukee, I attended some Shabbat services — but without a background of Hebrew school, Jewish summer camp and lack of an ability to comfortably announce that I was Jewish, it was hard to fit in. There was also the small matter of not speaking English well enough.
As a result, I hung out with the other “Russians” who were from all parts of the former Soviet Union and had the same background as I did. I married my “Russian” husband and basically lived the Soviet Jewish life — celebrating holidays with food and no religious aspects — until one day when our intrepid 7 year old daughter asked us if we were really Jewish, because someone at school told her we weren’t since we didn’t belong to a temple. What?! The family, especially my father, was shocked, trying to explain to this little girl that we were so Jewish that we didn’t have to participate in any rituals or traditions, but she was adamant that we needed to do more in order to belong.
After the initial shock of the realization that we were being Jewish wrong wore off, I kicked into Jewish mom mode and promptly signed up for EVERYTHING. My kids went to Sunday school, Jewish day camp, Jewish overnight camp, BBYO, CTEEN and had their bat/bar mitzvahs in Jerusalem. We started accepting invitations to Shabbat dinners and even attended high holiday services in a synagogue: both were terrifying experiences at first, because we didn’t know the rules of the game. We didn’t know when to sit, when to stand, what to say, and who to say it to, and couldn’t follow along in the Siddur to save our lives. I still didn’t feel like I belonged, but I felt proud and reassured that at least my children were now a part of the American Jewish community.
Through my children and their extensive Jewish activities, I managed to make some American Jewish friends, who convinced me in 2019 to participate in the Momentum trip. The Milwaukee Chai (18 women of various Jewish backgrounds, even some “Russians”) descended on Israel that November. The trip was advertised as an inspirational, empowering journey to rekindle the Jewish values and foster unity without uniformity. I was nervous to go, but I’d ensured that my kids could connect with their Judaism, and now I was brave enough to find my own connection.
There were so many blessings on this trip: making new friends, visiting the landmarks and the holy places, being mistaken as young enough to be on Birthright. The emotional high point of this journey for me was participating in a naming ceremony for women who did not have Hebrew names or hadn’t been bat mitzvahed for various reasons. Most of the participants were “Russian”. Each of us chose a Hebrew name that had a special meaning; my son chose mine, Maayan, which means ‘spring of water’. I felt like a more modern Hebrew name instead of a traditional Ashkenazi one was more suitable for me. We cried, hugged each other and danced in the Israeli desert to commemorate this occasion.
The next day, our trip leader persuaded (coerced) me to speak at the Shabbat dinner at the Kotel in Jerusalem, in front of 600 women from around the world. I felt empowered enough to share my story and perspective on immigrating from the former Soviet Union and my interesting relationship to Judaism. The “Russians” in the audience felt represented and the others got a chance to hear a different perspective on being Jewish.
For the first time, I felt like I finally belonged.
Don’t get me wrong – I still don’t feel very comfortable immediately volunteering the fact that I am Jewish, I cringe when my children wear clothes with Hebrew words on them because it attracts unwanted attention, and I still don’t understand Shavuot. But I participate in Women’s Philanthropy of the Milwaukee Jewish Federation, I attend high holiday services at the Bayside Shul, I make a mean brisket and matzo ball soup — and I am proud of who I am. I feel like I belong and, no matter what anyone else thinks, I am finally Jewish enough.
If you are interested in a meaningful opportunity to write a Jewish Moment or to study a Torah portion with Rabbi Hannah Wallick or Tzipi Altman-Shafer and share in an upcoming newsletter, please contact Women’s Philanthropy Associate Director, Deb Langkau.