Moment is publishing regular updates from Helen, a Soviet American Jew living in Kyiv. Read all the diary entries here.
Walking the uninhabited streets of Kyiv, I reflect on the trajectory of my life. I am an American–Ukrainian Jew in the capital of an embattled country, and lately I find myself pondering the upcoming Passover holiday. The story of Passover is about freedom and sacrifices made on the road to liberation, and this year it seems more relevant than ever. It might as well be about Ukraine.
In 1988, facing antisemitism, my husband and I, along with our baby daughter, left the former Soviet Union for the United States, staying first in refugee camps in Austria and Italy. Ten years ago, my husband’s work in the investment banking industry brought us back to Kyiv. Even in our worst nightmares, we could not have imagined what would happen in our native country.
My husband and I were both born and raised in Kyiv, and it was made very clear to us then that we were not treated the same way as Ukrainians or Russians. We were Jews, period, even though we were not religiously observant and didn’t know much about Judaism. Judaism was an ethnic identification, the infamous “fifth line” in our Soviet passports. Jews were treated as second-rate; antisemitism hovered around us and prevented us from advancing in our careers.
In the late 1980s, when the Soviet Union finally buckled to international pressure and allowed Jews to leave Ukraine, we packed and left. Though until that time I had not been allowed to learn much about Judaism, I began to understand the weight of the words God spoke to the first Jew, Abraham: “Go forth from your land, your birthplace, and your father’s house.”
In America, I quickly discovered that being Jewish was something to be proud of, not something to hide away. For the first time, I learned what Passover was. I was fascinated by the story of Jews striving for freedom. We were invited by Jewish families to seders and introduced to traditional rituals. What warm memories I have—the feelings of togetherness and belonging.
We have not raised our daughter in Judaism, yet we imparted to her a sense of Jewish culture. She spent summers at Jewish camps and twice went to Israel for cultural and educational trips organized by American Jewish organizations. She now works at the Vilna Shul in Boston.
And now we are back in our native city in the middle of the horrendous war. When we first moved back, our stay was supposed to last for a year, but due to the Ukrainian revolution and ensuing economic collapse, we ended up staying permanently. It was quite challenging for me to adjust to my new second-time-around life in the Ukrainian capital. But eventually, the city grew on me. Ukraine was moving in the direction of democracy, freedom and tolerance. I did not encounter antisemitism. On the contrary, being a Jew in Ukraine is different now; it’s even kind of cool. Some of my Ukrainian friends have discovered their Jewish origins, and now they go around with Magen David necklaces and try to learn about Judaism.
While this war rages on, soon we will celebrate Passover with my daughter and her friend’s family via Zoom. No matter how remote Judaism has seemed to us in the past, this year Passover—the holiday of freedom—is very much on our minds.
Top photo credit: Tim Judah