“Where are you from?” Such a basic question, and yet I stutter and exhale a deep sigh of annoyance. I clarify, “You mean where I do live now or where was I born?” To which most will reply, “I mean, what’s your nationality?”
The easy answer would be, “I live in New York, but I was born in Russia.” That’s how my father would answer the question. (Unless of course, it was an attractive young bank teller commenting on his accent, in which case, he’d say, “Where do you think I’m from?”)
But that’s not really the right answer. We’re technically not from “Russia”
What does my birth certificate say, as I’ve teased in the title?. Well alas, I do not have one. Instead, I have a two-inch, bronze coin featuring a sculpture of Vladimir Lenin, the Russian Communist Revolutionary, in front of the Kremlin. On the back of the piece of metal, it says “Born in Kiev’ and has my name and birth date etched in Russian white writing. You can imagine the bureaucratic joys my mother encountered at the Citizenship Bureau, presenting this shiny coin with a Dictator on it as proof of her daughter’s birth.
I was born in the capital of the Ukraine, and back in 1974, it was called Russia (aka the USSR or the Soviet Union) and apparently it SUCKED. Well, at least it sucked if you were Jewish, (which we are). But I didn’t know that as a kid. I only knew that Russian was my first language. Not Ukrainian – and certainly not Hebrew (which never even made it as my third language).
My parents taught me to clearly identify myself as a Russian Jew, not just Russian. To my American-born peers, there was barely the distinction. It was years before Russia wasn’t perceived as the Big Bad Guy, in Hollywood, or otherwise. When our family moved to Staten Island in 1986, just a year post-Perestroika, I developed a habit of saying “I’m from Europe” in hopes it would appease the naive teenagers who thought my name was weird. I even lied at times, choosing not to correct someone who assumed I was Polish if my name was misspelled with ‘ski’ instead of ‘sky.’
It wasn’t until I got to college when Cyrillic letters invaded fashion and everyone starting donning t-shirts with Russian letters on them. Rocky IV taught us to play nice with the bad guys and telling someone you were Russian became sexy; after all, they had a booming mail-order bride business for a reason. Being Russian was totally the “New Black” of the late nineties.
To confuse things even further, in 1991 Ukraine gained their independence. So where was I from now? Kiev was officially The Ukraine, not Russia. Those born in Leningrad now get to say St. Petersburg but they’re both Russia. But what about me? It WAS Russia, now it IS Ukraine — and apparently I’m culturally neither.
Recently I had a conversation with my mother, hoping for cultural identity clarification.
“Mom, where are our relatives from – as far back as you know?”
“From around Kiev.”
“So then I am Ukrainian?”
“Absolutely not! Do not ever call yourself a Ukrainian; they’re the worst kind of anti-Semites. You’re a Jew.”
“So am I a Russian Jew?”
“No, you’re not Russian. Just a Jew.”
“But Jewish is my religion … What’s our nationality?”
“Jewish is our Nationality.”
“But it’s not – we don’t do anything Jewish.”
And at that instant, memories from my childhood engage all my senses as I remember that it was the Russian culture that permeated my life. Russian words, the songs of Alla Pugacheva, the vodka, the safety pin I put on my clothes for good luck. We secretly took pride when Russians won gold at the Olympics and thought soccer was clearly superior to football. But ultimately my family fled that Big Red Communist Giant as refugees, eternally denouncing our native homeland.
“It was like a communist jail,” my mother described. “We were Jews — and that was worse than being black in America. Jews couldn’t go to college. Jews couldn’t buy their own apartments or own businesses. Jews were persona non gratis. I didn’t want you to spend your life hearing ‘Zhid.*’”
So we came to America, where dreams come true, cash is king and you can never be too rich or too thin. We fled to the land of the free and home of the brave and tried to learn how to be an American by watching Growing Pains and Family Ties. While American logos exploded from TVs to t-shirts to cereal boxes, it seemed we had moved to this prideful nation, which held everything up on a pedestal for the whole world to applaud.
To answer “I am American” has always felt like a lie, even though I’ve lived here for 36 of my 41 years. While it’s the obvious and honest answer, as we are a country defined by our stew of homelands, how can I identify my nationality when my roots were uprooted? My entire heritage and ancestry can’t be trumped by the last 36 years.
My mother didn’t seem to understand my confusion, and finally had her grand realization, an analogy, that so obviously would explain it all.
“Imagine you’re flying, and you give birth in the middle of the sky over the ocean. What’s your Nationality then?
She leaves me hanging for a minute as I wait for the answer, that seemed so apparent to her. “You’re Jewish!”
So I retaliate with, “So why didn’t we ever go to Hebrew school? Synagogue? How come I wasn’t Bat-Mitzvahed?”
“Because we didn’t know any of that stuff. We weren’t allowed to do that in Russia.”
“So why didn’t you do it once you came here?”
“Because, by then, it already beat out of us.”
So I’ve deduced that it’s important to know you’re Jewish — and seemingly be proud of it, but in concept only – basically executing our religious freedoms.
But this still left me with no closure on the nationality debate.
My mother has insisted that I teach my son Russian from the time he was born and that blatant irony confuses me and seems to slap the air with hypocrisy. “Why do you want me to teach him Russian?”
“Because it’s good to know a second language.”
“So why shouldn’t the second language be Hebrew?”
“Because who would he talk with?” She always has an answer – and that’s a conversation for another day.
To say that I never felt a sense of belonging is the most obvious and cliche commentary on the enduring impact of an immigrant experience. I never thought I was like anyone else around me, nor did I ever genuinely feel a part of any community. I have always satisfied my longing for a sense of home with the people around me that insulate me with love. Now, as an adult, reflecting through a more experienced life lens, I recognize that I was just like any other American teenager — feeling out of place for one reason or another.
It doesn’t end with adolescence, meandering through life, searching for a place – in relationships, in communities, anything to pacify an innate desire to belong — and no birth certificate can help with that navigation. Unfortunately, a birth certificate doesn’t come with a compass for the future or an instruction manual – just a stamp on a piece of paper indicating where the story began.
* Zhid: a Russian-language version of “Jew” or “yid”. Only considered a derogatory term close to “kike” in Orthodox Christian countries.. in others it simply means “Jew.”