I was born in the land of milk and honey, a mere spot on the map of the vast Middle East.
Blissfully playing with my toys in my family’s cramped apartment in downtown Rishon le Zion, I had no idea just how much growing up in that little spot of land would affect me. I had no idea just how controversial such a small, and flourishing country could be, or that years later I would be choosing to lie about all the years I had spent living there for reasons I never fully understood for the longest time.
I remember my childhood in Israel in bits and pieces, colorful fragments of a time when I felt the happiest and free. I remember sitting on my dad’s shoulders on a warm night, being carted around the busy streets of Rishon, my sister impatiently asking for her turn. I remember thinking up ingenious inventions, such as the so-called mobile broom — my sister and I came up with this grand idea, attaching a tree branch to our bike and riding around the local park, “sweeping.” I remember touching tongues with a boy in my preschool because we both casually wondered what it would feel like. When the tips of our tongues met, we instantly pulled back, gagging at the grossness of it all. Little did we know, then, that years later we’d want nothing but to be filled with the taste of other people’s tongues, enveloped in the feeling of lovers’ mouths on our own. But we were just clueless three-year-old kids. We didn’t know how to enjoy a passionate kiss, just like all the other things we did not yet know.
Such as the fact that our country was in a never-ending state of unrest. While I played with my sister, touched tongues experimentally with my preschool friend, and ran around the streets of Rishon le-Zion clueless to the cruelty of the world, corrupt government officials surrounding my country were busy plotting its destruction.
Bombs were stuffed into teddy bears scattered on street corners, shattering innocent children into smithereens. They were detonating in places no one could predict or avoid, making survival just a cruel game of fortune. One went off in a busy city street my mother was planning on heading to one day during work, fortunately changing her mind before heading off. Another went off at a school party my brother was too ill to attend. Death toll: at least a dozen young teens. My parents, who had already been circumstantially forced to uproot from post-Soviet Union Russia shortly before I was born, were forced to make another difficult decision to leave the second life they’d built in Israel, for the safe-haven of Canada.
My memory of the flight from Israel to Canada was a pleasant one. I didn’t know, then, that I wouldn’t return to Israel for fourteen long years. Or, what it would mean for me, being away from the place I called home for the first five years of my life.
I didn’t know that I wouldn’t be able to adjust so easily to my new, completely different country, with its freezing cold winters and strange lack of the lizards and palm trees and blisteringly hot days I was used to. I didn’t know that as I learned English, and French, and spoke Russian with the kids in my neighborhood, my Hebrew would fade away from my consciousness, becoming nothing but symbols and sounds devoid of meaning.
And I didn’t know that my being from Israel, or being Jewish, would spark so much confusion in people I would introduce myself to for years to come.
“How could you be Jewish if you’re not religious?”
“How could you be Israeli if you don’t speak Hebrew?”
These innocently intended, but misguided comments made me question the legitimacy of my Jewish identity. Very early on after our move to Canada, I really did start to wonder — was I Jewish enough to even mention the fact?
Worse than my having to defend my Jewish background, was having to experience outright antisemitism as a response to it.
“Did you know that the people in your country are terrorists?”
This question was posed to me in all seriousness, by a guy who, having never been in Israel or the Middle East, thought it appropriate to ask a Jewish girl her opinions on the war occurring in her home country. He then attempted to argue with me, and instruct me on the ways in which my country was the sole, evil enemy in a war he knew nothing about.
“What’s the difference between a ton of coal and a thousand Jews? Jews burn longer.”
This joke was made by a German international student at a college I attended in New York for just one semester. A girl sitting beside him muttered, “dude, she’s Jewish.” I laughed along with them, too uncomfortable with the prospect of looking uncool to say anything.
“No wonder you’re cheap, it must be because you’re Jewish.”
This stereotype, along with a handful of others, is often used, usually without ill-intention. And yet, just a few decades ago, our big noses and our penny pinching and our so-called “greediness” were used by the Hitler regime as a means to alienate us from humanity and eradicate us from our rightful existence.
I learned, from these experiences. From these unintended acts of antisemitism that I never quite knew how to respond to. I learned that identifying myself as Jewish and Israeli wouldn’t always be something that others would accept without questioning, or would even respect. I learned to introduce myself as:
“Hi, I’m Yulia,” And when the question came up: “My background? You guessed it, I’m Russian.”
I started to take the safest route — the route of semi-truths, and innocent (enough) omissions.
Whenever I wondered if I should tell the full truth, I just reasoned with myself that I wasn’t really Jewish. After all, I had spent a mere fraction of my life in Israel, I didn’t speak the official language, and I never even skimmed through the Torah. I merely celebrated Rosh Hashanah by dipping apple slices in honey and got free ice cream on Yom Kippur from my local Jewish-Russian community center.
I was afraid that in revealing my Jewish background, I would be placed in an unnecessarily annoying, or even possibly threatening situation. I was afraid of being associated with cruelty — of being viewed as a victim of it, or as a vicious defender and perpetrator of it. I was afraid of having to be a spokesperson for my country — the country where I felt the warm, Mediterranean waters coursing through my little toes, and where my favorite playgrounds stood, and where I innocently experienced my first French kiss without understanding what it was.
I hid my Judaism out of the privilege of choice — not the necessity of force. Not everyone in my family had had that same privilege.
My great-grandparents, who had fled their home country for France before it became Nazi-occupied, seeking the safety for themselves and their young son, had no choice when it came to being Jewish. They didn’t get the chance to sit down, and mull over the meaning of their identity, and decide whether they wanted to identify with the title or not. They were forced to conceal their Judaism.
My great grandfather was tragically caught, placed in a concentration camp, and inhumanely murdered — one, among millions of victims of the Holocaust. My great grandmother, whom I wish I could have had the pleasure of meeting, joined an underground French Resistance movement. I still think about her, conjure up stories in my mind about the amazing things she must have done, the feminist and social justice icon she must have been. By force, not by choice, she was separated from her child, my grandfather. She placed him in a special orphanage that would conceal his Jewish identity entirely, and relocate him to the Soviet Union at the age of ten. They were reunited when she found him over two decades later after a years-long search that the odds didn’t favor, a miracle that makes this story worth retelling.
Unlike past generations of my Jewish ancestry, I will never be forced to leave my home out of fear for my safety. I will never be forced to give up a child without the promise of being able to see them again. And it’s highly unlikely that I will ever be a victim of a random antisemitic attack, as my appearance doesn’t outwardly betray my “Jewishness.”
And nevertheless, I still chose, for many years, to stifle the Jew-girl out of me, hiding her away like the baggage that she was.
But all that changed after I returned to my country of origin.
At nineteen and at twenty-one years old, I finally came back to the war-afflicted country in which I had ironically felt the freest, and I relived the magic of my childhood. I saw and touched the Western Wall, the sole remaining fragment of the historic second temple. I floated in the buoyant black sea waters, and covered myself in their healing mud, head to toe. I toured the four holy cities of Israel, walking through narrow cobblestone paved streets with their dense and fascinating histories.
And I reunited with the family that I had left behind.
I don’t know when it clicked for me. Maybe at the Western Wall, where I wondered, despite my unwavering atheism, if there really was a God — a Hashem, who watched over us and truly cared. Maybe it was while I stayed with my aunt in Rishon, sitting at her kitchen table and talking about life as if no time had gone by. Maybe it clicked for me at Yad Vashem, the Holocaust museum on Mount Herzl, where I saw the faces of little children who knew nothing of their sad world — just as I had known nothing of the war happening under my nose in Israel at their age — and who were motioned left, to the gas chambers, by the vile doctor Mengele at the gates of Auschwitz.
Whatever the lightbulb moment was, I realized at a certain point — cheesy as it may sound — that I was honestly proud to be Jewish.
It’s not just a label. It’s not just a religion. It’s a shared history, of successes and of struggles. It’s a past littered with destruction, and a story of survival and thriving despite the impossible. It’s me, right now, furiously wiping away the hot tears that are forming in my eyes as I write this because I’m unable to think of my Jewish heritage without being struck by an overwhelming wave of emotion — pride, nostalgia, sadness, rage…
I’m not forced to hide my background in this time and this space, like my ancestors, were. I’m offered the choice — the choice of claiming my identity or concealing it from the world. And now, I choose to be Jewish, unapologetically. That’s the gift my family gave me, through their struggles — the gift of choice. No matter what the response may be, these days, I don’t shy away from identifying my country of origin anymore.
I introduce myself a little differently now, having chosen how I want to take up space in this world.
“Hi, my name is Yulia,” I say.
And when that previously dreaded question inevitably comes up, I nonchalantly reply: “I’m from Israel. And you?”