Learning Jewish heritage paves way to pride, hope

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While growing up in Kiev, Ukraine, all I knew about being Jewish was that I shouldn't tell anyone that's what I was. I don't recall actually being told to hide my Jewish identity, but in a society like that it didn't take long to develop common sense.

For years, I was the only Jew in class, and I listened in silence to all the jokes and nasty stories about my people and — consequently — myself. I am amazed, looking back, at how much hatred and anti-Semitism Russia managed to instill in grade-school children.

But since no one had ever taught me the heritage and history that lay behind my Jewishness, I wasn't about to speak up in defense of a people with whom I did not identify.

The one thing separating me from my classmates was that secret word, "Jew," stamped permanently in my passport (a routine procedure in the former Soviet Union). While people from all the union's 15 republics were registered as Ukrainians or Georgians and such, a Jew — whether she lived in Moscow or Tbilissi — was always listed only as a Jew.

It is strange that in only 18 years of living, I have known two entirely different lives. Compared to that first life, the six years I have spent in America seem that much more miraculous. In America, I've had the opportunity to attend the Hebrew Academy, a Jewish school where I have finally been able to define what "Jewishness" means to me. I now know my heritage and can trace my ancestors' history to the very roots of our nation. I proudly wear the Star of David around my neck so that the world outside can see what I possess inside. The word "Jew" no longer glares up at me from my passport: The word is permanently imprinted on my heart, my personality and my whole life.

What defines a Jew is spirituality, education, knowledge and understanding both of the world and of ourselves. Before attending the Hebrew Academy I saw plenty of the world but knew nothing about myself. Now, with new knowledge, I no longer must feel apologetic for who I am, or hope that my Judaism — the very spark that forms my self — will be overlooked by harsh, anti-Semitic classmates.

In elementary school, my peace of mind derived from the fact that my friends never discovered I was Jewish; apparently they had not yet been programmed by Russian society to identify Jews based on clues beyond physical appearance. Unfortunately I knew the university admissions officers would not be fooled by my straight blond hair and fair complexion. Everything they needed to know about me would be glaringly clear in that single word printed on my identification papers: Jew.

Such was my mother's fate, and the stories of her life made me anything but optimistic about my own. She graduated high school with top honors, but her application for the engineering program at Kiev's Polytechnic University was rejected. She, like many others in her situation, had to fight against all odds and many obstacles to prove her worth; eventually she did in fact succeed.

From an early age, I too was ambitious and had to prepare myself for the inevitable difficulties awaiting me.

All my life I knew, loved and clung to only one parent: my mother. I never had the chance to know my father, who died of cancer before I was 2 years old. When my mother suddenly passed away, my entire life seemed to shatter. But in the midst of this great family tragedy, my grandmother took me from the only home I had ever known and brought me to America, where I would be free to enjoy every opportunity that came my way.

However, when we found ourselves in the grim financial situations many newcomers face, the opportunities of which we had dreamed seemed far from attainable. The family that had instilled in me a drive for education could no longer afford to provide that education.

The Hebrew Academy came as a kind of salvation. For the past five years, the academy has given me a 95 percent scholarship as well as unceasing opportunities. It is the perfect place for me to meet a new country, a new society, a new way of life.

This year I am a senior and impatiently wait to enter the next stage. Naturally I am apprehensive to leave the protective atmosphere of the school that has truly become my home away from home, but the time to move on is fast approaching. Next year, another home awaits me at Stanford University, where I have been accepted to the pre-med program.

Since seventh grade, I have dreamed of becoming a pediatrician and now I am one step closer.

One day many, many years from now, a new doctor will emerge from a dark training lab into the Jewish community. Hopefully I will then be in a position to contribute to this community, and begin to repay all that it has done for me.