True friendships and authentic connections can be life changing. But these invaluable bonds were particularly scarce during my early years in the former Soviet Union.

My family tried so hard to fit in, but anti-Semitism created roadblocks. Jewish people were perceived as outsiders and were not to be trusted.

This loathing was hard to fathom because my family, like most Jewish citizens, contributed significantly to the Soviet culture. Both of my grandmothers were doctors, my mom worked as an economist, and my father was a professor who developed several patents that changed Soviet agriculture. Despite these accomplishments, we were rejected.

This was a known fact among the Jews in the former Soviet Union, and so many families “stuck together,” helping each other navigate the complexity of everyday life. We lived in a nine-story apartment building with more than 100 flats. Among the residents of our huge residence were just a few Jewish neighbors, with only two families who had children my age, Alla and Vladimir, or “Vova” as we called him.

Before our immigration to the United States in 1989, I spent my childhood days with my two Jewish friends. In addition to the “secret bond” of our common heritage, Vova and I shared another special connection. We were born on the same day in the same hospital room, and my mom nursed both of us because Vova’s mother experienced complications and formula was not available.

The three of us grew up without much knowledge of our heritage, yet we knew that we were somehow different from others. That understanding united us. We stood by each other, creating a safety net that lasted through the decades. As children, we did not have access to Jewish wisdom; still, all three of us knew that we belonged to one ancient tribe and that made us “family.”

When I walked out of our apartment for the very last time, tears were streaming down my face, making everything blurry, as I said goodbye to my two closest friends.

Vova as a child.
Vova as a child.

Despite having no knowledge of our heritage, Jews continued to marry within the faith. This phenomenon was hard to rationalize because we had no familiarity with our traditions. Yet despite all the Communist propaganda, there was an innate yearning to continue to build Jewish families. As we said goodbye, the last thing I told a then 12-year-old Alla was that she should marry our childhood friend, and together they would one day visit me in my new home in the United States.

This conversation took place during Communist rule, and the idea of ever seeing my friends again was more of a fantasy than reality. Emigrating meant permanently cutting ties with one’s family and friends. Much has happened since then, and with the fall of the Iron Curtain, travel between countries became possible.

For the next 30 years, we kept in touch—first via snail mail, then telephone, and later social media. Miraculously, part of my wish did come true on Aug. 9, 2000, when Alla and Vova became husband and wife.

The three of us celebrated many milestones: graduations, marriages, births of children. We even saw each other in person two more times when my husband and I visited the former Soviet Union. Every year, Vova and I exchanged “Happy Birthday” wishes. Sadly, however, the second part of our childhood dream never came true, and my friends did not visit me in Philadelphia. On May 20, 2021, Vova unexpectedly passed away from COVID-19, leaving behind two girls and his childhood sweetheart.

Even in tragedy, our unshakable bond transcended time and distance. After my friends married in Saratov, the city where we grew up, they eventually moved to Moscow. While it was impossible for me to attend the funeral due to the pandemic restrictions, I knew that I needed to support my dear friend Alla in every possible way.

Alla and Vova on their wedding day.
Alla and Vova on their wedding day.

It was incredible to witness how the community, under the leadership of Chief Rabbi Berel Lazar, organized a proper Jewish burial for Vladimir and supported his widow through her loss. Over the years, my friends were influenced by the Chabad Lubavitch movement that involved them in Jewish community events and, thus, Alla knew that she could count on their support and guidance during this difficult time.

We were once three childhood playmates, born into the world of atheism in a country where religious wisdom was not accessible. We were three sparks of light, waiting to be ignited. As time went by, truth prevailed, Communism fell, and eventually, our own children were born into families where Judaism is accessible and familiar.

Sometimes, I wonder what life would be like for the three of us—or for all Soviet Jewish children—had we grown up in an observant environment. But I know that the Talmud (Bava Metzia 113b) teaches us that “All of Israel are the sons of royalty.” This means that despitebeing separated from our heritage, we are all part of G‑d’s chosen people.

As I mourn my dear friend’s passing, I am comforted to know that he and his family found their way back to our heritage. Our childhood was complex, yet special in the way it shaped us. It taught us that while the spark of truth inside of every one of us might lie dormant for many years, it never loses its innate capacity to turn into a powerful flame.

May the soul of Vladimir ben Michael find eternal peace.