I remember the first time I saw the strange, waffle-looking thin squares at our dinner table in Moscow. When I was little, my grandfather Simon walked several miles to our house in order to embrace and surprise me with some tasty, but unusual looking food: a braided bread, a fish or chicken stuffed with something inside, pancakes made of potatoes or a bullion soup with big fluffy balls inside. I had never seen anything like it in school or at my classmates’ houses. Where did he get them? What did he mean “from the synagogue”?

It was all a big secret and mystery to me. We often had family gatherings at my grandparents’ house. My loving grandfather sat at the head of the table, always wearing his hat and making everyone laugh at his jokes. Grandma treated us to chicken soup, stuffed cabbage, pancakes with cheese filling inside, carrots with raisins, baked apples and other tasty mysterious foods. I had no idea what we celebrated, but I loved the yummy get-togethers of my mishpucha, my family.

Grandpa also put some kind of small box on his entrance door and kissed it each time he came into the house. Finally, there was one mysterious phrase, in an unfamiliar language, that he asked me to repeat again and again, so I would never forget: Ikh bin a Yiddishe maideleh (“I am a Jewish girl”).

With my grandparents in Russia.
With my grandparents in Russia.

The first time I found out that I was Jewish was from a girl on my street. She told me that she did not want to be friends with the “dirty Jew.” I could not believe it. I thought she was my friend. I remember how I ran to my house, crying and sobbing, and asked my mom who those Jews were. “Are we really that bad?”

My mom explained that we are Jewish because her parents and grandparents are Jewish, and that meant I was Jewish, too. “We are kind, honest and good people,” she added. There was not much explanation there. I was searching for more.

I lost many more “friends” later on for the same reason. I remember the boy who was my best friend in school until I came to visit him at his house and his parents saw me. The next day, that boy beat me up and told me everything about my big nose, “who I was” and why we were bad. Every school year, he reminded me about my “uniqueness.” Even now sometimes, I see him in my dreams, discussing my religion. In these dreams, I am trying to convince him that he is wrong, that we are good and kind people.

Years later, I wondered why my grandparents didn’t share most of the traditions with us and how my life would have been different if they had. I assume they were afraid. The truth was that many Jews were scared and ashamed to openly practice their religion at that time. People didn’t want to be different for many reasons. They tried so hard to fit in.

Thinking back, I still remember the feeling of fear from not fitting in, the grief of losing “friends,” the hurt from bullying, the pain of healing bruises on my body, and finally, my sad efforts to blend in and hide my Jewishness.

Many years after I came to America, I met an unusual-looking co-worker with a long beard, black outfit and black hat. Every time I saw him, I felt like he knew something I didn’t know. I had an enormous desire to find out his secret. Maybe I was related to him somehow? I could not stop my curiosity. I was hungry for answers. Pinchas invited me to Chabad, and my life has never been the same since.

I remember the first time I came to the Chabad center and stepped into the feeling of warmth and acceptance. Especially the first time when I was invited for Shabbat at the house of Rebbetzin Shayna Gopin. As soon as I walked in, I felt that special feeling of warmth, kindness, acceptance and unconditional love. Beautiful candles, the smell of fresh challah, delicious food on the table and … that feeling that I’ve searched for my entire life.

With my daughter at our first Challah bake.
With my daughter at our first Challah bake.

I have been blessed to meet my Chabad friends who introduced me to my Jewish traditions and let me light up the Jewish candle inside of me.

I have felt that feeling many times since. I feel it every time I light Shabbat candles on Friday night and my husband makes Kiddush. I have it when I bake challah with my daughter for Shabbat. I feel it when I stand and pray among my people on Rosh Hashanah or dance while looking at the Torah on Simchat Torah. I am talking about that special feeling of peace, contentment, gratitude, holiness and pride of being a Jew.

Today, after 30 years of living in America, I don’t need to hide, fit in or blend in. Today, I am a proud Yiddishe girl—so grateful to continue my grandparents’ traditions, bake challah, learn Torah and experience that feeling of holiness and Jewish pride, that feeling of coming “home.”