I Finally Learned to Love My Russian Jewish Identity

I'm not like other American Jews, and I wouldn't want it any other way.

My name is Ksenia Lyubov Novikova. For a while, I disliked it. It was hard for people to spell and pronounce. It was just too Russian.

My relationship with my name is part of my struggle with my identity as a Russian-American Jew. I was born and raised in Brooklyn, New York in the heart of Russian Jewry: South Brooklyn.

My mom and grandma are from Belarus. They immigrated to America in 1994. Many RSJ (Russian-speaking Jewish) families fled after the USSR fell in 1991. Over a million went to Israel and over 300,000 went to the United States.

Together, the three of us read Russian books and watched Russian cartoons. We walked on the Coney Island/Brighton Beach boardwalk and I recognized the sweet sound of my beautiful native tongue.

I went to a Russian daycare center. We sang Russian songs, celebrated Russian New Years, and ate Russian soups. I grew up acting in Russian plays and learning about Russian history and culture. Mama called me Ksusha and Babushka called me Lubenka, both Russian nicknames. Being the daughter of RSJ immigrants was my entire identity.

But nobody told me that we were Jewish. I did not know until an incident in elementary school. A good friend asked me a question during our lunch period: “What religion are you?”

This question was confusing to me. At home, we did not keep kosher, celebrate any Jewish holidays, or go to temple. I had no idea what Judaism was.

I told my friend that I did not know. He said, “I know what you are. You’re a Jew and I hate you.” Knowing that I was allergic to oranges, he then shoved the orange he was eating into my face.

I came home that day and told my mom what happened. She explained to me that while we are Jewish, we should not tell people because most people do not like us.

She told me that our community faced anti-Semitism throughout the Soviet Union. Our family survived the pogroms, World War II, and the Holocaust. My family was traumatized and terrified to practice their faith. The Soviet Union did not allow families to practice religion under the guise of “communism.” Jews were especially discriminated against.

I was ashamed. I did not want to be Jewish. It seemed like something horrible. Judaism made me lose my friend.

When I was 7 years old, my mom found out about a sleepaway camp from our neighbor. She decided to send me there for the summer. The camp happened to be Jewish. I went and I loved it. I went back every summer. At camp, I could finally welcome my Jewishness.

But I felt different there. Something about me was strange.

In a predominately Jewish American sleepaway camp, I stuck out like a sore thumb. We had Shabbat services every Friday and Saturday. At first, I had no idea what was happening. Everyone around me seemed to know all the words and I knew none. I felt like I came from a completely different place than most around me. I hid my Russianness and tried to embrace who I was: an American Jew.

I told my mom to bring something “normal” to camp on Visiting Day. I secretly yearned for Russian salads and soups, but I asked for something more “American.” I asked her if we could try and speak English more, even though I missed saying Russian words. This way, I could be an American Jew and fit in at camp. My mom began to notice how I distanced myself from Russian culture. This upset her. It was important to her that I saw the beauty of Russian culture and language.

It was not until I left for college that I began to understand how much I loved my Russian community and culture. Its beauty is in its uniqueness.

I went away to college in Washington, D.C. Now, I was in a place where I did not know how to be Russian or Jewish. One day, I was walking up the stairs in my dorm when I heard someone speaking Russian on the phone. I ran up to him and interrupted his conversation with his mom. His name was Lawrence and he was a Russian American Jew, too.

He was also originally from South Brooklyn. We bonded over our favorite Russian foods. Our conversation made me realize how much I missed it all.

During my sophomore year, Lawrence and I decided to start a Russian-speaking Jews club through Hillel. Our goal was to create a community for children of Russian-speaking Jewish immigrants.

At the RSJ club, we hosted a Russian-Jewish Shabbat, made Russian salads together, and shared our customs and culture with friends and the broader Jewish community. It was beautiful. And for the first time, I understood that I did not have to choose between my Jewishness and Russianness.

A couple of months ago, Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman testified about the phone call between Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. Vindman is a Russian-speaking Jew who emigrated from Ukraine to America in 1979 with his brothers, grandmother, and father. He was 3 when his family moved to Brighton Beach, Brooklyn. Before Trump fired him, he was the Former Director for European Affairs for the United States National Security Council.

As I watched the testimony, I felt overwhelmed with pride and emotion. Vindman is part of the RSJ community and he grew up right in my neighborhood.

In his closing remarks, Vindman said:

“Dad, my sitting here today, in the US Capitol talking to our elected officials is proof that you made the right decision forty years ago to leave the Soviet Union and come here to the United States of America in search of a better life for our family. Do not worry, I will be fine for telling the truth.”

His last words touched me the most. Our community worries constantly about health, anti-Semitism, and how outspoken we are allowed to be. When I criticized the government, my grandma always told me, “Ksusha, quiet. Even the walls have ears.” That is a saying they learned from living in the Soviet Union. I always told her, “Babushka, we are in America. Here, we are safe.”

The whole world was watching as someone from my community bravely testified. As he reassured his father that here in America, he is safe, I finally understood that I belonged. All of my Russianness. All of my Jewishness. Here, I will be okay.

Header Image of Coney Island boardwalk by Alexander Spatari/Getty Images

Ksenia Lyubov Novikova

Ksenia Lyubov Novikova is a junior studying Political Science at American University. Ksenia is a passionate Brooklynite who is interested in exploring Russian-Jewish identity, history, and culture.

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