It was Moscow, February 1989. The Cold War was over and the American government had sent me, along with over a hundred other high school students of Russian language, to the Soviet Union to prove it.
At Moscow School 15, hundreds of Russian students lined the hallways to cheer for us when we arrived. They yelled as if John Lennon had come back to life and the Beatles had arrived in Moscow.
For them, we were stars. We were real-life Americans.
And that was just the beginning.
One morning my classmates and I found out that we would be having an official meeting with the Vice General Secretary of the Soviet Union later that afternoon. That evening I gasped when I saw myself sitting in the Kremlin on the Soviet evening news. Not long after, a friend handed me a copy of the national daily newspaper. I gasped again when I saw two large photographs on the front cover: one of a Soviet and American flag side by side, and the other one of me, the American student with her head lifted in laughter alongside a Soviet student from Moscow School 15.
My newfound celebrity status was exciting. But it was the time I spent with my Russian host family that was the highlight of my month in Moscow. Mr. and Mrs. Chumachev, my host parents, were patriotic and kind-hearted engineers with one daughter named Sveta who was a senior at School 15.
I still remember struggling through incomprehensible poetry by Pushkin every evening with Mr. Chumachev ("This is the only way you will ever learn proper Russian!"), gathering every night with the Chumachevs to chat as we watched the Soviet evening news, and my nighttime strolls with Mrs. Chumachev and Sveta to see the nearby Russian Orthodox church that looked so otherworldly as it glowed brighter than a full moon in the dark night. I remember thinking that I had never seen anything so beautiful in my whole life.
Mrs. Chumachev had done something that was the equivalent of striking gold in Soviet Moscow. She had found ham.
Everything was going fine until one night about half-way through my time in Moscow. The evening started off as usual. I had my Pushkin tutorial with Mr. Chumachev and listened to some scratchy songs with Sveta on her treasured East German tape player. And then, as usual, Mrs. Chumachev called us for dinner. I sat down at the table and noticed that Mrs. Chumachev, usually a sad and quiet woman, looked different than usual. She looked downright excited.
"Jenny, yesterday I left work early," Mrs. Chumachev told me, "and I went to a store and waited in a line until it was dark so that I could get a special treat for you!"
Mrs. Chumachev put a plate of food in front of me.
Sveta was amazed. "Mama, where did you find it? I don't believe it!"
Mrs. Chumachev had done something that was the equivalent of striking gold in Soviet Moscow.
She had found ham.
Mrs. Chumachev noticed that I was silent. "Don't you like ham, Jenny? Is there something the matter?"
"I usually don't eat ham...I'm...I'm Jewish..." Mrs. Chumachev's smile turned southward. I looked up into her confused eyes and I knew that I could not disappoint her, "...but that's okay. I'll eat it!"
So I ate my potatoes in small bites. And then I cut the ham into pieces. I moved it around on my plate. I stabbed it with my fork, but I couldn't lift the fork off my plate. I just couldn't do it.
I hope that Mrs. Chumachev has found it in her heart to forgive me. It wasn't her fault. She innocently thought that her Jenny was a regular American.
And I did too. Until that night when the ham sat on my plate as though it was stuck on with glue.
I had anyway never been so big on keeping kosher. We were vegetarians at home, but out of the house I devoured Baltimore crab cakes, chicken and cheese burritos, and had even eaten my share of BLTs. But ham? That was something different.
It was different because I was a Jew. Not an especially devout or believing or knowledgeable Jew, but a Jew nonetheless.
And eating ham was something that Jews just don't do.
All Jews have a still small voice inside of them that says, "I am a Jew." There are Jews with a voice so still and so small that 364 days a year they don't even hear it.
On Yom Kippur, we listen to that still, small voice inside of each of us that reminds us "I am a Jew."
But Yom Kippur is a day when that voice inside of us stops whispering, and starts talking. It stops being silent, and screams out for every single one of us to pay attention.
Classrooms and workplaces and restaurants and supermarkets empty out, and synagogues fill up to the rafters.
We don't eat. We don't drink. We don't shop. We don't work.
On Yom Kippur, we just pray and listen to that still, small voice inside of each of us that reminds us "I am a Jew."
Because that voice is the holiest part of us. It is the part of us that connects every single one of us with God no matter how disconnected we feel the rest of the year. It is the part of us that reminds us who we really are.