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An American Jew in Russia

An American Jew in Russia

All Jews have a still small voice inside of them that says, "I am a Jew."


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.

September 15, 2007

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Visitor Comments: 10

(9) Joy D. Brower, August 24, 2016 10:35 AM

To eat - or NOT to eat?

I'm very much of mixed feelings on this issue. I think so much has to do with how one is brought up (incl. just how kosher a home is or is not), and then, how one matures and how one's conscious relationship with G-d develops and/or is defined.

I was brought up in a "mixed" home (mother Jewish, father Gentile), but Mama never prepared, served or even kept pig meat or shellfish in the house. However, when Papa wanted bacon or anything that was treyfus, he went out for the meal (usually lunch, never dinner), and with Mama's blessing, too! And although i more or less kept kosher (ate no pork products or shellfish), when I left home first for college, then later, as a young adult, I had no such constraints.

Over the subsequent years, I have realized an increasing reliance on faith and a much more respectful view of religion, Judaism and G-d, Himself. But that has not translated into keeping to a more kosher diet!

(8) Debi Reece, October 2, 2007 12:41 PM

understand completely

I understand completely where the author was coming from. She should not have been critized for not feeling when growing up that it was wrong to eat the shellfish or the bacon. I was also raised that way -- for some reason bacon was acceptable and so was shell fish but ham was not acceptable! Later, when learning to be observant, I could not understand why many of the non-religious did this.

(7) Hilda, September 30, 2007 5:55 AM

Little by little

Great no ham. Maybe next time no more BLTs and crab cakes. A little story about my husband. He is from Denmark where he ate his share of ham. The year was 1957. He had just arrived in America from Israel where he had spent the past 7 years, We were newly married and I kept a kosher home. We were out for a lunch, a rare occasion He thought he missed not having any ham and I told him I would not mind if he ordered one as I ate my salad. He ordered it. He looked at it . He even brought it to his lips but he could not bring himself to He admitted that it was not eat it. He admitted that it was not my presence that deterred him from eating that ham sandwich. The very smell distressed him. He just could not eat the sandwich.

(6) aliza, September 26, 2007 2:52 PM

Why is ham so much more "forbidden" than shrimp?

I never understood this focus on not eating ham. But you ate crabcakes! What's the difference? I always had a strong voice inside me that said, "I am a Jew" but as a secular, assimilated Jew, I ate ham, shrimp, pork chops, bacon, cheeseburgers... My (VERY!) strong inner "I am a Jew" voice didn't know from kashrut.

Thank G-d, I am now an observant Jew, my inner Jew voice encouraged me to learn exactly what it means to know "I am a Jew" and ham is something - now - that would never cross my lips.

Knowledge of who you are is what makes you think about what you eat, not what you are.

(5) Rick Davis, September 20, 2007 7:13 PM

nice story

Nice story

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