There’s a Russian folk tale about an elderly couple building a little snow girl to fill the void they feel over not being able to have a child. Suddenly, seemingly in a gift from God, the snow girl comes to life. Upon reaching age 29, I’ve come to feel as if I symbolically did the same in a geographical and emotional journey that began in snowy Russia, and has spanned three continents and nations over the past 25 years.
Known as Snegurochka (“Snow Maiden” in Russian), the folk character evolved over time to be viewed as the granddaughter of Father Frost, the Russian equivalent of Santa Claus. One of my earliest memories from Russia is a little doll in Snegurochka’s image placed snugly next to that of Father Frost underneath the small fir tree decorated with various multicolor ornaments in the corner of our Moscow apartment. It seems like the perfect image of Christian bliss, but we were Jewish and were not celebrating Christmas.
Since the expression of religion under communist rule was disavowed, one unifying custom for all Soviet citizens was the tree-decoration custom, which had been reapplied to the secular New Year holiday, known in Russia as Noviy God. My family stopped decorating the New Year’s tree after we made aliyah to Israel in 1990, but many other Russian-Jewish immigrants in Israel, the U.S. and other countries have maintained the custom of decorating the New Year’s tree through the present day.
We were among approximately 1 million other pre- and post-Soviet Jews who arrived in Israel about 25 years ago, an anniversary that the Jewish state marked in 2015. Around that time, while browsing my Facebook newsfeed, I found a community created by a group of Russian-speaking Israeli millennials (those born from the early 1980s until 2000), most of whom were born in Russia but raised in Israel, dedicated to educating Israeli Sabras (Hebrew slang for native-born Israelis) about the traditions of the Russian holiday. Dubbed the “Israeli Noviy God,” the community – which also received some coverage in Israeli media – used cheeky posts and fun videos not only to teach the wider Israeli society about the holiday, but also to make a public statement that, yes, they can be Israeli and still practice their former Russian traditions.
These days when walking around in Israel, you are likely to hear Russian spoken wherever you go. There are Russian-speaking Knesset members, entertainers and members of many other industries. Russian Israelis have their own Russian-language media outlets in Israel, and the country’s recently appointed defense minister, Avigdor Liberman, is the leader of Yisrael Beiteinu, a political party founded by the Russian-Jewish immigrants of the 1990s. Many Russian-born men and women have served in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF).
While the community still has some strides to make on the path toward full integration, 25 years ago the picture looked very different. Upon arriving in Israel, my family found itself smack in the path of Iraqi missiles during the first Gulf War, in a culturally and linguistically foreign environment, and dealing with the societal backdrop of economic hardship and competition over employment. Much like the Russian-Jewish community in the U.S., Russian immigrants in Israel also continued speaking Russian among themselves and their children, and as such began to be perceived as not wanting to become truly Israeli.
Further, some of these immigrants had arrived in Israel not knowing most of the customs of their Jewish faith due to the Soviet Union’s ban on organized religion, and some were even not Jewish according to Jewish law. At the height of that immigration, those immigrants who decorated Noviy God trees in Israel at times increased the perception among native-born Israelis that they were not truly Jewish.
Although I arrived in Israel as a toddler and quickly learned to speak fluent Hebrew, it took me many years to feel truly accepted in Israel. From an early age, I learned to navigate exhaustingly between one linguistic and cultural environment at home and a different one at school. Then upon reaching my early teens, just as I began to develop a sense of belonging in the Jewish state and set myself on a path toward the identity forged by many of today’s Russian-Israeli millennials, my parents decided to immigrate again – to the United States.
I finished my last year of school in Israel in the summer, at the height of the second Palestinian intifada. The day we left, I watched from the window of a taxi as my neighborhood and city got smaller and smaller behind me. I made myself feel better about moving away by telling myself that perhaps at least in America, I would be safe from war and terror. It was initially a blur, but I remember the feeling of uncertainty for the future to come and the awe-inspiring view I encountered from the window of another taxi (this one in America) of the overwhelming skyscrapers looming over me.
The following year, I found myself in an American high school. With the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, which I watched unfold on TV with my fellow American students, my dreams of a safer life were quickly shattered. Meanwhile, while I spoke English, connecting to the American mentality was a new challenge. For a time, I encountered very few Israelis, and since we often seek out what we know best, I found myself forming friendships with other immigrant kids primarily from Russian-speaking Jewish families who had immigrated directly to the U.S.
These were good and lasting friendships but, by virtue of them, those around me began to view me as mainly Russian. Along with the typical emotions of adolescence, I went about my life in frustration, with the feeling of living in one unfamiliar culture at school, being perceived as belonging to another culture I did not fully connect to, and in my head feeling that I belonged somewhere entirely different.
This inner identity conflict took much longer to resolve than there is time to write about. In simple terms, as I grew up I began to realize that America changed me, whether I wanted to admit it or not.
In spite of this, however, after choosing to pursue a career in journalism I found myself at JNS.org, where writing and reporting about Israel is a regular part of my job. And as a sophomore at a typical Midwestern American campus as far away from Israel as can be, I met and eventually married an Israeli man. Although I live in the U.S., I now speak more Hebrew at home than I ever did as a child in Israel. My son will now grow up as both American and Israeli – and if his grandparents have a say, perhaps even a little Russian.
In retrospect, I learned so much on this 25-year journey. I found that life and people everywhere are complicated.
I’ve met people – both immigrants and natives – who acted both kind and unkind, with many falling somewhere in between. I learned about the choices that people must make from among equally tough options for a chance at a better life, and the courage that it takes to start anew in a foreign place, even just once, let alone twice. I also learned the tenacity it takes not to give up when life keeps throwing you one hardball after another. These are the lessons that I will try to teach my son.
Today, Israel remains a big part of my identity, but I also love America. While my connection to my Russian cultural heritage is less intense, I switch off between my three fluent languages with little thought. If you ask me what I am – Russian, Israeli or American – the answer I give will likely always vary, and for me that finally feels right.
At the risk of sounding cliché, I also found truth in the common expression that things happen for a reason. As I reach the end of my 20s, now a mother, I finally see that all of these life events have changed me to a person with an inner strength that I never knew I had. For this, I will always be grateful.
Like Snegurochka, who came to life from snow, I discovered a new self and found that I liked her just as muddled as she is, after all.
Alina Dain Sharon is the managing editor of JNS.org.