The Baal Teshuva and the Atheist: Part II

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By: Rochel Alkhazova

New York

Lina’s father was the first one to leave for America. Before the whole family immigrated, he had to find a job and a place to live. After he rented a one-bedroom apartment near Ocean Parkway in Brooklyn, it was time for Lina’s mother and twin brothers to board the plane.

Lina, Babushka, and Lina’s sister, Bella, had to wait a few months before leaving Moscow. The family had to come in separate batches, with the status of ‘Guest’, because leaving the country as a family would send red flags, and they would be stopped by security and denied entrance to America.

While waiting to leave for America, Lina wrapped herself in her mother’s robe that hung on the hook of the bedroom door and cried.  Her mother’s lovely smell still lingered, and she loved hugging and talking to it, as if the lifeless robe was her mother.

Finally, the day came when Lina, Bella, and Babushka boarded a two-story plane to freedom. They left in 1990, right before the collapse of communist Soviet Union.

 

They lived eight people in one bedroom, and when other family or friends immigrated, they also stayed over for weeks, and sometimes even months, until they settled in with a job or a place of their own. Sometimes, there was as many as twelve people living there at one time. They slept on the floor and cooked large quantities of delicious food. Guests, friends and family constantly came and went.

The first time Lina visited a supermarket in America, she felt light-headed from seeing such abundance on the shelves. Lina could stay in the store for hours, studying the endless pile of colorful packages with foreign letters. Best of all, they did not have to wait in long lines to purchase groceries. Lina shivered when she remembered grocery lines in Russian. Valenki, deep in snow. Her mother and siblings waiting in the longest line ever to buy some bread. The unhappy, grumpy citizens that barked at her mother when she got skipped to the front of the line.

“Look at this one,” they would say.

“Gave birth to four kids so she can skip lines…disgraceful! Having so many kids…just to bump the line and get more food.”

Other’s would look at her and say, “You are Mother, the Hero…so many kids you have! One is more than enough! Why do you need so many kids?”

But in America, people were different. They smiled and simply said, “Hello.”

Lina liked that about America, and she liked how American bread was as soft as cotton balls, and she liked how cheesy chips tasted, and how candy crackle was so much fun to eat, and she liked to shape stars with the long Troll doll hair, and she liked being free to be herself.

 

Despite a crowded home, and the new tastes, smells, and language, Lina did not miss Russia. Her parents worked hard to continue living the comfortable life they were used to living. Her father was a chef, and her mother worked in a baker’s factory. When her father cut his finger with a meat slicer at work, Lina’s parents ran to the nearest building that had the word “Hospital” on it. It turned out to be an Animal Hospital.

That’s how they learned the language, through trial and error. Eventually, their English got a little better; eventually they knew a little more…eventually they moved out of the one-bedroom apartment and into a four-bedroom in the Italian neighborhood of Bay Ridge.

 

Then it was time to enroll the girls in school. Lina’s mother had heard that America had both private schools and public schools. She chose a private school for Jewish Russian immigrant girls, called “Shalsheles Bais Yaakov”.

Bay Ridge was not on the school bus route, but the Yeshiva provided and paid for car service for them, just so the sisters could attend a Jewish school.

 

“We use Hebrew names here,” the teacher told Lina when asked for her name in class. “Do you know your Hebrew name?”

“No,” Lina said, blushing with embarrassment.

“Maybe your mother knows. Why don’t you ask her, and let me know tomorrow,” the teacher gently brushed her fingers against Lina’s cheek and smiled a soft, sweet smile.

 

“Mama? Do I have a Jewish name?”

“Yes. It’s just like your Babushka’s. Her name is Lina, and you were named after her. Her Kavkazi name is Guli, so yours is Guli, too!”

              

The next day in school, Lina said that she had a Jewish name…Guli. The teacher gave her a sweet smile. “Here is a list of all the Jewish names, why don’t you take it home and pick out a name?”

Going down the list, her mother stopped at “Ester”.

“This is it! I think this name is perfect for you. Do you like it?” Her mother pointed at “Ester”.

“I…I…guess,” Lina shrugged.

In school she was Ester, at home she was Lina.

              

“You write with your right hand and draw with your left hand?” Rita asked Ester.

“Of course! In Russia, I was not allowed to use my left hand, so I was re-taught. The teachers would beat me if I wrote with my left hand. My hand hurt and burned, and I cried a lot when they were teaching me to use my right hand, but I learned quickly to use my right.” 

 

Rita and Ester became best friends, and in general, all the girls were so nice to each other. Ester was best at davening, Hebrew and Jewish studies. She loved her siddur most of all, and she knew all the brachos by heart. She especially loved to sing them and took her siddur everywhere—supermarkets, playgrounds…everywhere!

When she sang the prayers, she swayed back and forth with pleasure. When a Jewish holiday approached, her parents always asked her what brachos to say on bread and fruits, and they learned from her about lighting candles and about holidays.          

When the school had shabbatons, Ester dressed in her favorite light pink polka dot dress that was so puffy, she felt like a princess. Her first Passover was by a family somewhere in Brooklyn, and she loved it. She went back home and told her parents that Passover was amazing.

              

“What school do your girls go to?” a friend asked Ester’s mother.

“A Jewish school!” She answered proudly.

“Really? But why would you do such a thing to your own children?”

“What do you mean?”

“Don’t you know that they come out crazy from there? All they do is pray. They don’t have any secular studies. Then they come out of those Jewish schools and sway from side to side in one place. The kids who go to these schools are uneducated! I don’t think you want that for your kids. Just look at your daughter now…” the friend whispered, pointing at Ester, who was innocently standing next to her mother, singing the Shacharit prayer silently in her head and rhythmically moving back and forth.

 

When it was time to enroll the twins into school, Ester’s mother took the boys and went to a yeshiva. As she knocked on the door, she tried to explain that she wanted to enroll them, but due to the language barrier, the Rabbi thought she was asking for tzedaka and send her off with a dollar. After a few offensive tears, Ester’s mother got a phone call from Shalsheles Beis Yaakov. “We would like to send you an application for re-enrollment for your girls for next year, but unfortunately, we will no longer be able to provide transportation from Bay Ridge.”

Lack of information in a new country, coupled with emotion from the tzedaka incident, along with the talk she had with her friend and not having enough money to afford a car service to the girls’ yeshiva, Ester’s mother decided to enroll all her children in public school.

 

When ten-year-old Ester stepped foot into public school, she was overcome with fear, plain emptiness, and more fear. It was no longer the cozy atmosphere that she had loved so much at Shalsheles; it was a pool of madness. She felt as if she was being thrown into a deep hole of random chaos, but she knew she had to survive in that chaos…and fight through it she would.

 

stay tuned for part iii...

 
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Rochel Alkhazova

enjoys learning about anything and everything. Spending time with her family is one of her favorite pastimes. Running a daycare keeps her motivated and busy, but she always finds time for an ice cream break! Rochel holds a degree in journalism and absolutely loves writing fiction and stories for children.

Rochel Lazar