From Russia, with love
Jill Cooper Lefferman doesn’t like surprises, and especially not at her daughter Maia’s bat mitzvah, where she planned every detail, from Maia’s reading from the 100-year-old Cooper family Torah to the handcrafted, color-coordinated, Maia-inspired, donatable centerpieces.
But just after Jill and her husband, Matthew, made their speeches to Maia at the Feb. 15 event at Temple Beth Am, Matthew announced that he had a surprise for Jill. A video began to play, and Jill could not let her guard down until she heard the words, “Jill, meet Mayya Klich.”
Mayya had been Jill’s Russian refusenik bat mitzvah twin in 1983. The experience of sharing her bat mitzvah with a girl across the ocean, who didn’t have the freedom to celebrate and whose family was being refused the right to leave Russia (hence the term “refusenik”), so impacted Jill that she named her own daughter Maia, in honor of Mayya Klich.
Last summer, Matthew, a physician, secretly hired a private investigator to track down Mayya. Working off of a Soviet-era address in Ukraine, the investigator eventually found her in Maryland just two weeks before the bat mitzvah. After a reality show-worthy reveal at the bat mitzvah, Jill and Mayya locked into an embrace. The bat mitzvah girl soon joined in, and tears flowed freely among the 225 guests.
“It was too much to process. There was literally too much coming at me,” Jill said. “Mayya Klich has been a part of me for so long but was always this fairy tale. That she actually exists is unbelievable to me.”
“I thought I might have [a] heart attack,” said Mayya, who sat through services incognito (she was Michelle, a nurse who worked with Matthew, if anyone asked). Mayya quietly cried through Maia’s speech as the sixth-grader at Pressman Academy, invoked her namesake and told the story of her mother’s Russian bat mitzvah twin. Mayya said her parents have been bursting into tears since Matthew contacted them a few weeks ago.
In 1988, Mayya, along with her parents, sister and — a year later — two grandmothers, received permission to leave Khmelnytskyi, Ukraine. They moved to Maryland, and Mayya now has a master’s degree in education, teaches ESL (English as a Second Language) at a public high school and is also a home health aide.
For her bat mitzvah, Jill had been paired with Mayya through a program orchestrated by her synagogue, Temple Beth El in Phoenix. Jill spoke about Mayya in her bat mitzvah speech, had a cake for her, and had all her guests write postcards to Mayya. Jill also wrote many letters to Mayya, carefully following guidelines to avoid phrases and topics that wouldn’t make it past Soviet censors. Jill’s older sister, Jenna, had been twinned with Mayya’s older sister, Natasha, two years before.
“You know how so much of Jewish education focuses on the Holocaust?” Jill said. “All we learned about was Soviet Jewry. It was so central to my education.” She remembers greeting released refuseniks at the airport, and that her rabbi gave his son a Russian middle name.
Jill said she was always aware that, with four sets of Russian great-grandparents, her family easily could have been in the Kliches’ place.
As central as Mayya was to Jill’s adolescence, Mayya had no idea Jill existed until Matthew contacted her. Mayya’s father, David, said his family only learned about twinning programs when they came to America but were not given many details.
Mayya, who was 15 when they left Ukraine, said she remembers knowing that she got a lot of mail from America, but she was never able to read it. She remembers the police coming to her house with stacks of foreign mail and waving it around, saying the family couldn’t see it.
David, who was a dentist in Ukraine and is now retired from his work as a dental technician in Maryland, said he doesn’t remember the police confiscating any mail. But he does remember receiving many letters — most of which he could not understand — from Jews around the world who wrote as an expression of solidarity with Soviet Jewish refuseniks. The postman, he said, was so leery of mail coming from capitalist countries he would drop it at the door and run away. At one point, David said, he got subpoenaed by the KGB to explain his foreign mail — he was getting as many as 10 letters a day.
The Klich family applied repeatedly for exit visas to the United States or Israel starting in 1975, and each application and refusal increased the scrutiny on the family. David was called in by the KGB several times and was humiliated in a large meeting of colleagues where he was told he was a bad communist.
When government officials asked his wife, Bella Klich, a psychologist who worked in a Russian bookstore when she came to America, why she wanted to leave the Soviet Union, she said she wanted to give her children a Jewish education, to have them go to school and not be called “zhid” (derogatory for “Jew”).
As a Jew, Mayya knew she would not be admitted to any college without a hefty bribe, which her family could not afford.
There were no operating synagogues in Khmelnytskyi, a city named for the Ukrainian captain who fomented a massacre of tens of thousands of Jews starting in 1648. Teaching Hebrew was illegal, and engaging in Torah study or prayer could land you in jail.
Mayya said her grandmother, her father’s mother, was the keeper of tradition. She spoke Yiddish better than Russian, lit Shabbat candles, never drove on Shabbat, hosted a Pesach seder and baked her own matzah. But she had to do all of this with the curtains drawn and the doors closed, lest the KGB discover that she was practicing.
But without a Jewish education, Mayya and her parents were only sparsely aware of what any of it meant. David has vague memories of a small, dark room where people gathered to say Kaddish. He still has his father’s old tallit and kippah.
Mayya said she didn’t know what a Torah was, and she finally understood her grandmother’s seders after she saw “The Ten Commandments” with Charlton Heston in America years later.
In 1988, the Klich family was granted a visa and they made their way to Silver Spring, Md., where David’s brother and some other family members were already living. They now live in Germantown, near Rockville.
Mayya got a scholarship to the Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School in Rockville, where she learned Hebrew and went with her class to Israel in 1992. Her grandmother never missed a Shabbat at B’nai Israel Congregation in Rockville till she was well into her 90s. She died last year at the age of 103.
Mayya is still involved at the day school and says her newfound connection to the Leffermans, and the knowledge that Jewish kinship extends so strongly over time and continents, has inspired her to recommit to Jewish practice.
“I feel like [I] have another sister,” Mayya said.
Mayya spent the days after the bat mitzvah touring Los Angeles — Hollywood, Disneyland, Universal Studios — and getting to know the Leffermans.
Mayya also brought some presents for Maia: a matryoshka nesting doll from her collection, and a gold hamsa necklace, the first Jewish item she bought for herself when she came to this country, with money she earned working at CVS and Pizza Hut.
Maia hasn’t taken off the necklace since the bat mitzvah.
As it turns out, just a few months before her bat mitzvah, Maia had suggested the family search for Mayya.
“I have a heritage trip to Russia somewhere in me that I hope to do someday, and I always figured I would find Mayya Klich then,” Jill said. “But, in truth, I never really wanted to know how her life turned out because I was kind of sure it wasn’t good.”
As the video began to roll at Maia’s bat mitzvah and Jill realized it was about Mayya, she turned to Matthew and asked in a whisper, “Does it end happy?” She was sure the family’s plight ended tragically, and that her generous husband had set up a fund in memory of the Klich family. When Mayya appeared on screen, Jill realized she was sitting right next to her.
As Jill got to know Mayya over the next few days, she found a woman who was not only alive and well, but also confident, caring, accomplished and Jewishly engaged.
The connection that had been a cherished myth by one twin and was unknown to the other for so many years was slowly turning into tangible reality.
Mayya never had a bat mitzvah, and Jill encouraged her to do so, saying her family would come to Maryland to celebrate. And, she told Mayya, “We’ll bring the Cooper family Torah.”