Rosh Hashanah in Soviet Russia: A Jewish Awakening Behind the Iron Curtain

After growing up in a privileged Jewish neighborhood on Long Island, I was curious to know how Jews who remained in the Soviet Union fared.
August 10, 2021
Kazan Cathedral at dawn on Red Square, Moscow, most recognizable classic landmark of Russia and UNESCO World Heritage Site. (Lingxiao Xie/Getty Images)

“Mom, can you get me a visa, too? I would love to go to Russia with you and Dad.” The connection was filled with static. “Mom, can you hear me?”

I heard a tinny sound but couldn’t make out what mother was saying. The phone went dead.

Two weeks later, in September 1975, after traveling around Europe on my own for six weeks using a Eurail pass, I was with my parents. I was twenty years old, a recent college grad who had left home at the end of my sixteenth year to escape from family, and now, for the first time since, I was about to embark on a journey with the people from whom I had fled.

My parents flew to Stockholm, where I met them. We caught an overnight ferry to Helsinki, where we would train into the Soviet Union.

I grew up devouring spy television shows such as “The Man from Uncle” (I had a huge crush on secret agent Ilya Kuryakin), “I Spy” and “Mission Impossible.” We were in the middle of the Cold War and the Soviet Union was our enemy. I hadn’t forgotten the training I received when I was three years old. When the name Khrushchev was mentioned, I was taught to say “Feh.”  I had no idea who he was, only that he was a bad guy.

By the time I was a teenager, I was eager to find out what was behind the Iron Curtain. Whenever a door was closed, I wanted to go behind it. What was it like for people who lived there? What did they eat? Were Jews able to go to synagogue? Were there Bar Mitzvahs, Bas Mitzvahs?

After growing up in a privileged Jewish neighborhood on Long Island, I was curious to know how Jews who remained in the Soviet Union fared. My grandparents had managed to escape at the turn of the 20th century, but others were not so fortunate.

In my youth, Judaism was something I ran from, not toward. The High Holidays were a fashion show with the women’s hats so large you couldn’t see in front of them. “I love your dress. Where’d you get it?” was a common question.

We all knew that the stores with the pricey, most fashionable clothing were on Central Avenue in Cedarhurst, an avenue on which my mother never shopped. Instead, she opted for Green Acres shopping center in Valley Stream, not part of the luxurious Five Towns, and Loehman’s in Brooklyn, often schlepping me along.

Growing up surrounded by Jewish people who were often trying to impress each other, and a rabbi whose focus was on power gained by who he knew rather than what he knew, was unappealing. Consequently, I fled my Jewish roots.

It wasn’t until I was traveling in Europe, with my curly brunette hair and a nose that has a bump, that I realized I was a minority and easily identifiable as a Jew. Often, I was approached by people who didn’t speak a word of English who asked me, “You juif?” It was curiosity rather than antisemitism, as they had never met a Jew.

In 1975, during Brezhnev’s reign, visiting Russia was not an easy task, though it was far easier than a Russian leaving the Soviet bloc. At that time, the only way out for non-Jews was defecting, which several athletes and performers—like Rudolph Nureyev in 1961 and Mikhail Baryshnikov in 1974—did.

A foreigner who wanted to visit Russia had to go through the Soviet travel agency, Intourist. People were allowed to enter only in organized groups and would be able to visit only specially designated zones including a limited number of neighborhoods in a limited number of cities.

Mother managed to get me a Soviet visa while I was in Europe, which required my signature. When I asked her years later how she did it, she responded, “Your father asked a rabbi and he signed your name for us.” My father was a Jewish funeral director and had relationships with many rabbis, which turned out to be quite useful.

My mother, who owned a travel agency, managed to get permission from Intourist to visit the Soviet Union without having to be part of a group. In this case, my parents were a good team.

With no tour guide and no group leader, my parents and I traveled by ourselves into enemy territory and boarded the overnight train the following afternoon. Our foreign language skills were non-existent other than my mother’s Yiddish, something I was sure the conductor didn’t speak.

Our compartment had two bunk beds. To avoid a stranger joining us we purchased all four beds. My mother and father took the lower beds across from each other and I climbed up to the bunk above my father.

I was ready for this adventure. After six weeks of successfully maneuvering around Europe alone, I had confidence that I could manage anywhere. I had learned survival skills, not in the wilderness but in foreign cities. I had regularly needed to find places to sleep, eat and explore. Now, I would do the same for us in Russia. Even though my parents had traveled quite a bit, this was everyone’s first experience behind the Iron Curtain.

We were sound asleep when there was a loud knocking at our door. As we awakened, we were paralyzed with fear, wondering who it could be in the middle of the night. Thoughts of Jews packed in cattle cars heading to Auschwitz flashed inevitably through my mind.

The banging persisted. My mother yelled to my father, “Get up!” My father, wearing only his boxer shorts, jumped up, his hands shaking as he unlocked the door. There was a tall man dressed in uniform, barking at him in Russian. We had no idea what he was saying until we heard the word “visa.” My mother retrieved the visas and we passed them over.

The Russian checked each visa and then entered our small compartment and lifted up my father’s bed, looking inside. We had no idea there was storage under it.

The Soviet’s dark gray hat had emblems on it, as did his matching gray double-breasted, leather-belted coat. He was the perfect example of a Russian commissar. Nothing was friendly or inviting. He was on the job and not done with us. He looked at me and yelled in Russian. Although I didn’t speak the language, I understood what he wanted. His search continued as he went through my suitcase and I wrapped my body tightly in my top sheet. I felt exposed enough.

I had been reading “Looking for Mr. Goodbar.” The cover featured what appeared to be a naked woman under a blanket. The officer stared at it for a minute and then took it, no questions asked. As he continued, he found my three pairs of jeans and counted them. He left them. Back then, Russians could only buy jeans on the black market. What he didn’t find were a couple of Newsweek magazines. All the media and news were controlled by the Soviet government. If anyone wanted to get true information about the West, not propaganda, they turned to Voice of America. It was illegal to listen to it and many did not risk doing so.

We stayed at the new Hotel Leningrad, which had opened five years earlier in 1970. It was large. The bellman brought us to our room. When we got out of the elevator, we saw a stern woman dressed in uniform sitting at a desk and looking at us. I learned later that there was a person stationed at each floor monitoring the guests. Our room was sizable. All furnishings looked like the ’50s in America. I wondered if our room was bugged.

It was not only September, but also Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. In Soviet Russia practicing a religion was not only frowned upon but also punished in many cases. Although it was illegal to do so, the government attacked the religiously observant as political opposers to the state and its policies. Many took risks to practice and some suffered the consequences. Others engaged in religious practice secretly.

It was not only September, but also Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. In Soviet Russia practicing a religion was not only frowned upon but also punished in many cases.

Later, we found a taxi and asked him to take us to a synagogue. He seemed to have no idea what I was talking about. It was unclear whether that was the trained Soviet response or the truth. I went back into the hotel and asked the man at the front desk to mark on a map where the synagogue was located. Now, I was able to show the taxi driver the map with no mention of the word synagogue.

It was obvious we were not local when we entered the synagogue. My mother and I were directed upstairs to where all the women were while my father stayed downstairs to pray with the men. Before my mother and I went up, a man wearing a denim jacket and pants asked me, in perfect English, where I was from. I was sure he was American, too. “No, I’m from Leningrad,” he responded.

My mother and I settled into our seats. We were as eager to speak to the women who surrounded us as they were to us. My mother, fifty-one years old, looked decades younger than all of them. I wasn’t sure if these women were considerably older or just had a more difficult life. In no time, my mother was conversing with them in Yiddish. I didn’t understand what they were saying, but my eyes welled up, thinking about how grateful I was that my grandparents had successfully fled the pogroms during the time of the Czar. But these fellow Jews had not. I wanted to help them, I wanted to get them out. I wanted to take them to a country where they were free to practice their religion.

My mother opened up her wallet and showed them a picture. It was a photo from my eldest brother’s wedding. The women passed it around and started to cry when they saw the chuppah under which my brother and his wife stood, something they couldn’t have at their weddings. We asked them if they were able to make a bris for their sons. No, they said, as it was too dangerous to circumcise their boys given that it would easily identify them as Jewish.

When the service was over, we found my father among the crowd of people who exited the synagogue and were congregating outside. They were refuseniks, people who had applied for a visa to leave and were refused. As a result, they had lost their jobs and their homes were searched. They offered to show me around, and so I told my mother I would meet them at the hotel later. My parents weren’t happy but I was committed to spending time with my new friends and learning about their lives. As they showed me around Leningrad by car, which was both less conspicuous and more effective, I listened to their stories. Each was highly educated; each had lost everything yet had a spirit and courage I had not seen among many of the Jewish people I had known.

“We laugh because that is all we have left,” they explained. They were engineers, scientists, and academics who now were allowed to work only menial jobs such as janitorial work.

I felt an immediate connection. I thought that if I had been living there, I, too, would have done what they did; I would have fought for my rights. They dropped me off near my hotel and invited me to their home the following night for a meal—an invitation I declined because my parents were deeply concerned for my safety, and did not want me to go alone. I didn’t want to worry them anymore.

My parents had also made new friends—a young man who asked them to meet his father and sister. Doing this was dangerous. The young man met us near the hotel. Always looking behind him, he took us by bus to his apartment. We stopped in front of the building and he made sure there was no one watching as he walked us through a courtyard up two flights of stairs. We slipped into their home. It was a one-room apartment with a small kitchen that housed him and his parents. As his sister served us melon, we learned his father was a nuclear physicist. The entire family had applied for visas to leave. Only the mother was approved, the Soviets most likely assuming she was too old to go alone. But she was already on her way to the U.S., currently in Italy with the help of HIAS, a Jewish organization that assists refugees. The young man got up from his chair and returned holding a silver coffee pot. He asked my mother if she would do them a favor and take it out of Russia and to his mother who was on her way to Baltimore. Mom agreed to do so. They put it in a bag and included a letter. Now, he cautiously escorted us back by bus to our hotel.

A couple days later, before we left Leningrad, one of my new friends said he had something to give me and asked if he could get my Newsweek magazines. They were hungry for news, real news. “It’s too dangerous for you to come into my hotel,” I said. “There are commissars on every floor.” He dismissed my concern and came with me to my hotel room. I handed him the magazines and he handed me a package.

“Please can you take this out for us?” he asked. “These are slides of letters we have written about our life here.” I took the envelope. “Yes, of course!” I would have done anything to help them. We said our goodbyes. He left and was not stopped. I don’t know if he suffered consequences later. As he said, they had nothing else to lose.

We flew to Moscow, where I arranged activities for us, including the ballet, a trip to Red Square and the circus, which was a one-ring show with dog acts. In search of a restaurant at which to eat before we went to the circus, I was directed to a building and told the restaurant was on the second floor. The three of us climbed the set of stairs and opened the door. The room was packed with people sitting at round tables. All heads turned and looked at us. We were obviously outsiders, and to the regime, we were intruders, perhaps spies. We were seated at a table and handed menus written in Cyrillic, and we were clueless. There were two couples at the table next to us, and their food had just been served.

My mom signaled for their attention. As she pointed to one of their dishes, she asked where it was listed on our menu. Suddenly, my mother was speaking Yiddish to them—she had realized they were Jewish. They were kind enough to let us know what they were eating, but one of the men sitting with them looked very uncomfortable. Soon, they all bolted out of the restaurant without touching their food.

I felt horrible and hoped they would not get in trouble due to our interaction.

After three nights in Moscow, our trip to the former Soviet Union was coming to a close. As we packed to leave, I disappeared into the bathroom with a needle and thread and the slides I was given in Leningrad. I sewed them into my hem without mentioning a word to my parents.

After an inexplicable ten-hour delay for our departure at the airport, we eventually made it home safely to New York. I survived my parents and we survived our little adventure behind the Iron Curtain.

I brought the slides to the Soviet Jewry office in New York and learned that one of the young men I had spent time with in Leningrad was a KGB informer. I wondered who it was and in an odd way I understood the temptation to collaborate with the KGB. Life in Soviet Russia was quite challenging when one became a refusenik.

My trip to the Soviet Union made an enormous impact on me. I finally met Jews with whom I felt a kinship. They were not worried about what they were wearing, how their hair looked or what car they were driving. They had sharp intellects, were courageous and fought for their rights. I admired their strength, their humor and their attitude. For the first time in my life, I was proud to be a Jew, and have retained that pride to this day.

Gayle Kirschenbaum is an Emmy Award-winning filmmaker, TV producer, photographer, writer and TEDx speaker. Her documentary “Look at Us Now, Mother!” can be found here. She’s writing a memoir based on this film.

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