From a Romanian village to Jewish Los Angeles

The journey to Judaism was a long one for Kinga Dobos. She grew up in a poor village in Romania and struggled to fit in as a teenager in Hungary.
May 21, 2015

The journey to Judaism was a long one for Kinga Dobos. She grew up in a poor village in Romania and struggled to fit in as a teenager in Hungary. She worked for years as an au pair in Great Britain and the United States, and it was the Jewish families that took her into their homes and welcomed her into their communities that persuaded her to entwine her destiny with theirs.

The slender 39-year-old redhead speaks with a slight British accent, which she picked up while studying English in London. She studied Jewish history at Santa Monica College and in Rabbi Neal Weinberg’s “Judaism by Choice” program, and converted in 2011 at American Jewish University. 

“I just felt culturally Jewish, and I wanted to be legitimate,” she said. “Nearly everybody I worked for in Los Angeles was Jewish, or one parent was Jewish. I was part of their lives, and I became fond of their culture. The emphasis on education. The close-knit family. No matter what your economic status is, you have an obligation to help others, because there’s always someone who is worse off than you are. And these were not everyday observations that I grew up with.”

She lives in Playa Del Rey, works as a video editor, and is active in Sinai Temple’s Atid young professionals group. She’s also writing a book of short stories based on her life. On Shavuot, she’ll have a bat mitzvah at Sinai Temple. 

Dobos was born in Transylvania, a beautiful and historic region of Romania that was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire until the end of World War I. Her family is Hungarian, and her Romanian classmates teased her about her accent. Despite the economic hardships during the communist regime of Nicolae Ceausescu, she has fond memories of childhood in the industrial city of Brasov.

“It’s built around a mountain. We have very nice ski resorts there. My childhood was [spent] outdoors a lot. We were doing sports in the winter and going hiking and camping in the summer,” she said.

Her parents held odd jobs through the 1980s; her mother was a salesperson and a cleaner, her father was a house painter and held a government job overseeing heating for the city, even though the city had no heat.

“I remember, he was playing a lot of chess with his colleague. It was kind of a phony communist job. The one good thing about that job is, we went to his job once a week — my mom, my brother and I — and could shower there, because otherwise we had no warm water,” she said. “Our electricity was sporadic, we had it for a few hours at night, but we didn’t know when we would have it and for how long.”

Dobos’ relatives were all Christian, and she enjoyed attending church, where she could listen to Bible stories and speak freely with her Hungarian friends.

In 1989, in the months leading up to the fall of the communist regime, her parents escaped Romania and went to Budapest, Hungary. She and her brother stayed behind with their grandparents. The family reunited eight months later, after the revolution and Ceausescu’s execution. Dobos, then 14, boarded a train to Budapest carrying a duffel bag of clothes, a sewing machine and the dream of a better life.

“I was so idealistic and so naive,” she said. “In Romania, we always had to fight for necessities, for food and water and electricity. I thought once we moved to Hungary all of our problems were going to be solved.”

But life in Hungary wasn’t so easy. People viewed Transylvanians as less intelligent, and Dobos was again teased for her manner of speech.

“It’s as if I had a Southern accent and moved to California,” she said. “My classmates would mock my dialect. Every time I tried to talk, someone would repeat what I said, and it hurt my feelings.”

With her parents each working two jobs, and a guidance counselor who she says discriminated against her, she fell through the cracks at school. Despite her straight A’s, she was placed in a trade program rather than an academic one. She hated her classes, but graduated from secretarial school while working at a warehouse with her brother. She also volunteered at a Hungarian TV station, A3, where she took call-in requests for a music video show. After a few months, the station went bankrupt and she moved to England to be au pair.

She first worked for a family in Essex, but it wasn’t a good fit. Then she moved in with a Jewish family in London and lived there for a year. They had three daughters, and the father’s parents were Holocaust survivors. They kept a kosher home and asked her to keep kosher, even when she was outside the house. It was her first time learning about Judaism, she said.

“When I grew up and someone would say ‘Jew,’ people would usually whisper that word. So when I was very little, I thought maybe Jew was a dirty word,” she said.

The mother of the family tutored Dobos in English, and, after a year, she spoke fluently. She signed up with a Hungarian nanny agency and moved to Los Angeles to be close to the film industry. Her first job was in Huntington Beach, working for a divorced man with two young children, but after a few weeks she quit.

She answered a classified ad in the Los Angeles Times and found work with Dena Kleeman, a Jewish divorcee with two children and a law firm in Beverly Hills. 

“I hadn’t seen such a confident and assertive person before. I loved working for her. She was really good at balancing being a mom and working really hard. I hadn’t seen that in Romania or Hungary,” she said.

After her visa expired, she moved back to Hungary but soon got a call from Kleeman. Her boyfriend, who was also divorced with two children, needed a live-in nanny. Dobos worked for his family for two years, as well as for Kleeman’s sister, Maura Resnick, while studying at Santa Monica College. She transferred to UCLA to study film production, graduating in 2005.

“She worked to support herself. She really did it all on her own,” Resnick said. “I have such incredible admiration for that. I think she’s such a strong person. And she’s really a self-made person.”

She still helps Dena and Maura’s parents, Charles and Annette Kleeman, both 91, with household chores and errands.

“She’s a very intelligent and kind and loving and generous person, and a terrific help to us,” Annette Kleeman said.

After graduating from UCLA, Dobos adapted two books into feature screenplays and worked as a producer’s associate on a documentary film. 

When the recession hit, she went back to Hungary to visit her parents and spend time with her brother and his children. But after 13 years of living in the U.S., she said, she was stunned by the levels of misogyny and anti-Semitism she encountered in Eastern Europe.

“I realized I cannot live in that culture anymore. I’m too American and too Jewish,” she said, laughing. “There’s a great saying I heard: The mind that expands to new awareness can never go back to its original state.”

Dobos is struggling to make it in the cutthroat film industry. She’s writing a memoir and is considering going to law school. She’s dating a Jewish man and hopes to start her own family soon. She said her parents have supported her in every decision she’s made.

“When I fast on Yom Kippur, my mom fasts with me in Hungary. That’s the sweetest thing ever. She’s not Jewish. She’s very religious, she’s Protestant, but she wants to be with me in spirit.”

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