I’ve been in Russia for one month now. I’ve already been to so many places, done so much, met so many people. There’s so much I could write! I don’t know where to start. I’m compelled to actually start at the beginning. Before I left the states. Let me start with why I’m here.
To put it bluntly, I believe the ancestors and Mother Earth herself are calling us to remember our roots. There are the rational and irrational explanations for this. The rational is in the mind. It’s what deduces that so many our problems are tied to how disconnected we’ve become from our roots. From our ancestors. From traditional ways of living in tune and in balance with Mother Earth. From a sense of the sacredness of all life and our role to help maintain the balance of and protect the sacred web of life. The irrational is the pull on the heart strings that brings tears to my eyes or fills me with ecstatic bliss when I hear the ancient prayer songs of my ancestors and learn about the earth-based roots of the traditions I rejected for so long.
I grew up in a family of Soviet Jewish immigrants. My parents and older brother emigrated to the States in 1979 from Odessa. I was the first person in my family born in the states. I grew up learning both English and Russian as my parents spoke Russian in the house. I remember when I learned that we weren’t Christian, but were something called Jewish. I came home from pre-school with a letter to Santa and asked my mom to put it in the mail for me. The truth that I was too young to understand before came out: we weren’t Christian, we were Jewish. We don’t celebrate Christmas, we do this thing called Hanukkah instead. Sort of.
My parents didn’t really know much about Jewish spiritual traditions. For them, being Jewish was an ethnic and cultural identity. It was what was on their Soviet national identification card. They weren’t Russian. They weren’t Ukrainian. They were one of the lowest rungs in the Soviet Union. They were Jewish. And they weren’t allowed to learn about or practice their spiritual traditions. Being Jewish was what they were persecuted for. It was why they were denied entry into many universities and turned down for jobs they were well qualified for. It was what they were harassed and endured vitriol for.
Now I was this thing too. I already knew I was different from my friends. I already wasn’t quite American. My parents spoke with funny accents and I couldn’t pronounce the ‘th’ sound correctly because it isn’t in the Russian language. My “three” sounded like “free” and I got teased by my peers. I was the son of immigrants. And now I wasn’t Christian either. I was something else.
At some point, around age 8 or 9, I began to fear ghosts. I decided I needed to learn to pray to protect myself. So my parents enrolled me in Sunday School and Hebrew School at the Jewish synagogue we were members of, but rarely attended. I ended up having a Bar Mitzvah, but it wasn’t a life changing experience. It wasn’t a true right of passage as I now understand the tradition is meant to be. I memorized how to read some Hebrew text which I didn’t understand. I chanted it in front of a crowd of family and friends. We danced and ate. And I received a bunch of money in gifts. About a year later, I decided this being Jewish thing wasn’t for me. It was bland. It was boring. I didn’t see the point. I stopped believing in ghosts and God. I rejected it.
Some years before my Bar Mitzvah, I ceased speaking Russian with my parents. It was the beginning of my adolescent rebellion against them. They would speak to me in Russian, and I would respond in English. Then I got manipulative. I began pretending I didn’t understand what they were saying, and would force them to speak English with me. I trained my parents well, and eventually I no longer needed to pretend that I didn’t understand them if they spoke Russian with me. I stopped practicing and lost much of my Russian language skills.
I was so determined to be American. I was so determined to be normal. I wanted to blend, to assimilate. I wanted to be cool. I wanted to be in with the in-crowd. I tried for so long. It was a struggle because it wasn’t my truth. I wasn’t embracing who I really was. Who I am.
I am the son of Soviet Jewish immigrants. I am the great-grandson of a Ukrainian Rabbi. I learned this latter fact only within the last two years as I’ve been diving into family history. To have a Rabbi in the lineage is usually something that doesn’t go unmentioned in Jewish families with strong connections with their roots. We had become so disconnected through the programming in the Soviet Union, that I didn’t even know we had a Rabbi in the lineage, let alone what his name was. Srul Minsky.
Almost four years ago, I moved to the Bay Area. I left my job and my parents in Ohio, and headed west with my girlfriend at the time. I wasn’t clear on all the reasons, but I was feeling called (beyond the pull of the relationship) to go out there. I had been for a while. There was something out there for me. I didn’t have a place to live. I didn’t have a job set up. I didn’t know what I was going to do.
I had been wanting to learn how to be more self-suficient, self-reliant, and how to live sustainably, to learn how to grow my own food in a low-impact way. I found an urban farming fellowship in Berkeley through a Jewish organization called Urban Adamah. I applied and got in. I went for the farming, and I found the Judaism I didn’t know I was looking for.
Urban Adamah is tapping into the ancient earth-based roots of Judaism. The songs, the prayers, and the meaning behind them were presented to me in a way I had never experienced before. Something began to stir deep inside of me. My heart began to swell with both love and sadness. Love of what felt like home, felt like my birthright. Sadness from beginning to realize what had been cut off for so long and how deeply it had been cut. The grief of the ancestral trauma that caused the disconnection from my roots was beginning to bubble to the surface.
Through Urban Adamah, I was introduced to Wilderness Torah. Wilderness Torah is taking earth-based Judaism to another level. I got involved. The cracks that were developing in the armor I had unconsciously used to shield my true identity shattered wide open. At Wilderness Torah’s Passover in the Desert festival, a hundred of us gathered into a large tent with walls open to the beautiful expanse of the desert wilderness and majestic mountains surrounding us. Bursting through the tent was the most soulful, nature-connected Shabbat service I had ever experienced. Tears began to flood down my cheeks as I felt the presence of my great-grandfather, Rabbi Srul Minsky, and felt that his hand, among others of my ancestors, was guiding me. Guiding me to that place, to that moment. Showing me a piece of what had been lost. Presenting me with the opportunity to mend what was broken.
I accepted. And now here I am. On the opposite side of the world from the place in which my parents found refuge. Back to the lands they fled. Back to face and heal the fears inherited from past generations. Back to connect with my roots.
On my final night in the states, my community came together around me for a powerful send-off ceremony. It was one of the most potent nights of my life. A true ritual to begin a rite-of-passage. I told my story and spoke my intentions. I shared how I feel like a tree that’s spent most of its life aware only of the parts of myself that were visible, that were above ground. But I recently became aware of this immense, complex, and rich root system that is my foundation. And I need to know it! I need to know as much of the root system as I can, to dive as deep into it as I can. I want to dig my hands in the soils that support and nourish these roots. To feel them. To know them. To honor them.
The prayers for me and my journey that were spoken by my community into the fire we gathered around are very much with me. They are surrounding me, wrapping me in a blanket of blessings and protection.
I’ve been here a month now, and the Russian is coming back. Out of the depths of my mind where unused knowledge lays dormant.
I arrived in the Altai today. My uncle use to be a professor at Barnaul University just north of here and he use to backpack, hunt, and forage in these mountains every summer. I had dinner this evening with one of my Altaian hosts. He was born here and lived here his whole life. His grandparents, great-grandparents, and generations going back thousands of years all lived here. Like all indigenous Altaians, he has a deep-rooted connection with this land.
We talked about my journey and my desire to connect with my roots. He told me what I’m doing is important. He said that a person who doesn’t know their roots is half dead. We quickly became friends. Another Altaian I met today, upon explaining to him my roots, said “You’re more Russian-Ukrainian than American.” I felt no need to argue. That is a far cry from the era in which I wanted nothing to do with being Russian, Ukrainian, or Jewish.
The evidence I’ve already seen from the culture here illustrates that when we are deeply connected with our roots, we honor, respect, and care for the land that nourishes us and our roots. The land is calling out to us. The ancestors are calling out to us. They can be heard in the open expanses where the desert winds blow. They can be felt in the quiet spaces between thoughts. This is my story of heeding their call.