For Remote Community’s Matriarch, the Road to Judaism Was Winding

Bella Leidental remembers exactly where she was the day she decided to walk away from Judaism.

Her co-workers on a Moscow ambulance crew, apparently remembering that she was Jewish, had sought to reassure her after a session of anti-Semitic jokes.

“Don’t be insulted, you’re not really a Jew,” they told her that day in 1953. “You’re an exception. We don’t consider you a Jew.”

With that, the young woman started on a winding journey to the farthest reaches of the Russian frontier, and eventually back to a life she thought was gone forever.

“I realized how awful it was to be a Jew in the USSR,” said Leidental, now 73 and a silver-haired grandmother.

“I promised myself that there wouldn’t be a single Jew in my family,” she said of the episode, without even a whisper of regret. “So I married a Russian.”

Today it’s difficult to imagine the boisterous Leidental, a fixture in Kamchatka’s tiny Jewish community, where people refer to her as “the mother of the Jews,” being anything but a proud matriarch.

Whether interrupting the community’s religious leader during a recent Passover seder, cracking bawdy jokes or doting over the constellation of children forever orbiting her like so many satellites, Leidental’s dominant but loving presence embodies the image of a Jewish grandmother.

Her strength, born of a lifetime that she describes as “a mixture of death and comedy,” came at a heavy price.

Born in Chernigov, Ukraine, in 1934 during the height of the Soviet-manufactured famine that killed as many as 4.8 million people, Leidental’s life was a lesson in hardship from the start.

“I was an unwanted child, and it was very difficult for my parents,” she said. “I knew that I was unwanted.”

When many of the family’s acquaintances fled Russia to settle in what was then British-ruled Palestine, Leidental’s father, the founder of a local Jewish theater and a devout communist, insisted that the family stay behind.

“He loved Russia so much,” she said of her father. “I inherited that from him.”

His decision would prove disastrous. Chernigov, 90 miles northeast of Kiev, was devastated during the Nazi invasion. Leidental, her parents and an older sister were evacuated by rail and spent the war bouncing around the USSR, from urban Stalingrad to the salt mines of Solovetsk.

While she remembers little anti-Semitism at the beginning of the war, by the end she sensed a change.

“People started blaming the Jews for what had happened,” she said.

Conditions deteriorated for Soviet Jews and Leidental’s family was stuck for five years in a tiny apartment, which her father attributed to official anti-Semitism.

Struck by the poverty around her and increasingly wary of being known as a Jew, Leidental decided at age 16 to study medicine in Moscow. She couldn’t make the grade, however, and opted to become a nurse.

Leidental survived on the free bread and salt set out on the tables in the local university cafeteria. She spent many nights in metro or railway stations to avoid returning to the apartment she shared with 14 people — among them drug addicts and criminals, Leidental said.

Despite the troubles, she recalls the period with mixed emotions.

“They were the best years of my life,” she said, “but also the worst.”

Out of fear and frustration, Leidental began telling people that her Jewish features, which she had grown to despise, were actually Armenian.

After graduation Leidental was posted to a military garrison in the Far Eastern city of Khabarovsk, in line with the Soviet practice of assigning new graduates to jobs in undesirable locations in return for having funded their higher education. After resisting the posting for a year, Leidental ultimately relented, thinking Khabarovsk was about as far as she could get from her Jewish past.

She hoped to find and marry a Russian man who would free her from history. There was a slight problem, however.

“My blond-haired, blue-eyed Russian husband was more Jewish than me,” said Leidental, laughing nostalgically at the memory of her husband, who died in 1972.

A sailor in the Red Fleet, he was a great admirer of the Jewish people, and his obstinate refusal to allow Leidental to denigrate her heritage slowly began to chip away at her. When she said she wanted a nose job, her husband said he wouldn’t let her back in the house if she got one. He read heavily about Jewish culture and history, and passed on the information to Leidental with pride.

“He loved me so dearly that I stopped considering myself ugly,” she said. “But at the same time, if people would ask me if I was Armenian, I would say yes.”

Over the next 40 years, that too would fade. After moving to Kamchatka in 1958, Leidental worked on the first modern ambulance crew in the rugged and isolated Far Eastern region, a job that accidentally brought her back to the Jewish community.

Shortly after the fall of the Soviet Union, Leidental’s crew received a call that would change her life. Unsure of the address, she stopped to ask for directions.

“The woman told me, ‘You don’t want the fifth floor, that’s where the Jewish community center is,’ ” Leidental recalls. “I couldn’t believe it. I didn’t know there was any Jewish community here.”

After several days of indecision, Leidental decided to visit the center, which was the regional office of the Jewish Agency for Israel. The Jewish Agency referred her to Tsafon, Petropavlovsk’s small but vital JCC, and she seems never to have left.

Leidental wryly describes her role in the community as akin to the traditional Russian “marriage general,” an honored guest invited to weddings to add an element of class. Indeed, there seems to be no community event to which she’s not invited, nor that she’d refuse.

For the Jewish girl from Ukraine, the one who attributes her recovery from cancer two years ago to a prayer for health on Purim and speaks again with fondness of the town of her youth, the journey is not yet complete. But the tone has changed.

“My attitude changed,” Leidental said, sitting on a weathered sofa in the Tsafon offices. “I’m very proud. Now when I open the door to a flat, the first thing I say is, ‘I’m a Jew!’ “

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