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At the Knesset, a candle for the Russian Jews

Sue Fishkoff -- not Sonia Pitchkopf ( Erika Gosser)

Sue Fishkoff — not Sonia Pitchkopf ( Erika Gosser)

The author after a day's work at the kibbutz gas station, August 1982.  (Courtesy of Sue Fishkoff)

The author after a day’s work at the kibbutz gas station, August 1982. (Courtesy of Sue Fishkoff)

SAN FRANCISCO (JTA) — It was December 1982, and my kibbutz ulpan had just been invited to light the Chanukah menorah for the Israeli Knesset.

The Israeli army was deep in the heart of Lebanon, the Cold War was raging, talks with the PLO were years away, and Israel was feeling both isolated and feisty. Freedom from oppression was the theme for that year’s holiday, and my six-month work-study ulpan program had been chosen for this annual honor because we had so many students from countries where Jews were being oppressed.

There was 18-year-old Ahuva, from Aleppo, whose jaw had been broken by Syrian border guards when she was caught during her first escape attempt. She made it out the second time — on foot.

There was 19-year-old Daoud, now David, and his twin brother, Ofer, who grew up Muslim in Beirut and only learned they were Jewish that summer, when their Israeli-born mother revealed her heritage, divorced her Lebanese husband and dragged the twins to Israel as its army poured across their border.

We had the three French boys in the class: Charlie from Morocco, Michel representing Tunisia, and Didier, whose parents were Algerian.

There was a student from Iran who fled after the fall of the shah three years earlier. Another student claimed Egyptian ancestry — good enough for the Knesset — and one young man from Glasgow also would light a candle, presumably in the name of Scottish independence.

I might argue that the student from Paris who refused in class to use the Hebrew word "olah," or "ascend," to describe her move to Israel, on the grounds that any departure from Paris could only be a descent, also was living under oppression. She just didn’t know it.

The only thing we were missing was a student from the Soviet Union. The Iron Curtain had shut tight in 1980, few new immigrants were arriving and we were some years away from the great exodus of the early 1990s. Not a single Boris or Natasha to add to the mix.

Then I let slip that I spoke Russian. And my grandparents were from Ukraine — sure, they arrived in 1906 and 1912, but our ulpan teacher was eager to seize upon any connection, however tangential, to clinch that Knesset deal.

She renamed me Sonia Pitchkopf and instructed me to prepare a short speech to deliver, in Russian-accented Hebrew, as I lit my candle.

After the laughter died down in class, I realized the enormity of what I had signed on for. This was no Purimspiel. This was the Parliament of the Jewish state, and here I was, tasked with pulling a fast one over on men and women, some of whom certainly spoke Russian, or at least were capable of sniffing out a ruse of this magnitude.

As I began writing my speech, I thought back to my first trip to the USSR. My Russian class from Cornell landed in Leningrad on Dec. 31, 1975, and as so often happened with Jewish visitors from the West in those years, I found myself in a Jewish apartment within hours of my arrival, plucked out of the crowd by a young Jewish member of the Komsomol group sent to greet us.

The table was spread with a lavish repast — mushrooms in cream sauce, pickled vegetables, carrot salad, all kinds of smoked fish. I learned later how long the family had scrimped to put together that holiday meal.

People crowded around me, eager to ask questions about America. Was there really so much street crime? What did people think of the pullout from Vietnam? Had I ever been to Israel? I had stars in my eyes, so excited was I to be in the forbidden land of Cossacks and Bolsheviks, the center of such rapt attention.

Then two young men dragged out a book and thrust it into my lap. It was an English-language edition of the Encyclopedia Judaica they had opened to the page on Chanukah. One of them pointed to a drawing of the nine-branched Chanukiyah and asked me to explain its use.

Thinking he was joking, I smiled. These were university educated people. This was the 20th century. He had to be pulling my leg.

He wasn’t. And I’ll always remember my shock and sadness as I realized it.

So here I was, on my Israeli kibbutz, purporting to masquerade as people whose pain and isolation were so very real? I couldn’t do it. I wouldn’t.

My ulpan lit the Chanukah candles that year on the floor of the Knesset building in Jerusalem. And when my turn came, I was Sue Fishkoff, not Sonia Pitchkopf. And I lit in the name of my own grandparents, free in America, and in the name of the five young men I had met that night in Leningrad.

Two of them already were living in New Jersey. The others were still in Leningrad, now St. Petersburg, as late as 1996, the last time I visited them.

And my uIpan friends called me Pitchkopf for the rest of the year.

 

 

 

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