Religion Taken, Taken Back

“There’s this saying in Russia, ‘Where you are born, you’re good.’” Julia Nemirovskaya, a Russian and Eastern Studies Professor at the University of Oregon, looked down at her hands before smiling thoughtfully. “But I hope we’re good here too,” she says.

Nemirovskaya was born in 1962 to a Jewish father and a half-Jewish, half-Russian mother during the rule of the Soviet Union, when being openly religious meant persecution. Later, Nemirovskaya converted to Christianity after the death of her grandma; it was safer to be a Soviet Christian. Her father wasn’t comfortable with her conversion, but the safety of his family was persuasive.

“Of course, us being children of a Jewish father and half-Jewish mother, being Christian was awkward,” Nemirovskaya says. Along with that awkwardness was the fear in expressing her religious background.

“You couldn’t have a good job, like one that influenced people or a state job. They closed all universities for you. To be openly religious you would subject yourself to propaganda,” Nemirovskaya explains.

During the time after World War II, Nemirovskaya recounted that many Jews had abandoned their religion in order to embrace communism because it liberated Jews from the little villages they were forced to stay in under the old government. However, many still made the decision to migrate to Israel or the United States; but Nemirovskaya’s father, who ran away from home at age 14 to fight in WWII, stayed loyal to the state.

That loyalty was put to the test in 1948 during the height of the anti-Semitic campaign that Stalin started in response to a false accusation that Jewish doctors wanted to poison communist party officials. The plan was to eliminate the Jews by taking them on trains to Siberia, where angry mobs were supposed to destroy the trains and kill everyone on board. However, during the plan’s implementation, Stalin died.

“The Jews say he died on Purim,” Nemirovskaya says, referencing the Jewish holiday based upon the book of Esther when Esther saved the Jewish people from the villain Haman, who wanted to eliminate them. “That was a great celebration for all the Jews. Stalin was finally being punished for what he was doing to the Jewish population.”

Because of the campaign, Nemirovskaya’s father wasn’t accepted into Moscow State University, he instead began to gamble, drink, and have many female companions. It wasn’t until he married and Nemirovskaya and her sister were born that he changed his ways.

(Courtney Theim/Ethos)

“He wouldn’t fight anymore, he had fought in a lot of street fights,” she says. Her father had broken windows and been thrown into a river during some of his fights. “But once he had us, he became very conservative and didn’t fight that much. I think he never spoke against the government. He loved his job, he wanted us to learn English, and he wanted us to go to Moscow State University.”

Nemirovskaya’s father made a decision that would influence the rest of Nemirovskaya’s life. He presented her everywhere as Russian — not Jewish — because it would mean access to education. Eventually, she changed her maiden name from Salomonowitz, a Jewish name, to Simonowitz, an ethnically Russian name. To her, the change hurt. It was throwing away identity.

Although her father attempted to protect his daughters, there were times when Nemirovskaya couldn’t escape the anti-Semitism around her. it. At school, there was a weekly political information meeting.  It was at one where she learned a girl from her class, the daughter of Rabbi, was to be shamed the next day because her family tried to apply for Israeli citizenship. “Everyone had to say, ‘She is a traitor, she betrayed the Soviet government, her school, her comrades, and the goals of communism.’” It wasn’t the only anti-Semitic incident.

While studying folklore at college in 1980, the head of the admissions committee Professor Avramenko, gave her a job grading papers. She remembers one when she gave a student an A- on an assignment. The boy came back to appeal his grade. When she met with him and Avremenko, she learned that his grade had been changed to a C minus, which wasn’t passing.

“Avramenko took me out and shouted that I wasn’t allowed to interfere. That’s when it struck me that the boy might have been Jewish. I was so traumatized by that that I didn’t show up for the job again.” She tried to avoid the rest of the faculty and was afraid of seeing Avramenko again, especially after the head of her department was ostracized by the Party for “Christian propaganda.”

“We were living with the idea of pogrom. There comes that day when everybody says the pogrom will be today. A lot of Jews on the outside began to wear a cross, just to hide themselves, especially girls.” Nemirovskaya, pregnant at the time, began to wear a cross of her own.

Luckily, a pogrom never happened, yet persecution didn’t stop even when she took a Jewish husband.In 1988 and 1989 things only got worse. The USSR was beginning to to open up, which in principle should have been good. In reality, hidden tensions suddenly became opens wounds. Political parties began to speak out against the Jews. There was a plan to organize a pogrom, an organized massacre of Jews. Nemirovskaya and her family were always on high alert. Many people said that it was the KGB, the secretive Soviet state-security and spy agency, spreading the rumors of pogroms so tension would be drawn from the

Julia holding a menorah that rests next to her sink. (Courtney Theim/Ethos)

failing economy and government.

“Every morning there was ‘Jews go to Israel’ written on my door. And every morning I would get up early and wipe it off so my husband wouldn’t see it.” Even in experiencing the worst in people, Nemirovskaya makes the conscious effort to forgive everyone for their misgivings.

“For me it’s important. Every evening I’m trying to pray for everyone including Stalin and Hitler, because if I don’t pray for them, then who would?”

In 1988 Nemirovskaya and her husband left Russia for the first time to work in Sweden. Her father had just died, leaving her mother and sister with no means to survive. She recalls them eating only oatmeal three times a day. Nemirovskaya and her husband left her family and Russia  to make money, as well as take an adventure; they knew that Russia wasn’t going to stay open for long and they wanted to have a chance to experience Europe. Their seven-month-old son stayed with her husband’s family from Kiev while they were abroad.

A year later they returned. They planned on moving back to Sweden, this time with their son, but instead of traveling back, Nemirovskaya’s husband got an offer from a colleague to collaborate with him in Boston. They hoped to stay just nine months and then return to Russia, but in a month of their arrival, Nemirovskaya got word that there was a revolution back home.

“Tanks went into Moscow and my sister and her husband were with the crowds opposing the tanks. Gorbachev was removed and Yeltsin came in and the Soviet Union broke down completely. I was crying non-stop, I wanted to go back,” she says. “I was afraid for my sister and her husband. The Boston months were the worst months, to think that everybody is in the revolution over there and I can’t go back. My mom was like, ‘Stay there, stay there, please. If anything happens then you can be the people to help us.’ So, we stayed.”

After nine months in Boston, the collapse of the Soviet Union also led to the end of the institution Nemirovskaya’s husband was working at in Russia. Her mother kept telling them to stay in the United States, so her husband arranged to be a visiting professor and Nemirovskaya was also offered a job in the Russian department in Texas.

“We were there for nine months, I didn’t even have enough clothing for my son. We had one suitcase. He could only play with small toys because I didn’t want to carry the big toys in the suitcase,” she says.

After settling in the United States, Nemirovskaya turned her attention to convincing her family in Russia to move to the United States. Her sister was afraid to leave because of the Russian propaganda about the United States.

“The United States is really capitalist, like people only value money. And some people said that Christians are everywhere, and they tell you what to do because they’re the predominant religion, and that they are very extreme. Of course, I never experienced that here,” explains Nemirovskaya.

Despite their reluctance, all of Nemirovskaya’s family came to live in the United States. Nemirovskaya says that every year before her family moved over, she would ask her husband when they could move back to Moscow, but now that her family is in the United States with her, she feels settled.

Now that she and her husband are older and away from anti-Semitism, they have had the chance to do more soul searching and think about religion without fear of judgement. Still, Nemirovskaya doesn’t let that old fear taint her image of her home country, and goes back almost every year to visit. In addition, they both love Israel which they visit often.

“Jerusalem is my favorite city, I think in the air there is prayer of so many generations. It’s magic. You go there and there I felt like I had the most amazing religious experience. Anyone of any faiths should go and enjoy,” she says.

Julia reading a Russian children’s book to her youngest daughter, Polya. (Courtney Theim/Ethos)

Nemirovskaya didn’t go to church often, although when she grew older she felt she should be true to what she was baptized in. She even tried to convince her ethnically Jewish husband to convert, but he always responded simply with “I’m Jewish.” It wasn’t until later on in life that both her and her husband focused on religion, which Nemirovskaya believes came from all the things that they saw and experienced, such as when her five-year-old niece died of cancer.

“We went to this store and my niece who at that time was four,” recalls Nemirovskaya. “She came up to the shop owner and says, ‘Can you please sell me a cross? I want this for my Uncle.’ And my husband always said that he would never become Christian. But everyone still said, ‘Thank you, for your kindness, Katja,’ but then she started crying and said again that she needed to buy a cross for her uncle,” she says. When Katja passed away, he was baptized with that cross. “It was an incredible journey through Katja’s illness. We understood totally like completely that we belonged to that realm of religious people.”

As a mother, Nemirovskaya has opened religion up to her three children. In fact, she supports both Christianity and Judaism. When she and her husband wanted to adopt a child, they picked Ethiopia because Judaism and Christianity were both dominant religions there. For her, religion is an important part of her story, a part that she now has the freedom to fully embrace.

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