As Hanukkah passes and the New Year approaches, my thoughts drift back to Grandma Kima.
Kima Nemkovskaya wasn’t actually my grandmother — she was my grandpa’s cousin. But when my great-grandfather was executed and my great-grandmother was sent to the labor camp as part of Stalin’s late-1930s Great Purge, her mother took my grandpa and my great-uncle in. Grandma Kima became their honorary older sister, and it only seemed natural that their kids would call her “Aunty Kima” and their grandkids would call her “Grandma Kima.”
She was born on Jan. 1, and, by the time I was born, the entire family gathering in her apartment to celebrate it was a well-established tradition.
Growing up, I knew that Grandma Kima was Jewish, and so were some of my other distant relatives. But it didn’t seem to matter that much to me — at least until I came to United States.
In Chicago, much of the Russian-speaking diaspora was made up of Jews who fled Soviet state-sanctioned antisemitism. If you spoke Russian, you were almost assumed as being a Russian Jew until proven otherwise.
For the first time in my life, my Jewish roots were an asset, a way to bond. And immigrants I talked to were asking questions I never thought to ask as a kid. If your grandma’s cousin was Jewish, wouldn’t that make your great-grandma Jewish? And, if your great grandma is Jewish, wouldn’t that make your grandpa and your great-uncle Jewish?
My Jewish roots suddenly didn’t feel so distant after all.
As I went to college, I started filling in the gaps. The publication of my great-uncle’s book about my great-grandmother, which traced the family history back several generations, helped to put a few things in place, and so did some conversations with my relatives.
I learned about my great-great-grandparents surviving pogroms in what is now Ukraine. I learned how, when my grandfather and great-uncle were released from their own imprisonment in a labor camp, their grandmother told them that, when they got their identification papers back, those papers better say that they were ethnically Russian.
I learned how, in spite of that, my mom ran up against the quota system that limited college admissions to a small number of Jews and “halfies” like her. She got admitted, but many of her Jewish friends didn’t, and she could only swallow her anger and watch.
But what really brought it all into sharp relief was when my Jewish relatives died, one by one, of natural causes. When Grandma Kima died 10 years ago, I realized that I had no idea what was the right way, the proper Jewish way, to mourn her. When my great-uncle, then my grandpa, died, I was left with the questions I never got to ask, the things I never got to learn.
There are plenty of Russian-speaking Jews all over the world, even here in Oak Park, who don’t know much about Judaism, who may not follow many Jewish cultural traditions, but who are still haunted by the world’s oldest hatred.
To me, the ritual of lighting the menorah is ultimately a symbol of perseverance in the face of oppression. And it reminds me of how, even though Grandma Kima never talked to me about Judaism or being Jewish, she used to make me challah bread. I didn’t understand the cultural significance as a kid, but it was special to me because it was her bread, and she was the only one who made it.
In spite of everything, a little piece of my Jewish heritage got passed down to me.
A little ray of light in the oppressive darkness.