From fear to tears of joy: Russian emigres rediscover their Jewish heritage Family to celebrate its 2nd Yom Kippur

September 24, 1993|By Alisa Samuels | Alisa Samuels,Staff Writer

Synagogues usually are inviting places for worship, but in Volgogradskoye, a suburb of Moscow, Polina Lotkin and her family were afraid to visit them before communism crumbled.

Police often grabbed Jews outside the synagogues and hauled them in for no reason, the Columbia resident and Russian emigre recalled.

"We were scared to go there," she said. "It wasn't illegal" to visit synagogues, she said. "We could go, but it was scary."

Those memories will be especially poignant tomorrow, as Mrs. Lotkin and her family observe Yom Kippur at the Orthodox Lubavitch Center for Jewish Education in Columbia.

It will be the family's second observance of the Jewish holiday and the first time the entire family has fasted. Last year, only her Orthodox son, Michial, and her husband, Gennadiy, abstained from food.

"The first time, we felt very excited," the woman said in her Long Reach apartment this week. "I even cried; I had tears."

Yom Kippur, which begins at sundown tonight, is the Jewish Day of Atonement, the most sacred day in the Jewish calendar. It is marked by 24 hours of prayer and fasting.

Such traditional religious observances have special meaning for the Lotkins, who left Russia Aug. 16, 1992, to escape anti-Semitism and to take pride in their Jewish identities.

They came to Columbia with $400, a few suitcases, photographs, dishes, soap and detergent. With the help of the Beth Shalom and Lubavitch Center congregations in Columbia, and other local Jewish organizations, they have obtained housing, jobs, furniture, clothes and transportation.

They live in a modest, two-bedroom apartment filled with donated furniture. Mrs. Lotkin is a day care teacher's assistant, and Mr. Lotkin assembles electrical parts.

Michial, 17, who worked this summer to raise money for his kosher food, and his sister, Victoria, 11, attend separate Jewish schools in Montgomery County.

In Russia, they all lived in a three-room apartment -- a big improvement from the one they had shared with two families.

They commonly had to stand in long lines for food and worked hard to make ends meet.

But it was cultural differences that made their lives especially painful. The estimated 1.2 million Jews were blamed for everything, Mrs. Lotkin said.

"The theme in Russia was 'Russia for Russian people. All other nationalities go away -- especially Jews,' " she said.

To avoid humiliation, she often made up last names that disguised the family's Jewish identity. But Michial couldn't escape humiliation at school, where non-Jewish students called him names and spat on his plate.

"He came home every day in tears and said, 'I'm not going back,' " Mrs. Lotkin said.

After being spotted at a synagogue during the Communist era, Mr. Lotkin lost his mechanical engineer's position at a plant and was given a lower-paying job. That incident prompted him to begin the grueling process that led to emigration, his wife said.

"This fear was inside. . . . We couldn't get rid of it," she said. %% "Because we were Jews, we were scared to death to live there, especially for our children."

Then, in 1991, while still in Russia, the Lotkins' sense of their Jewish heritage began to change. Michial attended a new Jewish boys' high school and became an Orthodox Jew. He taught his family about the Sabbath, the Torah and other traditions.

"We learned about the Jewish holidays," Mrs. Lotkin said. "Our family didn't know about our tradition. We had no idea."

Though they had celebrated New Year's Day and the other Russian national holidays, "we didn't celebrate Yom Kippur."

Once in the United States, the family's adjustment was smoothed by friends and relatives, including Mrs. Lotkin's brother, who left Russia for similar reasons in 1991 and became their sponsor.

Mrs. Lotkin's parents emigrated with the family and now live in a low-income apartment for senior citizens in Owen Brown.

"I expected it to be much worse the first year," Mrs. Lotkin said. "It was really hard, but not so bad because we had a lot of people helping us.

And in the United States, she said, "we feel we're respected like everybody else."

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