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From 72 kopeks to a Starbucks card

As a child growing up in Soviet Ukraine, my grandmother gave me 72 kopeks each fall that she called Chanukah gelt.

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Eight months after their own arrival to Chicago, the Shklyanoys—Bena and Michail and daughters Polina and Emily, and Michail’s mother Shifra Zivotovskaya (center) are joined by Bena’s parents, Avram (far left) and Rakhil (far right.) Photo credit: Chicago Tribune photo by Karen Engstrom.

As a child growing up in Soviet Ukraine, my grandmother gave me 72 kopeks each fall that she called Chanukah gelt. The number had to divide by 18, she said. I asked why by 18 and what was Chanukah but had to be satisfied with "what you don't know won't harm you." Translation: "what you don't know you won't blab about to strangers and get us all into trouble for being religious."

I knew, without being told, not to mention this gift outside the family. Or the day when adults fasted then we dipped apple in honey before dinner. Or the week in the spring when my grandmother ate flatbread called matzoh brought in a pillowcase by a landsman. Or her refusal to do anything on Saturday, even fix the hem of my dress.

Our secret customs had to do with being Jewish. Most families did not follow them even secretly but it didn't matter. Our passports announced "Nationality-Jewish" anyway, so we needed no customs.

As I grew into adulthood, my parents carried on the tradition, giving my daughter 72 kopeks accompanied by "what you don't know won't harm you." In the spring, my retirement-age father officially ordered matzoh at the back of the only Kyiv synagogue -- times were liberal. Of course, he did not actually enter the synagogue for fear that his grandchildren would be expelled from school or that I would lose my job. He carried the matzoh in pillow cases hidden in suitcases. In front of my daughter we called it flatbread.

Shortly before we emigrated in 1976, our daughter, a first-grader, witnessed an ambush on a boy for "being Jewish," in her words. She approved -- what she didn't know already harmed her. Apparently, we had not mentioned her Jewish "nationality" to her yet; neither did her name or appearance advertise it. Had she been a boy, she might have joined the bullies. We waited to tell her until we were on the train to Vienna.

Vienna -- our first taste of life outside Soviet Ukraine. A flower shop at the train station -- who'd ever heard of such a thing? -- a flower shop run by a lady in a clean apron! Milk available after eight in the morning! Sales people saying thank you! -- if that was not a sign of another planet I didn't know what was.

HIAS representatives greeted us as we stepped off the train. HIAS, ORT, the American Jewish Committee, the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago, many synagogues anticipated our needs and matched us with volunteers to help us adjust. Welcome signs saying "Save Soviet Jews" and "Never again is now" made us feel grateful and lucky. There were about 500 of us in Chicago when we arrived. My parents, a few months later, were the one-thousandth. Their arrival was captured on the cover of the Chicago Tribune.

Adjustment and culture shock ensued. Some things were easier than others: toilet paper in public bathrooms, policemen not expecting bribes, shopping carts. It took longer to get used to bar and bat mitzvahs and the idea that "Jewish" was a religion, full of beliefs and traditions, and not just a nationality stamped on a passport. Americans eventually accepted that the Soviet Union provided refrigerators and running water and valued professionals the least. But the concept of communal apartments remained elusive.

Once enrolled at a Jewish school, I packed pork chops in my daughter's school lunch. Kosher? How do you spell it? (Aha, stomachache was not the true reason behind my grandmother's rule to avoid milk after meat!) My friend's Orthodox volunteers escorted her out for bringing over her signature meal of borsht with sour cream. A rabbi reprimanded a man with a surname Kogan (Russian for Cohen) who didn't know the significance of his name. Invited to a proper seder, we insulted the hosts with our ignorance of the afikomen. A synagogue sisterhood complained that the new arrivals flaunted their graduate degrees, knew nothing about the Jewish holidays, and had probably never belonged to a temple. I didn't understand the expression "to belong to a temple" but it struck me that had we not been afraid of attending a temple we would not have required saving.

Here we are, almost 40 years later, having reclaimed the religious meaning behind practices of my ancestors in USSR, and learned to understand new ones. The tradition continues. We spend Yom Kippur in the temple, and then get together to break the fast. We celebrate bar and bat mitzvahs and dance the hora at weddings.

While little, our children and grandchildren receive toys on Chanukah. Their gift of choice lately is Starbucks cards -- any amount would do but from me it comes in increments of 18.


Bena Shklyanoy and her family were the one-thousandth immigrants to arrive in Chicago with help from HIAS Chicago in 1976. Bena's family story starts in 1852 in the Kiev region. It spans two world wars, the Bolshevik Revolution, annihilated shtetls, the Holocaust, the Soviet empire (rise and decline), and the 1970s large scale immigration of Soviet Jews to the U.S. Read Shklyanoy's story and share your story at

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