The Most Unforgettable Gift


A mother helps her daughter “adopt” a Russian Jewish girl for her bat mitzvah.

by Helen Wiseman

The excerpt below is reprinted with permission from Today I Am a Woman: Bat Mitzvah Around the World (Indiana University Press, forthcoming).

1987: The following year was to be our only daughter’s bat mitzvah. She had already started the classes that would prepare her for that special day. At that time in Glasgow, there was a thriving group of advocates for Soviet Jewry. They asked our family to “adopt” a Jewish Russian family who had a daughter of a similar age. Due to the political situation, this young girl would not be able to have a bat mitzvah ceremony of her own.

Together with our daughter Nikki, we sat down to write a brief introductory letter to send to the address we had been given. Several weeks later, much to our surprise and joy, an airmail letter arrived from Leningrad, now St. Petersburg. A Russian-speaking friend was able to translate it for us.

It turned out that we were one of the few families who kept up a correspondence for the whole of that year. I don’t think we received all the letters they ever sent us, but among the ones we did receive were some with photos of Irena and her family. As much as Nikki learned at her bat mitzvah classes, we all learned from those letters. Mum and dad were Refuseniks who had lost their jobs. Money was scarce, life was hard, and morale was pretty low. We learned what life was like for a highly intelligent and skilled Jewish couple and their two children in Russia.

As the months leading up to Nikki’s bat mitzvah sped by, her dad and I wondered what we could do to make this bat mitzvah a really meaningful one for everyone. What do you give a 12 year old girl who has books, clothes, jewelry, and stereos?

On the day of her bat mitzvah, Irena’s photo, which we had enlarged to almost life size, was on the back wall of the shul just behind where Nikki stood. During the moving ceremony, Irena was referred to many times. A tea party with family and close friends followed.

That evening after everyone had gone home, we sat Nikki down. We told her that we were now ready to share with her what our bat mitzvah gift to her was. “In three days time, you are coming with us to Leningrad for a week to see Irena.” Of course we were not allowed to let the family know of our visit, as it could put them into even more danger from the authorities. (We also intended to visit other Refusenik families and were secretly taking in medicines, syringes, clothes, kosher food, and stereos.)

I can’t say it was easy moving around Leningrad, nor was it easy to find the flat where Irena and her family lived. We were watched nearly all the time. However, the meeting finally took place at their home. Nikki spoke no Russian, and Irena spoke no English. But both had been learning German at school for a few months. That was their common language at first. Two hours later, they had developed their own language, that of teenage young ladies, and it was amazing to see how many traits they had in common. We met twice more, and each time the bond between the girls grew. Before we left, we gave Irena gifts we had brought. Her favourite was a walkman with a tape recording of the entire bat mitzvah ceremony held in Glasgow the previous week, together with many photos.

We returned to Glasgow, pensive and feeling that there had been a change in each of us because of our experiences there. Nikki was asked by many groups to give an account of her trip. I went along to one of them to hear what she would say. She ended her presentation by saying, “If my grandpa had not been able to get out of Poland when he did, and my great-grandma on the other side of the family hadn’t left Lithuania when she did, I might have been an Irena, too, and been locked into a country where I wasn’t free to celebrate my Jewishness.” When I heard that, I said to myself with tears of pride, “My Nikki has not just grown in height over the past months, but she has grown in strength of character and in an appreciation of her special cultural inheritance.”

The letters continued for another year and then stopped, until December 1990, when a letter arrived, in a familiar handwriting but with the postmark “Haifa.” Irena’s family had arrived at an absorption centre in Israel. Within two months, we had a new common language—Hebrew.

Six months after Irena’s family arrived in Israel, they paid their first visit to the Kotel (Western Wall). That was to join our family in celebrating the bar mitzvah of Nikki’s younger brother. It was a joyous reunion and one we would never have dreamed of three years before. The circle was complete when, the following year, Irena came to Glasgow to spend the whole summer with Nikki.

Irena is now called Irit, has served in the Israeli army, and is more like a Sabra than anything else. Her parents have good jobs at the Technion in Haifa. Nikki herself also lives in Israel, and next year is marrying a delightful Israeli young man. We never know what wonderful moments life holds in store for us, do we?

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