Choosing to become American

Choosing to become American

Three local Jews tell about leaving their homelands and joining us officially

From left, Alberto Baruch Zeilicovich, his brother, and his mother pose for a bar mitzvah photo in 1963; From left, siblings Innessa, Iosif, and Margarita Fatakhov, not long before they left Uzbekistan; Andi Jacobson Lewittes
From left, Alberto Baruch Zeilicovich, his brother, and his mother pose for a bar mitzvah photo in 1963; From left, siblings Innessa, Iosif, and Margarita Fatakhov, not long before they left Uzbekistan; Andi Jacobson Lewittes

Think about the process of conversion to become Jewish. A person who is born into one thing — one identity, one way of thinking, one state of being — becomes something else. In a way, that person becomes someone else, although, of course, his or her history has evolved. In some senses the change is radical; in other senses it’s purely cumulative. Some things are assumed, some things are shed, some things remain.

Think, now, about the process of nationalization to become American. A person who is born into one thing — one identity, one way of thinking, one state of being — becomes something else.

Of course, this is a parallel that can be overstated, but those two narratives of change, of leaving behind, and of taking on have much in common, as these three stories — three among so very many! — show us.

Rabbi Alberto Baruch Zeilicovich 

Rabbi Alberto Baruch Zeilicovich, who leads Temple Beth Sholom of Fair Lawn, was born in Buenos Aires in 1950. “My daddy, Miguel, arrived from the Ukraine — it was the Soviet Union then — when he was three months old, in 1927,” Rabbi Zeilicovich said. “My mother, Clara Goldfeder, was born in Argentina; her parents emigrated to Argentina before the Second World War.

“It wasn’t easy growing up Jewish in Argentina,” he said. “There was a lot of anti-Semitic sentiment. At the time, Argentina had one of the biggest new Nazi groups in all of Latin America. I remember them vividly; groups like Tacuara” — a neo-Nazi nationalist youth movement that was notorious for its violence, including torturing Jewish students, until it eventually went too far and petered out in the 1970s — “attacked synagogues, attacked Jews, and killed a Jewish high school student.

“I used to go to school with a chain in my pocket, just in case, and from time to time I had to fight.”

In his office at Temple Beth Sholom of Fair Lawn, Rabbi Alberto Baruch Zeilicovich holds an American eagle the Fort Worth branch of the Jewish War Veterans gave him when he and his family became citizens.
In his office at Temple Beth Sholom of Fair Lawn, Rabbi Alberto Baruch Zeilicovich holds an American eagle the Fort Worth branch of the Jewish War Veterans gave him when he and his family became citizens.

There was a not-tiny Jewish population in Argentina then. “In 1960 there was a census, and over half a million people said that they were Jewish,” out of a population of about 30 million, Rabbi Zeilicovich said.

“The Jewish community in Argentina was steeped in cultural Judaism, national Judaism, and Zionism more than in religion,” he continued. “Being a young Jew in Argentina during the 1960s meant that you belonged to a Zionist movement. Many of them — we called them socialist Zionists — made aliyah to the kibbutzim. And even in 2000, 2001, when there was the huge economic crisis in Argentina, many Jews immigrated to Israel. It wasn’t only because Israel facilitated the immigration, but also because the motto was ‘I’m not going to leave the diaspora to go to another diaspora. I’d rather go home.’”

The community, which kept to itself as much as it could, offered its children a strong Jewish education. There were day schools; and “we had Hebrew school during the entire week, and all Hebrew studies were no less than 20 hours a week, and all in Hebrew,” Rabbi Zeilicovich said. “Hebrew is my second language, and it’s ten times better than my English.” (Rabbi Zeilicovich’s English is accented but otherwise nearly flawless.)

Rabbi Zeilicovich graduated from high school, studied in Argentina for a year and in Israel for another year, and was certified as a Jewish educator. Young men were mandated to serve in the armed forces for a year, and Rabbi Zeilicovich did his service in the air force, while studying psychology at the University of Buenos Aires. “Then the junta came and closed the school of psychology, the school of sociology, the school of anthropology, and the school of philosophy. Their suspicion was that we were all communists. We were all subversives.”

Young Alberto Zeilicovich rides his bike in Buenos Aires.
Young Alberto Zeilicovich rides his bike in Buenos Aires.

The junta, or military dictatorship, which in 1976 overthrew Isabel Peron, the widow of Juan and the successor as his wife to the enshrined-in-musical-theater-history Evita, ruled Argentina until 1983. It was a hard time for most Argentines, but particularly for the country’s Jews. “I fled the country for a year in 1978, when people started to disappear,” Rabbi Zeilicovich said. He went to Brazil. “Jews disappeared disproportionately, and they were tortured disproportionately,” he said. “Remember, this is a country where anti-Semitism is very present.

“Argentina is the only country in the world where an Israeli embassy was blown to the ground — that was in 1992 — and two years later the Amia building — Amia is similar to the Jewish federation, the umbrella group that managed Jewish cemeteries, schools, and other institutions — was blown to the ground,” he continued. “There were 85 dead and 300 wounded, and until today nobody has been held responsible. When Alberto Nisman” — the federal prosecutor who began to look into the bombing years later, and who was Jewish — “was expected to talk to the Argentine congress about his investigations on Monday morning, conveniently his suicide was Sunday night.”

When he returned from Brazil, Rabbi Zeilicovich worked as a director of education in a Jewish community deep in the countryside, at a prudent distance from Buenos Aires. It was there that he met Graciela Vainstein, who later became his wife. “She is the descendant of Jewish gauchos, and the fifth generation of her family in Argentina,” he said. They married in 1982, returned to Buenos Aires, and he entered rabbinical school.

Alberto and Graciela Zeilicovich on their wedding day.
Alberto and Graciela Zeilicovich on their wedding day.

This is the story of Rabbi Zeilicovich, not of Argentine Jews, but it is necessary to add that the magnetic pull he felt to Judaism not only as a culture but as a religion was a result of the charismatic Rabbi Marshall Meyer, the New York-born, Connecticut-raised, Abraham-Joshua-Heschel-influenced, opera-loving Conservative rabbi whose time in Argentina coincided with the junta. Rabbi Meyer took the relative freedom his American citizenship gave him, along with the courage that must have been inborn, to stand up to the junta. “He said that to be a rabbi you have to have the Torah in one hand and the New York Times in the other,” Rabbi Zeilicovich said. What he meant was that it is necessary for rabbis to know what is going on in the world, and to respond to it. “You can be involved in the larger society, and practice tikkun olam for everybody,” Rabbi Zeilicovich said.

Rabbi Meyer led an influential synagogue, Communidad Bet El, in Buenos Aires, and he also founded the Seminario Rabínico Latinoamericano, which provided Conservative rabbis with their first two years of schooling. Rabbi Zeilicovich finished his studies and was ordained at the Schechter Institute in Jerusalem.

And then he, his wife, and their two young children, Daniel, now 26, and Ruth, now 24, went from the frying pan of Argentina to what soon became the fire. He took a pulpit in Medellin, Colombia, which soon became the headquarters of Pablo Escobar’s drug cartel. Rabbi Zeilicovich tells stories of how dead bodies were left in ways that conveyed messages (bound hands and a bullet to the head meant that the police did it; a body riddled with holes was the work of Escobar’s guys). The family stayed there for six years, but it is an understatement to say that it was not a place to raise children. Soon the Zeilicoviches made their way to Puerto Rico, and after three years at a shul there, when the children were old enough to need a bigger Jewish community, to Fort Worth, Texas.

“We were in Fort Worth for 11 years, and I think I was the first rabbi to become president of a Rotary Club in the state of Texas,” he said.

In 2004, all four Zeilicoviches became American citizens. “It was really very touching,” Rabbi Zeilicovich said. “I think that many American Jews take it for granted, but they don’t realize what it means to live in a place where for the first time in 20 centuries we can be who we want to be.

“We have some power in the Congress now, in the Senate, some power in the government, so it’s easy to forget that for 2,000 years we lived in a cruel diaspora, and we were powerless there.”

The experience of becoming nationalized was emotional. “They put us in a stadium, and there were people from all over the world, every country you can think of. And then my Jewish community threw us a party with a band.

“I make a distinction between citizenship and nationality,” he continued. “My nationality is Jewish. My citizenship is American and my citizenship is Argentinean.

“I am a citizen of this country, and I feel blessed to be a citizen. Because this country, after Israel, is the only country in the world where Jews have more rights than any place else. Period.

Much of Rabbi Zeilicovich’s family is in Israel; his brother made aliyah decades ago. His mother, who had been widowed, made a new life for herself in Israel when she was 78 years old. Rabbi Zeilicovich toys with the idea of moving to Israel once he retires, but as a Conservative rabbi, ironically he is far freer to practice Judaism as he chooses here than he would be there.

“This is the only country other than Israel where you can have both. You can be a successful citizen while continuing to be a committed Jew,” he said. “After I became a citizen, something changed emotionally because you know that you belong to the most powerful country in the world.

“It is a really shining light of democracy and freedom.”

Innessa Fatakhov

Innessa Fatakhov with her son, Alan.
Innessa Fatakhov with her son, Alan.

Innessa Fatakhov of Fair Lawn was born in 1980, and she was 11 when she came to the United States with her parents, her older sister, her younger brother, and her grandmother. That’s young enough to grow up as an American but old enough to remember where she came from.

The Fatakhovs came from Uzbekistan in the former Soviet Union. Three of her grandparents were from Uzbekistan — they were Bukharian Jews; her paternal grandmother was from Ukraine. There were many Jews in Uzbekistan, but the community was fairly insular. “We spoke Russian, and there’s a version of a Sephardic language, Bukharian, that my parents spoke — we kids didn’t,” she said. “We didn’t speak Uzbek at home. We weren’t really considered Uzbeks, because we were Jewish.”

The dispassionate sense of not belonging went both ways.

There was a trickle of Jewish immigration to Israel beginning in the early 1980s, and “anyone who could leave then did,” she said. “We weren’t ready then, and in the late ’80s immigration was closed, so we couldn’t leave.”

Ms. Fatakhov’s mother, Blor Maya, was the head obstetric nurse at the one hospital in Kokand, the small city where they lived, and her father, Boris, managed a factory there. The family was prosperous. “We had a huge house. My mom had the kind of job where there was a lot of money under the table. People would pass money and say, ‘Please be sure to take care of my wife.’”

So leaving was hard — and then it was impossible.

Her parents prepared for the time when things would change, though. “You were allowed I believe it was 12 huge containers, that could be shipped to you in America. For a few years, they were just getting the containers ready. I remember them being in the house. And then, as soon as immigration opened up again, we were ready.”

That happened in 1991, with the breakup of the Soviet Union. “Jews weren’t welcomed anymore, and so a lot of Jews who had positions of authority had a hard time keeping their jobs,” Ms. Fatakhov said. “They were forced to step down. It wasn’t that they were encouraged to step down; they were forced to do it.”

The next question was where to go. Some family members had left with the earlier wave of immigration. “My mom’s family went to Israel, and my uncle went to America,” she said. He moved to Forest Hills, in Queens, which is at the center of a Bukharian community. (If you want to sample Bukharian food, just trying wandering on Queens Boulevard.) “He said that if we came here, and we brought money, we could open a jewelry store, so we came here because work was kind of guaranteed for my father, and my mother could get her medical degree back.

“She did go back to school, but she no longer delivers babies. Now she works in a hospital as a technician in a pathology lab.”

Was she sad to leave? “Yes and no,” Ms. Fatakhov said. “All the kids who already had left used to write letters to the teacher — letters on paper! — and the teachers would bring them to the class and read them out loud. The kids talked about their lives here. Most of them ended up in Forest Hills, and I was looking forward to reconnecting with them.

“And of course it was exciting, the idea of a new life. Our parents presented it to us like it was heaven here.”

The family flew through Moscow, but they didn’t get to see much of it; Ms. Fatakhov isn’t sure if that was her first plane trip — the family might have gone on a vacation to the Black Sea by air — but she doesn’t remember much about any of it.

“When we got here, we went straight to Forest Hills, and stayed with my uncle for about three weeks, and then they found us a two-bedroom apartment. One of the bedrooms was huge, so all three of us kids and our grandma shared it. There was a bed in each one of the four corners.”

The children went to public school — Margarita, who was 14, went to high school, Innessa, 11, to middle school, and Iosef, “who doesn’t remember anything about Uzbekistan and hardly speaks Russian,” went to elementary school.

“The first years were very tough,” Ms. Fatakhov said. “There were a lot of immigrant kids, particularly from Uzbekistan. The culture was very different.

“There were kids from Moscow and Ukraine and Belarus, and from all over the former Soviet Union, and from a lot of other places. Forest Hills was very diverse, for sure, but about 50 percent were Russian, and most of the Russians were Jewish.

“There were different hygiene standards. We didn’t shower every day, and we washed our hair once a week. To everyone else, the kids from Uzbekistan smelled. So every day in homeroom, they would give us a bar of soap and shampoo. It was very embarrassing. The kids were all together, and no one gave the American kids a bar of soap every day.

The extended Fatakhov family gathers for Thanksgiving in Forest Hills. In tribute to their dinner, they wear turkey legs — a new family tradition.
The extended Fatakhov family gathers for Thanksgiving in Forest Hills. In tribute to their dinner, they wear turkey legs — a new family tradition.

“My mother was very old school. She’d say that your hair gets more oily if you wash it every day, but I didn’t care.

“They would give me the soap, and I would say, ‘I showered this morning, I don’t need it,’ but they would give it to me anyway.”

It wasn’t all bad, though. “The school had Russian-speaking women sit with every three or four kids in every classroom that first year.”

After 10 years with green cards, the family all became naturalized. “I was old enough to take the test on my own,” Ms. Fatakhov said. “We all studied together. Not my brother, he was too young to have to, and my grandmother was too old. She couldn’t learn the language.

“We all questioned each other at home. We were all really nervous — particularly my dad, because his English still wasn’t very good — and then we all did well. We celebrated. We found out the results right away, and then we became citizens right away.”

When she became a citizen, Ms. Fatakhov changed her name, albeit slightly. She had been born Inna Fatakhova, “and it wasn’t until I came to America that I found out that Inna was short for Innessa,” which she thinks is much prettier. And she de-gendered her last name, taking away the final “a” that told Russians that its bearer is a woman.

She didn’t feel very different once she became a citizen, Ms. Fatakhov said. “Our lives had already evolved so much that it really didn’t make a difference. Having a green card allows you to do everything you want to do anyway, except vote.”

Ms. Fatakhov earned a computer science degree at St. John’s University and now works as a business analyst. She has a 10-year-old son, Alan, who goes to school in Fair Lawn. They’re not particularly affiliated with the Jewish community, but Shabbat dinner at her parents’ house is a constant in their lives. “My mother always made sure that we would sit down as a family, with all the kids, significant others, and grandkids,” she said.

“Being an American, with all the rights we have, it’s great. It was a great challenge to my parents, going through immigration — I’m surprised they’re still married! — but they were able to get back on their feet and build a good life here. We all got good educations, and knock on wood, we all do very well here.”

Andi Lewittes

Andi Jacobson Lewittes of Closter had a idyllic childhood — except for the base of human misery it was built on, a base she knew nothing about for many years. When she found out, of course, everything changed.

That’s a roundabout way of saying that Ms. Lewittes, who now is the director of the leadership network at the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey, was born in Johannesburg, South Africa, in 1962, when apartheid was flourishing.

Andi, right with her daughters, Farrah, left, and Tamar.
Andi, right with her daughters, Farrah, left, and Tamar.

Her parents, Mavis and Sidney, also were born in South Africa; Ms. Lewittes knows that her father’s mother was British and her other three grandparents were from Lithuania, but she knows little more about their stories.

“We” — that would be Andi and her sister, Elyse, who died of breast cancer in 2007 — “had wonderful childhoods. We thought that we lived in a beautiful country — and aesthetically it is beautiful — and we had domestics helping us. We all turned a blind eye to the terrible situation for black people.

“The Jewish community was very, very strong, very tight,” she continued. “It was really successful. It was made up of three groups of people. One group was really fighting for freedom and against apartheid; they joined some of the underground movements, and a lot of them were jailed or imprisoned. Then there was the group who supported the nationalist party, the one in power, because it protected their interests. And then there were a lot of Jews who felt that the situation was wrong, but did nothing about it. People had very very good lives — and in fact, the Jewish community was the most affluent one in the country.

“It was a ridiculous situation. This didn’t happen in my family, but in some families you would have domestic workers who were really part of the family, looked after the kids from morning until night, bathed the kids, fed the kids, loved the kids, the parents had no problem leaving their kids with them — but they locked up their cupboards, lest they take an extra cup of sugar.”

Domestic workers had to have special passbooks that allowed them into the white neighborhoods that otherwise would have been off limits to them. Often the police would raid domestics’ living quarters at night to round up and take away the relatives who snuck in to visit them. “I remember that — they’d come to take them away in vans with bars on the back window,” she said. Ms. Lewittes doesn’t remember any such police raids at her house, she said, but their domestics lived in a separate building, at the back of their garden, and recently her mother told her that there had been at least one such raid on their property. “It was really terrible,” she said.

The public school system was “absolutely fantastic,” Ms. Lewittes continued; that’s where she was educated. “When I turned 18 and finished high school, I went to the University of Witwatersrand.

Andi, her sister Elyse, and their nanny, Mary, on vacation.
Andi, her sister Elyse, and their nanny, Mary, on vacation.

“The country had something like 3 million whites and 8 million blacks. Everything was segregated, and lots of the blacks were not educated, or had a subpar education, so only a small percentage of the population went to college — but it was a large segment of the affluent population.

“Witwatersrand was the liberal university, and I joined the social work school, which was the most liberal of the schools on campus; I was there from 1979 to 1984. Because it was a very liberal department, a lot of our lecturers were the people fighting against apartheid. I would get to class and they would tell us, ‘Sorry, your lecturer can’t come to class today. Your lecturer was detained.’

“I came from a very sheltered community, and the fieldwork that I did was in the townships. I saw things then that I hadn’t known. There was censorship of the newspapers, and the government owned the TV station.” In other words, what the government didn’t own, it censored.

“You guys saw more here, on television here, of what was going on there than we did,” she said.

Against recommendations, Ms. Lewittes drove herself to her fieldwork. “I never went to Soweto,” the black township where the anti-apartheid movement began and where the evils of apartheid were most visible. “I went to a colored township.” In South Africa’s objectively demented system, so-called colored people were of mixed racial heritage, or came from backgrounds that were labeled neither black nor white. “My parents were not happy with it, but I went and did my thing. I was not radicalized, but I was sensitized, and my eyes were opened to the total inequality.

“It was outrageous.”

Andi did her fieldwork at Eldorado Park, a colored township just outside Johannesburg.
Andi did her fieldwork at Eldorado Park, a colored township just outside Johannesburg.

Once she graduated, a fledgling social worker, Ms. Lewittes got a job  working for Kelly Personnel. “I took it because I was going to help people find jobs — but it was all sales, and I never went back to social work.” Instead, she became a headhunter, and enjoyed her work immensely.

Ms. Lewittes then was married to a computer programmer. “Y2K was coming up, and Americans started to panic that all their computer systems were going to crash,” she said. Y2K was the shorthand for the turn of the millennium, the year 2000. Because computers had been programmed, 30 or 40 years earlier, without any thought to what would happen when 19 turned to 20, if nothing were done to fix the problem, chaos would have ensued.

Luckily, it was a problem that could be solved if enough money and brainpower was thrown at it, and that’s what happened. The brainpower came from people like Andi Lewittes and her husband, and the money was thrown at them.

Many South Africans, it turns out, specialized in the kind of mainframe programming that Y2K work needed, and many went to the United States. A recruiter called Ms. Lewittes and offered jobs, H1B visa sponsorship, and eventual green cards to both her and her husband should they go to the United States to work on Y2K. He’d program computers, and she would recruit other programmers.

It was a timely invitation. It was 1989, she was 25, apartheid wasn’t going to end — although of course she could not know this — until 1994. “I was thinking of starting a family, and crime rates were starting to rise,” she said. “Home break-ins were on the rise, and so were carjackings. Life became very cheap.

“You would go to a shopping center with your kids, and you would be panicking at the time it took to get your child out of the shopping cart and into the car seat and close the car door. You could be hijacked. Or you could maybe be stopped at a traffic light by someone with a gun, who would take your car, and maybe shoot you and maybe shoot your family.

“High walls started going up around people’s homes, with barbed wire and electronic fences and panic buttons. People started hiring guards and stationing them in booths at the end of the street. People lived wonderfully inside their walls, but there was no going to the park, no jogging around Johannesburg. Life started diminishing.

“I knew I did not want to start a family in South Africa. I did not want to raise kids in that environment.”

When they came to America, the recruiter who brought them over absolutely kept his word. Ms. Lewittes and her husband became permanent residents, and their daughters, Farrah, now 25, and Tamar, 19, were born here.

“You have to renounce your South African citizenship to get American citizenship,” and life with a green card was easy, “but eventually I realized that I wanted the same citizenship as my kids,” Ms. Lewittes said. “And also, I was very grateful to the United States.

“I am grateful for the opportunities I have here. I was able to put my kids through day school, and they availed themselves of all sorts of opportunities in the United States, and were able to travel extensively.”

Once she finally decided that it was time to become an American citizen, she had to face the paperwork. “There are a lot of forms,” Ms. Lewittes said. A friend who practices immigration law offered to help, “and when I got there an administrative assistant who was helping with the paperwork handed me forms with boxes that she had checked off on my behalf. There were questions like have you ever been a prostitute? Carried arms? Been a terrorist? And instead of checking no no no, she checked yes yes yes. I said, ‘Do you think I will get citizenship like that?’ and she said, ‘That’s why I gave it to you to check.’

“You also have to document every single time you went out of the country. I had to sit with my passports and document everything.

“I went for my interview about four years ago, in Hackensack, and the official calls me in to take the test. Before you take it, you have to have an interview. He looks at me, and he goes ‘We have you in the computer as Korean.’ I look at him, and I said, ‘Do I look Korean?’ So he goes” — and here she mimics someone throwing his hands up in exasperation — “and says, ‘I’ll go and change it.’

“And then they ask the questions, which was fine, and you also have to write something like ‘I will pay my taxes,’ so they can see if you can write English. And then they go and tell you to wait, and then, at least for me, they come back and say that they can do the ceremony that day.

“Then they move you into a very big room. There must have been a few hundred people — they didn’t all have their interview that day. I was lucky — they had to come back. And there is such a variety of people! So many different ethnicities.

“We are all sitting there, and someone comes in and starts telling a story about how she is not originally from this country, but from somewhere in South America. She says she remembers singing ‘God Bless America,’ and she said that she sings it in the shower all the time, still. And then she starts singing.

“And then we all stand up — there was a big screen, and there are pictures of waterfalls and forests — and we all had to sing. And they watch to make sure that you’re singing. There was one guy who wasn’t singing, and they pointed at him and said ‘Sing!’

“And then you had to say the Pledge of Allegiance, and you have to say it out loud. And they watch to make sure you’re saying it. And then you stand in line, and they give your naturalization certificate, and they shake your hand.

“I felt strong gratitude. Obviously, the music evokes emotion — music always does — but for me it was the gratitude for being welcomed into this country, and being given all these opportunities.”

It is different being an American, Ms. Lewittes said. Part of it is small, subtle shifts in language — “the phrase ‘just now’ means ‘in a little while’ in South Africa. Here, it means ‘right now,’” she said. “I made that mistake my first week at work here. I never made it again.”

South Africa is polite in a way that the United States, or at least the New York metropolitan area, is not. “I realized the first time I opened the door and held it at Macy’s and a thousand people walked in that I couldn’t do that anymore,” Ms. Lewittes said. “I realized that I couldn’t be polite and stand back and still get on the subway. I’d never get on the subway that way.”

The pace is different here too, she said. It’s faster. And the Jewish community is different. There, you could be Orthodox or Reform; here you have many more choices.

Rabbi Adina, left, and Andi Lewittes on a hike in Israel last summer.
Rabbi Adina, left, and Andi Lewittes on a hike in Israel last summer.

Now, Ms. Lewittes is married to Rabbi Adina Lewittes of Sha’ar Communities, herself a Canadian-born American by choice. They have a blended family of six children, ranging in age from 15 to 24.

“I am grateful to South Africa, and I loved my life there, but it was a very sheltered place,” Ms. Lewittes said. “I am very grateful that I was able to come here, to a place of hope and freedom.

“I understand that nothing is perfect, but this country is big enough so that you can be who you want to be, and you can do what you want to do. Part of wanting to get my citizenship was to acknowledge that I am now an American.”

read more: