Leaving Russia — and going back again

Leaving Russia — and going back again

Alla Fine of Ridgewood talks about her childhood in Odessa

Alla Fine as a small child in Odessa.
Alla Fine as a small child in Odessa.

You can take a girl out of Odessa, but you can’t really entirely take Odessa out of the girl.

Or, at least, not when it’s under siege.

Alla Frumkin Fine of Ridgewood is completely American now. She moved here when she was 5, and grew up here, in Queens and Brooklyn. She’s married to a Conservative rabbi, David Fine of Temple Israel and Jewish Community Center of Ridgewood; they have two sons, and she is an entrepreneur and has a flourishing career, which morphed from event planning to love and relationship coaching during the pandemic, when there were no events to plan but many relationships to form and firm up.

But when she was 5, Alla, her parents, Vladimir and Larisa Frumkin, her sister, now Olga Frumkin Blyweiss, and her grandmother, Bella Dukat, left Ukraine, and both her early childhood there and the way the family left remain potent, even traumatic memories for her.

“My mom always reminded me never to say that I was Jewish,” Ms. Fine said. “You couldn’t even utter the word Jewish. Not that I knew much about Jewishness — it was forbidden, religion was forbidden — but I was never to say a word about it.

“In the Soviet days, I had to lie about it. Even though I was little when we left, it was instilled in my brain early, for safety, that if someone asks if you’re Jewish, say no. If I hadn’t said no, I wouldn’t have had any friends, because no one wanted to be friends with Jews.”

And that was Odessa, the port city that had provided safe haven for so many Jews that in the beginning of the 20th century, they were the largest ethnic group. But many of them were murdered during the war, and most of the survivors left. By the time Alla was born, Jews were a minority in Odessa.

Religion was forbidden then — all religion, not just Judaism (although perhaps a certain vigor went into nosing out and shutting down Jewish ritual). “All I knew about what being Jewish meant was from the little glimpse I saw from my grandparents on my father’s side,” Ms. Fine said. “They were religious — as religious as they could be in the Soviet Union.

“I have a memory of sitting on my great grandfather’s lap. My grandfather brought me to him on what I didn’t know then but know now was Shabbat. I remember that my grandmother had a shmatta on her head, and I remember the candlesticks on the table. They observed Shabbat, but behind very closed doors, in a very tight community.

“If they had been reported, they possibly would have been imprisoned. It was against the law.”

Her parents left Ukraine because “my mom was adamant about going,” Ms. Fine said. “It was for us. She used to say, ‘I want them to have better opportunities than I had in the Soviet Union.

“Jews were always abused. Jews were not able to get higher education,” at least not in the high-status schools that would be most likely to advance their careers.

“There was antisemitism throughout the whole country — maybe it was less in places like the Stans, far away from the center of the country, but in places like Ukraine and Moldova and Russia itself, there was always mega-antisemitism. My mother’s fears were realistic.”

Even beyond antisemitism, living in Odessa then was hard work.

Larisa and Vladimir Frumkin

At that point in Soviet history, officials “were just opening up the borders and giving people the chance to leave. You had to apply for a visa.” It took many people very many years to leave — the more famous you were, or the more challenging your job was, the longer you had to wait.

“Because my parents were nobodies, they were granted visas within six months. My mother always said that we were so lucky to get out.

“And we were lucky.”

The economy was terrible then, so terrible that a 5-year-old could tell, at least in the rearview mirror that is memory. “In stores, the shelves were always empty,” Ms. Fine said. “There were those infamous lines for milk. I remember those lines. It was insane.

“People would wait on line even if they didn’t know what the line was for.” Often, when they finally made it to the head of the line, people who had been waiting for hours would learn that there was nothing left for them.

“We’re talking about lower-middle-class people,” she continued. “The price of a chicken was a month’s salary — and then there was no chicken. The only way to get chickens was from the farmer’s market.” The food at the farmer’s market, needless to say, was impossibly expensive, out of reach for most of the people most of the time.

“They left with bare backs,” Ms. Fine said about her parents. “With nothing. At that time they were not allowed to bring things out in containers — later that would change. But we left with nothing. Just small suitcases. They had to give all their furniture away.

“It was very traumatic for me,” she continued.

She details some of the elements of her family’s move. Only Jews were being let out then, and only for religious reasons. “If you wanted to leave, you had to go to Israel.”

But her parents, like many other emigrants, had other ideas. But they couldn’t plan. Not yet. “We knew we’d have options, but we wouldn’t know what they were until we left.”

Ms. Fine remembers that her family took many trains on their way out of the Soviet Union. First, they got on a standard train. “And then we went to the border, which was then with what was then Yugoslavia, and then we were taken to a different kind of train.

“That’s the train that I can never forget. It was a cattle train.

“That’s how barbaric those people were,” she said. “They don’t care. Once you leave the country, you are deserters.

“We had to surrender our citizenship. They said, ‘Okay. We are stripping you of your rights.’

“We were stateless. We became no ones, with nowhere to go. We were stateless.

“And then we were transported to this cattle train, where we had to huddle on the floor with other families, and all the time people would come in and check the passports again, to make sure we were who we were.

“It was January, and there was no heat. It was freezing. You could see snow through the cracks. We huddled together for body warmth, and ate the canned food that we’d brought from home.

Alla Fine stands outside her old home, Filatov 49 in Odessa.

“I want people to know how barbaric that country was,” Ms. Fine said. She was talking about the Soviet Union. “That is what Putin wants. He wants to bring back the Soviet Union. People should know that, and the nations should know that, and we should all come together and stop it.

“We should do more. We have to take action.”

Back all those years ago, Ms. Fine and her family finally got to Austria, where HIAS — more formally, the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society — helped them. They spent three months in Ostia Lido, a beach town near Rome, where little Alla, with the verbal dexterity that’s often given to (and who but the most small-minded of us would argue, wasted on) small children, learned enough Italian so that she still can understand it today.

When they finally got to New York, the family worked hard and eventually prospered. Alla went to college, started working, married David, had kids, and about 10 years ago they moved to New Jersey. There’s much more to her story, but that’s for another time.

We pick it up again in the early 2000s, when she went on a trip for Jewish educators — she wasn’t an educator but she was an administrator working at a nonprofit, and that worked too — to Israel and then Russia.

The Fines travel around the world a great deal. Rabbi Fine is an adjunct professor at both Abraham Geiger and Zacharias Frankel colleges — rabbinical seminaries, one Conservative, the other Reform — at the University of Potsdam in Germany, and that alone entails much travel, mainly for him but for her as well. Ms. Fine speaks many languages. But when she first went back to Russia, “I was a little nervous,” she said. “No, who am I fooling? I was a lot nervous.”

The trip, run by New York’s UJA Federation through the Council of Jewish Émigré Community Organizations, was intense, Ms. Fine remembers; the group visited agencies and JCCs run by Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform groups. By the time they got to Russia, the group was exhausted, impressed, and bonded. They stayed in Moscow — it was Ms. Fine’s first time there — and she was shocked by what she saw.

“It was such an eye opener,” she said. “The leader of the group was a guy with a black hat and a black coat, openly walking the streets of Moscow. I was in shock.

“Then we went to a Hillel, with the letters spelling out the word Hillel in Russian.

“I was so pleasantly surprised to see how Russia had evolved. It was positive. Jews were welcome. It was a bittersweet moment. I had been worried about going back there. My mother hadn’t wanted her daughters ever to go back there.” But now, Jewish life — and it seemed the whole spectrum of Jewish life — was open, public, and blooming.

Then, in 2018, Alla Fine went back to Russia, this time accompanying her husband on a trip to Moscow for a meeting of the Jewish Law Association. After the meeting, they went to Kyiv together.

“I was blown away by the Jewish life there, with the openness, with the communities that were built from the ground up. People wanted to be Jewish, to be openly Jewish, to embrace Judaism. That was overwhelmingly beautiful and emotional for me. All my life there, I was told ‘Don’t do this’ and ‘Don’t do that.’ Here everything was open. They have their own building. It’s an amazing community. I met a lot of people there, people I’m still in touch with.”

During that same trip, the Fines went to Odessa. “I was super excited about going back,” Ms. Fine said. Her parents both had died by then, so “I had to call my mom’s friend, who was her classmate in fifth grade, to get some idea of where my kindergarten was.

“It’s funny, the way kids remember the things you instill in them. I remember my address. Filatov 49, apartment 4.

“David and I stayed in Odessa longer, and the leader of the trip — his name is Zev, he’s a Russian Jew — took the day off. He set aside a day for strangers — how sweet is that? — and he showed me my Odessa.

“We went back to Filatov 49, apartment 4. The building was not well taken care of, leaves everywhere, weeds growing out of it. We couldn’t get in at first; we rang all the bells, but no one let us in. But then somebody walked out, and so we got access to the outside.

“I walked inside, and it was crazy. It was such a moment. Such a warm and yet terrifying moment. I was so scared. I didn’t know what my emotions would be. And it was a chilling feeling. I was walking into the past. Into my past.

“We tried to get access to the apartment itself. We knocked, and there was some movement inside the apartment, but no one answered. Zev kept saying ‘We are here because this woman used to live here,’ but we couldn’t get in. So I was standing in this green hallway, in front of my door, as an adult, where I used to live in the USSR.

“It was a crazy, amazing experience.”

Once she got back home, Ms. Fine kept in touch with the community. Zev is the leader of the Conservative community in Odessa. “We went to dinner with him and his wife, they’re such beautiful, lovely people, and I met members of the community. They’re all 20- and 30-year-olds. The younger generation wants to be Jewish. They’re like a big happy family. They don’t have much money but they barter services. They clean cemeteries, and they constantly feed cats.

“My father’s cousin is buried there, and I left them money to clean his grave.”

Ms. Fine had planned a mission to Odessa that would include her husband and their sons, Lawrence and Ariel. But then covid hit, and now the Russian invasion. She still very much wants to go, but for now the plans are on hold.

Many of the people she’d met have left Odessa and Kyiv, although they’re still in Ukraine. “They’re community leaders and they’re Jews,” she said. Although there’s no apparent antisemitism now, history suggest that the situation might change with time. “As open as the country is, as welcoming as it looks, the edge is always there,” Ms. Fine said.

“As open as Hillel was, and Jewish as it is, still at the end of the day Russia is led by a madman. That’s an issue that people need to understand. It will never be free as long as he is in power.”

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