When Marina, a Russian Jewish immigrant, first came to babysit for my 2-year-old son Ari, she was in her mid-50s. In many ways, she was perfect for the job. A graduate of the Institute of Foreign Languages in Almaty, Kazakhstan, she was fluent in English. Unlike previous hires, she didn’t limit herself to babysitting but happily took on other household chores. Most important, she adored my Ari, doting on him like a grandmother and bragging to the other sitters in the park that her charge was the cutest.
My friend Roxanne tried to convince me that I should find a younger woman to care for my child, not an old fogey like Marina. But fortunately, I didn’t listen to her. I held onto my old fogey, and today, at 82, she still comes in three mornings a week. She treats Ari as her own grandson, giving him money on his birthday and on Purim. My son graciously accepts the gifts of his only living “grandparent.”
Coming from the former Soviet Union, Marina knew next to nothing about Jewish observance. But week after week, she helped me prepare for Shabbos, cooking up a storm of dishes. Since my grandparents and great-grandparents also hailed from Russia, she was already familiar with the recipes.
I never realized what close attention she was paying until one day, she asked about my Shabbos candles.
“My friend tells me you put out one candle for each child and one for you and your husband. Is that right?” she asked.
Honestly, I didn’t know if this was halacha or minhag, but we did put out three, two for us and one for our son. She was thinking of lighting her own candles and wanted to get it right.
On Purim every year, I send Marina home with shalach monos to share with her daughter and grandson. She told me that she remembered her grandmother in Russia giving gifts to her friends on this day.
Always known to me as Marina Popova, I recently learned that her birth name was Miriam Weitzman. Upon starting school in Kazakhstan, to which her family had been forcibly relocated from war-torn Leningrad, her schoolteacher proclaimed, “From now on you will be called Marina,” and so it was. Miriam became Marina. When she married, she became Marina Popova, a change she was reluctant to make, but her mother told her it was perhaps prudent to hide her Jewish identity.
I only recently found out the story of Marina’s mother. After her husband went off to fight in the war, she was left alone with Marina, then an infant. One day, her husband came home unexpectedly, accompanied by another woman, unabashedly pregnant with his child.
“How can I leave her?” he asked.
Marina’s mother was so traumatized that she never married again, and Marina grew up without a father.
Marina’s grandson, Jeffrey, now 26, carries his father’s Jewish surname and dates only Jewish women. They came to our son’s bar mitzvah and, God willing, will one day attend his wedding.
On our kitchen counter, I display three family photos. The first shows my mother and my aunt, seated side by side, in my aunt’s art-filled apartment, the second, our son, leaning against a giant oak tree in Prospect Park, and the third, Marina, holding up 2-year-old Ari to show off his Purim costume. He is clad as the Pillsbury doughboy in a white stretchy and classic baker’s hat that Marina and her daughter lovingly and expertly sewed.
“I’m so happy you keep my picture on your counter,” Marina remarked. Truthfully, I hadn’t put it there because of her, but because of Ari, not even noticing who was holding him. Nevertheless, there she is, embracing her adopted grandson, like any proud Jewish grandmother, and there the picture remains, to this day, although he is now a 27-year-old adult.
Like many Jews from the former Soviet Union, Marina came here looking for a better life, seeking to live the American dream. When she arrived with her non-Jewish husband and intermarried daughter, she was not searching for her Jewish roots. For that, she could have stayed in Israel, her first destination upon leaving Russia. But that option was not under consideration, her goal was to reach America. And yet, intentionally or not, as she wishes me good Shabbos, I realize she did end up becoming more Jewish, after all.