New Jew in Town: The Little Russian Boy

I’ve had a little Russian boy on my mind for the past few weeks.
Let me explain: Part of my job at Federation is telling the stories of the people who benefit from our donors’ generous gifts. I’ve been able to tell a lot of inspiring stories in my nearly one year at Federation – stories of hope after disaster, stories of eye-opening experiences, stories of finding the strength to face another day.borya
I’m not going to lie, it’s a pretty cool job.
One of my favorite stories is about Borya, a little boy in the former Soviet Union who attends Jewish summer camp. The amazing thing about these summer camps is that they’re giving Jewish kids – whose parents were unable to learn about, or practice their Judaism under communism – the chance to discover their essentially forgotten heritage.
So in Borya’s story, he’s celebrating Shabbat at summer camp, and he whispers the most precious thing into his counselor’s ear:  “My grandmother said I’m Jewish, but she never told me about this nice holiday.”
I haven’t been able to get those words out of my head lately. But as much as Borya’s story touches me, as much as I would love to claim that I’m constantly focused on the welfare of Jewish children in the former Soviet Union, I have to admit I’ve been thinking about him for a different reason.
I’ve been thinking about Borya because I, too, am experiencing a new holiday: First Day of Spring.
Before this year, my definition of the word “winter” was three 37 degree days in February. I had seen a cumulative 6 inches of snow in my entire life. So, yes, my first Minnesota winter was long. Yes, it was cold. Yes, I spent entirely too much time prying frozen dog poop from my backyard.
But on April 26th, when the temperature soared above 70 degrees for the first time, the sudden skyrocket of moods caught me completely off guard. When it’s constantly warm, like it is in my home of Louisiana, 70 degrees isn’t exciting. There is no First Day of Spring. So the joy that oozed out of cracked car windows and radio deejays’ jubilant voices on my way to work that morning was like nothing I had ever experienced. As I sat in traffic and watched people actually smile as they didn’t let me merge (some things don’t change), a thought popped into my head.
She never told me about this nice holiday.
It repeated on a loop that weekend, as I sat in the sun and reminded myself what it feels like to be warm. At one point I had to get in my car, and nearly got into a wreck gawking at the sheer number of people outside. It was like a city-wide festival was going on.
She never told me about this nice holiday.


The line at Sea Salt in South Minneapolis on the first warm Saturday of 2013

In Louisiana, we have a secret holiday too. It’s called Mardi Gras. The season lasts about a month, which means a month of eating king cake, getting drunk and catching beads. Part of me thinks First Day of Spring is better. Mainly because I don’t end up with a sugar high, a hangover and a pile of crappy plastic beads that smell like rum.
Also, as you have probably heard, at Mardi Gras the uninitiated (aka tourists) bare their breasts for beads. On First Day of Spring, people are thrilled if you simply bare a calf. A white, pasty, glow in the dark calf.
That first Saturday of spring, as I waited in a two hour line to have a meal on a patio, I looked around at the crowd and got chills even in the blissful weather. It’s thrilling, really, to suddenly be a part of a holiday that people across the world are celebrating; one that I never even knew existed.
I feel ya, Borya.