Alone in the shade on a promenade bench in Bolgrad, Ukraine, I opened my palm to a handful of cherries. Earlier that day, a Baptist priest had reached up into his tree’s branches, plucked the fruit, and offered it to me, sweating and smiling in the heat. His wife brought honey and homemade bread to snack on while we toured the beehives, chicken coop, and a variety of summer lettuces and peppers. I ate the sweet cherries in his garden, endeared to him by the pride in his eyes of what he and his wife had built. He drove us to his church in a 1980s red Toyota sedan that hardly made it up the rocky dirt hill.
His church in Bolgrad was once the only synagogue for miles. The last two remnants of the blue-and-white building’s Jewish history were a small dark plaque at the back facing the street, and the aron hakodesh, which was now adorned with gold and wooden crosses. During our tour, the priest recounted tales of Nazis collecting women and children and throwing them from the second-story balcony. Years later, Communist soldiers boarded up the windows and turned the building into a storage space.
In the early 1990s, his congregation bought and restored it with the blessing of the revived Jewish Orthodox community in Odessa six hours southeast. Photographs of the official occasion reveal rabbis standing shoulder to shoulder, resigned, their hands folded in front of them, as if at a funeral.
In the priest’s office, I heard the echo of my father’s words from when I was barely a teenager: We’re not Jewish. After years of research; many short, tense conversations with my father over the years; and finally his refusal to speak to me at all, I paid $80, spit in a small plastic tube, and found out one month later via DNA test results that I was, in fact, Jewish. He hid who we are and where we came from for reasons he could never quite explain, reasons I never quite believed, reasons I don’t think I’ll ever fully understand.
Within the year, I bought a plane ticket to Eastern Europe to visit the land my family had left three generations before. In particular, I planned to go to Bolgrad, the birthplace of my great-grandfather, Joseph Bernard Ellison, after whom my father was named.
I made a first stop in Poland to meet other millennials who had also grown up not knowing they were Jewish. For them, the reasons were clear: Auschwitz and Birkenau were only ever driving distance away, the memory of reasons to hide and to forget as fresh as the green grass that grows there in summer. I identified with these Jews and their enthusiasm for both social media and for history, their sense of humor and of purpose, their inherent comfort among other Jews and their struggle to name their particular brand of Jewishness. Our shared feeling was one of deep belonging, and at the same time, I felt my father’s words — We’re not Jewish — like a mantra during prayers I couldn’t pronounce and rituals I didn’t understand. The others seemed strange in the same way, squinting during a shared song or turning into their phones at Shabbat dinner. We reached together for a shape-shifting self that was both inherited and chosen.
When I left the church in Bolgrad, I found a park bench and stared at the cherries in my hand. The holy space where my great-grandfather was probably circumcised, my great-great-grandparents likely went to pray, and Jews collectively turned for a sense of safety and community had become a place for baptisms and christenings, where mention was rarely made of those who had built it, or those who were murdered, or those who had escaped.
The fruit warm in my palm, I said a prayer of thanks: for the priest’s generosity and for my father’s lie, which helped fuel my trip. I stood and threw the fresh cherries into the trash before walking back to the main road.
That evening, I headed south out of Bolgrad toward the Black Sea, just as my great-grandparents had over a century before.