Family & Education

Was my great-grandmother Jewish?

Growing up in the Ukraine, Tetiana Michaels was close to her great-grandmother - and now, as a convert to Judaism she has big questions about her past


The life of my mother’s grandmother — my great grandmother Maria — has always fascinated me, and even more so since my recent conversion to Judaism.

Despite living as a Russian Orthodox Christian, I suspect Maria may have in fact been born a Jew. She was an amazing and strong woman who spent her entire life in a tiny village called Lopushna, about 40 minutes’ drive from our family home in Chernivtsi in Western Ukraine.

She would go to church every Sunday in her best dress, a kind and relatively small woman. She covered her hair and had lots of wonderful scarfs.

She was born in 1916 and lived in this tiny village consisting of one street and one church, for her entire life.

Maria never left her village. Everyone knew her and she was very well respected. She owned a big piece of land and liked working in her garden. She kept chickens too that she would slaughter herself. Also, a cow. She would always give us a bag of goodies: litres of milk, 50 eggs, chickens, cheese… That was how she showed her love.

She was married at the age of 15, and at 16 gave birth to my mother’s father, her only child. This village, with a population of fewer than 300 people, had variously belonged to Austria, Poland and the USSR, prior to the formation of Ukraine. So, without moving far from her small village, she still experienced the politics of the wider world. Perhaps that contributed to the insightful person she was.

During the holidays, I would sometimes go and stay with her. It was those visits that sparked my awareness and knowledge of Judaism in the first meaningful sense.

My parents would bring me to her house and I would sometimes stay there for several weeks. She would always make poppy seed rolls, which is a traditional Eastern European Jewish food. Also, she would always make sure I had enough food — she had suffered from hunger in her past. She always wanted me to eat more.

Maria taught me many things. The most interesting of these things, in hindsight, given the choice I have made to convert to Judaism, was how much she knew about the Jewish faith, and the enormous respect that she had for it. She always said: if you need something, go and pray at the synagogue. She also taught me the 39 Melachot that you can’t undertake on Shabbat. At that time, it was just something that was of academic interest to me. Now, I wonder how on earth she knew this. Given the tumultuous history of Eastern Europe, coupled with the widespread persecution of Jews that took place there in the 19th and 20th centuries, one possible and obvious answer is that she came from a family that had been Jewish but had somewhere along the way converted to Christianity in a bid to survive.

There were family stories that Maria had played a part in helping Jews during the Holocaust and I would have been fascinated to know more.

It’s hardly surprising. In the early 20th century, nearly half of the population of Chernivtsi was Jewish. Chernivtsi was once nicknamed ‘Jerusalem on the Prut river’.

I had grown up with the music of the Jewish festivals all around me, as part of my culture, without even thinking about it. Everyone in the Bukovyna region of Ukraine did. It didn’t take long for my husband — who was born Jewish— and me to realise we shared not only food and jokes, but music and melody too.

Sadly, those stories of her bravery with the Jewish people died with her in 2011 and I hugely regret not having had the chance to ask more questions. Even as Maria lay dying, she asked my mum to go and ask a rabbi to pray for her. Facts like these make me ponder the origins of my family. I had no idea at the time that these memories would one day become part of something much bigger, something that was to become fundamental to my life.

My history is very different from that of many Jews, and I have come to where I am by a different road to many others who were born Jewish. I come back again and again to the feeling that this Jewish way of life, both as a family and as an individual, is where I was meant to end up. I understand that Judaism is not just something I have chosen any more: it is a living, breathing part of my life, it is how I feel, and how I live, and an absolutely vital part of who I am.


Tetiana Michaels is the author of Osher: My Journey to Judaism.

She lives in Zurich with her husband and daughter


Share via

Want more from the JC?

To continue reading, we just need a few details...

Want more from
the JC?

To continue reading, we just
need a few details...

Get the best news and views from across the Jewish world Get subscriber-only offers from our partners Subscribe to get access to our e-paper and archive