What would you do if someone told you that you have a sister you didn’t know about?
I always dreamt of having a big sister. As an only child, and the oldest of many boy cousins, I was desperate for an older playmate, another girl who would have similar interests, and maybe even teach me some things. I spent hours thinking about how wonderfully different my life would be if only I had that elusive big sister. I would often pretend that I had one, and I even went as far as to create an illusion of a perfect sister in my mind—and to play with her from time to time. My sister would be fun, kind, nurturing, and beautiful, with blonde hair and blue eyes (in my imagination, she inherited my father’s lighter coloring). She would also be popular and have a lot of friends, but she would still prefer hanging out with me. My imaginary sister would teach me how to do art projects, do my hair and makeup, talk to me about everything, and love me very much. I even imagined that she would get married and have kids while I was still young, and give me a bunch of adorable nieces and nephews. It was nice to pretend that this fanciful creature was in my life, even though I knew that she would always remain a figment of my imagination.
Or would she?
One night, when I was 13 years old, I spent the night at my father’s apartment. I sat next to him, expecting to have one of our usual conversations, when he asked me, “What would you say if someone told you that you had a sister?”
Whoa! Feelings of confusion and excitement washed over me. On the one hand, I was thrilled that the ideal big sister which I had created in my mind may actually be real. On the other hand, I wanted to know how she came into the world, and how my father could have kept her existence from me all of these years. Hence, the series of questions began. “Did you have a child out of wedlock? Did Mom know about her? Is she still in Russia? Why didn’t you bring her to America with you? How old is she? What’s her name? What does she look like? What is her life like?” I wanted to know everything about her.
My father answered all of my questions thoughtfully, clearly, and seemingly honestly. First and foremost, I wanted to know everything I could about my mystery sister, so my father told me what he knew, which sadly, was not much. She was 16, with blond hair and blue eyes—just like she had in my imagination! Her name is Dina (I later found out that she goes by the name Diana) after his late grandmother, whose name was Devorah. It was dangerous in Soviet Russia to have such a Jewish-sounding name, so he felt Dina, which is a common Russian name, would be a more appropriate derivative.
I found it inspiring that even at a time when my father was so removed from religion that he had a child with a non-Jewish woman, he still kept some element of Jewish tradition. I was still in the stage when I idolized my father, and I was trying to hold on to any redeeming qualities that I could.
I had to hold on to these redeeming qualities in order to brace myself for a very harsh reality—he had willingly left his 11-month-old baby in the hands of an irresponsible woman with an alcohol addiction. He had never spoken to nor written to the girl, and he had certainly never sent any money, even though she was living in dire poverty. For 16 years, he had slept peacefully every night, enjoying a comfortable life in America. Meanwhile, his child was living below the poverty line with a neglectful mother and an abusive stepfather.
As young and naive as I was at the time, I couldn’t help but ask him the obvious question: “How could you have left her? Why didn’t you bring them with you? Aren’t you worried about her? Don’t you want to know her?”
He explained that he loved Diana very much, and he didn’t want to leave her, but at the time, he had to leave the Soviet Union because the KGB was after him. He explained that he had been operating an underground business, which was illegal in a communist country, and it was beginning to arouse suspicion from the legal authorities. If he hadn’t left the country immediately, he would have been sent to prison in Siberia—the country with the worst jails in the world. He claimed that he wanted to bring Diana and her mother with him, but her mother refused to leave Russia. Therefore, he was between a rock and a hard place—either stay with his family and go to jail, where he would be of no help to them, or divorce his wife and come to America, where he would be safe. He chose the latter.
I believed the story that my father told me (which I later found out was a complete lie). It is the same story that he told my mother before they got married. I was still desperate to hold on to anything redeeming about him in light of the discovery that I wasn’t the first child he abandoned. I was not ready to accept that he would willingly leave a precious, helpless baby and never look back. So I asked him, “Were you upset when you left her?”
“Yes, I was very upset. But I knew I would go to jail if I stayed. I spent her first birthday walking through the streets in Italy crying.” (Italy was often the first stop that Russian immigrants made en route to America). When I saw that my father was somewhat remorseful, I was a little relieved.
Nevertheless, in spite of my naïveté, I knew something was very wrong with this picture. I believed that my father did not want to leave her, and that he only did so because he had no choice. I believed that he did not send money to her because he didn’t have much to give. I even believed that he didn’t pursue contact with her because he didn’t think he had anything positive to offer her. (The moment he made that last statement, I was determined to enlighten him and convince him otherwise). But the one excuse that I could never bring myself to buy is this: “According to Halacha (Jewish law), I am not considered her father, because I am Jewish and she is not.”
No, no, and no! I always trusted his knowledge about anything Jewish, but for the first time in my life, I just didn’t buy it. I knew that she was not considered Jewish according to Jewish law (as a child’s Jewish status is determined matrilineally), but I did not believe that it was acceptable in G-d’s eyes for a father to abandon his child on that pretense. There was no way that this was the design of a compassionate and merciful G-d. There was no way he could convince me that G-d actually wanted him to be an absentee father to that girl.
Learning about the child that my father abandoned was my first hint about the person he truly was…a deadbeat dad. (See my previously published article about him here.) He didn’t support me financially because he knew my mother was taking care of it, but what about Diana?
It was still too painful for me to think of my father as a total deadbeat, even in light of this new information. So I told myself that I could convince him to be in her life somehow. I would attempt to convince him that his mere presence in her life would have incredible value. I would convince him that regardless of how he interpreted Jewish law, giving this girl the father she badly needed was the decent thing to do—and didn’t G-d want us to be kind and decent?
I daydreamed that my father would come to his senses, reach out to her, and give her a better life. That he would bring her to America, be a parent to her, and we would be just as much sisters as those who had actually grown up together. And of course, I dreamed about her marrying a few years later and making me a young aunt—my daydream wouldn’t have been complete without a couple of babies!
The next several months were emotionally exhausting. I couldn’t stop thinking about my mysterious big sister, and I truly felt that I loved her even though I knew virtually nothing about her. Now that I knew she existed, I wanted to get to know her, but I was too scared to take the initiative to contact her. At 13 years old, I wouldn’t even have known where to begin. I had many conversations with my father about her, never giving up hope that he would come around and do right by her. My only comfort during my first year of discovering the existence of my sister was thinking about her, hoping that we would be united one day, and most of all, praying for her. Even at such a young age, I prayed intensely for her every day, asking—even begging—G-d to keep her safe and put her on the path to a decent life.
I found out that my paternal grandmother was going to Moscow to see Diana. At this point, I thought that she was going to meet her for the first time (I found out later that they had been in touch since Diana’s early childhood). I was excited for my grandmother to meet her granddaughter, but I was even more excited to hear about my sister firsthand and to see a picture of her! I believed that this visit would also be a stepping stone for my father to be involved in her life, and that my grandmother would encourage him to become a father to her.
While sadly, the latter didn’t happen, my grandmother returned from her trip with some pictures for me. My heart lifted as she handed me the envelope. When I saw my sister for the first time, I felt so much more connected to her. She was even more beautiful than the imaginary big sister I had created as a child, but more importantly, there was a sweetness and grace about her. In spite of all of the hardships that she had experienced, there was a certain purity to her, and her eyes exuded kindness. I kept the pictures in a special album in the top drawer of my desk. I spent so many hours looking at my sister and pretending that she was next to me.
I so desperately wanted some connection to her, and having that picture in my desk drawer at least gave me an image to connect to. I continued to pray for her every day, and I never stopped loving her or caring for her, but the intensity of my emotions started to wear off as I started to accept that any direct contact with her would be unlikely.
As I drifted further and further away from my father, (and sadly, my paternal grandparents,) my life went on, and the subject of Diana came up less and less. I finished college, got married, had children, got my master’s degree, changed careers, and life was good. But from time to time, my sister popped into my thoughts. I often wondered how her life had turned out and if she was doing okay. I wondered about her feelings toward our father and his abandonment.
I also wondered how she felt about me. Did she feel the same kinship toward me as I did toward her? Did she resent me for having a comfortable upbringing while she didn’t? Or did she feel completely neutral and regard me as a stranger?
I thought about reaching out to her, but I was also afraid to take that step. I thought more seriously about writing her a letter—mainly to let her know that our father was just as remiss to me as he was to her, so that she didn’t blame herself for his abandonment. No matter how she felt about me, I wanted her to know that I cared about her and wished her well. Most of the time, the idea of having any contact with her seemed like an elusive dream that would never come true.
I was visiting my mother for Shabbat with my husband and two children. Someone from my extended family had brought over some recent pictures of my sister and her children (which she had originally sent to our grandmother). I was excited to see her family portraits, and I hoped that they would give me some insight about her life. Her daughter was so big and gorgeous, and she also had an adorable son who was about a year old—the same age as my son, Benny, was at the time! As for Diana, she was married, radiant and happy, and everyone at the table unanimously agreed that she looked a lot like me. This was surprising because she had inherited my father’s lighter coloring, while I have inherited my mother’s darker coloring, but she had dyed her hair brown, and the resemblance was striking. At that moment, I felt an incredibly strong connection to her, as if she was a kindred spirit.
I had always wanted to get to know her, and the family portraits certainly sparked a conversation at the table about making that connection possible. My aunt mentioned that she had recently signed up for a social media account on “odna clasniki,” which is a Russian version of Facebook. She offered to look her up for me, and if she had a profile on the site, she would reach out and initiate contact.
A few months later, I got an email from Diana. She said she wanted to get to know me and that she considered me a sister. It was so nice to hear that she wanted a relationship with me after so many years of being unsure. I had always felt a strong connection to her, and at the same time, I had also felt tremendous survivor’s guilt. Here I was, living a comfortable life in America, with a loving mother (and I had for some time also had a loving, albeit absent father), while she had been living in dire poverty with a negligent mother and abusive stepfather. By now she had a husband and children, and she looked happy in the pictures, but for so many years, I had been feeling guilty for having the comforts that she didn’t. I didn’t know how she would perceive me or if she would even like me. Perhaps she would see me as a spoiled little American girl, who lived a cushy life and didn’t understand what it meant to suffer. Perhaps she would feel that we had nothing in common, and that at the end of the day, we were just two women living on opposite sides of the world. My biggest fear was that she would hate me for having the father she didn’t have. For this reason, I resolved to tell her at some point that my father had abandoned me, just as he did her.
I had so many things that I wanted to tell her, but I knew I needed to tread lightly in the first few emails. Now that I had discovered that she wanted to get to know me, I had to be careful not to scare her off. I spent about an hour drafting my first email in English, then I used a search engine to translate it into Russian, then I proofread it, and then I even asked my mother to proofread it again to make sure that in my limited Russian, I wouldn’t say anything offensive. A very big part of that day was taken up by writing my first letter to my sister.
At first, we engaged in small talk about our children and our day-to-day routines. However, it didn’t take long before we started speaking about the elephant in the room—we finally began to talk about our father! I had expected, for the most part, that she would either be angry at him (like I was) or in denial about him being a deadbeat (like I used to be). I was very impressed that her reaction was neither. She readily acknowledged that he was remiss in his responsibility as a dad, but she didn’t hold a grudge, and she even loved him. What was even more impressive was that she knew about my estrangement with my father, and she had tried very hard to convince him to make amends. While my father maintained that it was my responsibility to take the initiative in our relationship, she had told him several times that it was in fact his responsibility as the father. I was touched that she had been advocating for me before she even knew me—and then I remembered that I had done the same for her! For 15 years, I had wished, prayed, and even pleaded for our father to be there for Diana—and it turned out that she had wished the same for me. We had that sisterhood bond before we had ever even spoke!
June 6, 2017
Our father died. My mind and emotions were a complete roller coaster, yet the first thought that came to me was that I had to tell Diana. It was the middle of the night in Russia, so I texted her with the news, told her that I loved her, and that I hoped to give her as much support as I could. I checked my phone first thing in the morning, responded to her texts, and answered her questions about his death to the best of my ability. Even though I was busy with the funeral and then with the shiva, I made time to check in with her every time I had a spare second.
While I wished to support her in any way I could, I would never have imagined that grieving over our absentee father would make us that close. I had expected that my greatest comfort would come from family and friends, rather than a woman I had never met—or even spoken to!
While my friends and family (and blog readers!) supported me in many ways, my sister was actually grieving with me. And while my story was certainly relatable to many, Diana was truly in the same boat. She really understood what I was going through more than anyone else in the world.
In addition to giving me the understanding that I badly needed, she also gave me deep compassion. She was probably in more pain than I was, because she always wanted to know him better, whereas I willingly and actively cut him off 10 years earlier. Nevertheless, whenever we spoke about our grief, she always asked me how I was doing before speaking about her own pain. I felt genuinely loved, cared for, and understood by her when we spoke, but more importantly, I knew that I was not alone. Even though she was essentially a stranger, texting her felt like texting a close friend. For the first time in my life, I felt like I truly had a sister.
After having been brought closer together through the death of our father, Diana and I decided that we needed to meet. Getting a visa for her to come to America was (and unfortunately, still is) impossible, so we arranged to meet in Israel. It was comforting to end my status as a mourner with such an exciting milestone.
The week before my trip, I was a ball of nerves. I was meeting someone new, yet it was also someone who I loved very much. I was overwhelmed with excitement about finally meeting Diana, and also nervous that our meeting would not be as perfect as I had always dreamed it would be. I was so afraid that our differences in language, culture, and religion would become more apparent when we met, and that those differences would make us more distant. How sad would it be after so many years of trying to develop a relationship, and after we finally felt like sisters, for us to revert back to being strangers?!
As nervous as I was about meeting her, I knew in my heart that our love ran too deep to be compromised by petty differences—and this point was even more emphasized when she had some trouble at the airport and became delayed in getting to Israel. This awful news made my first day there stressful, and it certainly wasn’t enjoyable, but the fear of possibly not meeting her like I planned to ultimately made me appreciate this opportunity even more.
When I saw her standing outside the hotel, I screamed as I ran to her, and I cried as hugged her. I couldn’t believe this was happening—I was hugging my sister!!!! The only word that came to my mind was nakanyetsta—finally. I just kept saying it over and over. When we let go of each other after a few minutes, she looked at me and said, “Maya sestra,”—my sister.
And that is exactly how it felt—like sisters who were reunited, rather than strangers meeting for the first time. We had some signature Israeli iced coffee and then went to the beach as if we had done it many times before. We swam in the ocean and wrestled with the waves, and I loved that she wasn’t the least bit afraid—she must have gotten our father’s sense of adventure! There are very few people I know who like to go as far into the ocean as I do, so I usually go on my oceanic adventures alone. It was so much fun to go with someone, especially my sister! I thought about how much fun we would have had doing this as children! I thought about how my mother would have been screaming at us to come closer to the shore, while my father would have been telling her to relax and let us enjoy ourselves. I had no doubt that my father was smiling in Heaven as he watched his daughters playing in the ocean together.
When we weren’t having our daredevil swimming adventures, we sat and talked or walked and talked—there was just so much to catch up on. We were so comfortable with each other, and we spoke very openly and shared virtually everything about our lives. She had mentioned to me on several occasions that she was generally reserved and that it was difficult for her to open up to people, which made it even more special that she was comfortable sharing so much with me. I didn’t sense any awkwardness at all—not even during our first hour together.
Being that Judaism is such an important part of my life, a lot of questions and curiosity about our respective faiths and spirituality came up—especially when we were in Jerusalem. I learned that her spirituality was inspired by her maternal grandmother, who instilled her with a belief in G-d, and although she didn’t have any religious education, she connected to Him in any way she could and tried to do as much good as possible. She spoke about how young people in Russia don’t usually believe in a Higher Power, as there is no religious education, and how she was so amazed at the amount of young people praying at the Kotel so fervently. I explained to her that in our community, education is paramount, and that in our religious schools, we spend half of the day on Jewish studies. In that moment, I gained a new perspective on the exorbitant day-school tuition I always complained about. She helped me understand that religious education is what enables so many young people to be such strong believers. Who would have thought that the person who would most help me appreciate this overpriced Jewish education was my non-Jewish sister?
After having been a mystery to me for so long, my sister has turned out to be a truly remarkable person. In spite of her awful and traumatic childhood, she’s so loving, caring, wise, and an amazing mother and wife. What I admire most about Diana is her optimistic nature and faith in humanity, despite atrocious, unspeakable difficulties in her life. She naturally sees the good in people, even the people who have wronged her. In spite of her mother’s extreme negligence of her, Diana speaks often about her mother’s good qualities and is a dutiful daughter to her.
As for our father, I would never have imagined that she could have such positive feelings about him! He abandoned her at infancy, came into her life for the first time when she was 19 years old, and abandoned her again when he found a new interest—wife number three. Yet, most of what she speaks about regarding our father is how thankful she is that he was there for her during the time he was around. How he would visit and spend time with her and Olyessa, her daughter. How he gave her financial support when she was a single mom, so that she could take care of her daughter, rather than having to work long hours and then give most of her paycheck toward childcare expenses. How he bought her the food that she craved during her pregnancy, and how he was loving and affectionate toward her during their meetings. Instead of talking about the many years that our father stayed away while she suffered from poverty, abuse, and neglect, she speaks about the good that he did for her.
I knew that she had been pretty forgiving of our father, but I never expected to see such sheer gratitude for the few good things he did for her. I have always had a very hard time forgiving him for what he did to her—even more so than for what he did to me. But listening to her describe such gratitude for him made it easier for me to forgive him, and I continue to work on that every day. I also try to focus on the fact that he helped my sister and my niece when they really needed it, and to be thankful that he was a father and grandfather for at least a short amount of time. After all, if she can do it, shouldn’t I be able to? Then again, I have a ways to go to be as good as she is!
I loved Diana from the moment my father revealed her existence to me 20 years ago. It didn’t matter if she was good or bad, smart or dumb, ugly or pretty, pleasant or annoying. From the moment I learned I had a sister, she had a place in my heart, and my love for her was fierce and unconditional. But after getting to know her over the past five years, becoming closer with her in the last year, and spending a week with her this past summer, I have come to develop a deep admiration for her, in addition to the love I have always had. My sister has turned out to be one of the best people I have ever met; I never could have created a fictional character as wonderful as her. My gratitude for having her in my life trumps any lingering anger I feel toward our father—to the point that I am even thankful to him for bringing her into the world. And I have no doubt that he was smiling from Heaven the entire week that his two daughters FINALLY spent together.
All my life, I had wanted an older sister—to the extent that I created an ideal sister in my imagination. Diana turned out to be even better than the imaginary sister from my childhood. I am honored to have her in my life, and even more honored to be able to call her my sister.
*This article has been adapted from posts on Olivia’s blog.