My parents struggled to choose a name after my birth in a shabby Moscow hospital. Nothing felt exactly right. After a month they settled on Yulia, a traditional Russian name that, they decided, was just unique enough. My mother loved the lyrical way it rolled off the tongue, Yoo-Lee-Yah. Most often, though, I was Yulya or Yulinka or Yulyasha.
When I was five-and-a-half, my family left Russia. I was still Yulinka in Vienna and Santa Marinella, Italy, where my family lived stateless for nearly nine months while I pleaded for chocolate ice cream and swam in the frigid Mediterranean Sea near our monastery-owned apartment.
A few months after our arrival in New York City, I became Sara.
My parents enrolled me in a Hasidic yeshiva for Russian-Jewish immigrants. We shed our secular names, and aspired to commit to memory everything our parents and grandparents never knew. Sara had been my grandmother’s birth name, before she felt compelled to change it to the more palatable and less Jewish “Alexandra,” or Sasha for short.
As Sara, I was the girl who learned to read both Hebrew and English at a sprinter’s pace, discarding all traces of an accent within months. Sara was bright, popular, and fiercely determined to rack up accolades. She moved from first grade to third grade the same school year, although at this particular townhouse yeshiva, that only meant a move to the adjoining room. All my new friends knew me as Sara. The name felt like my own. And Judaism was now at the forefront of my identity. At the yeshiva we devoted an entire period to reciting passages from the Chumash (a printed version of the Torah), starting with Bereshit. We’d sing the Hebrew verses followed by the English translation, over and over, until we knew them by heart. I learned the intricacies of nearly every biblical tale. The stories, the rituals, the history—all of it was mine.
After three years came unexpected news: we were moving to Virginia, where I’d be enrolling in a public school. Though I had once admonished my parents for not teaching my brother and me any Jewish rituals, I found it surprisingly easy to let go of the name Sara and the Orthodoxy it represented.
At the elementary school where I started fifth grade, they asked what I preferred to be called. “Julie,” I answered. I’m not sure where I first heard it, but I remember feeling it was an appropriately “cool” name, and at nine, being thought of as cool was paramount. It felt more me than “Julia,” the transliteration of my given name. I embraced this new identity. I was ready to be wholly American.
Julie was shyer than Sara, less adept at making new friends, but she was also more curious and more adaptable. As Julie, I discovered American pop music, like Mariah Carey and Boyz II Men, and the comforting malaise of a suburban life filled with birthday parties at the arcade and trips to the local shopping mall.
Sara hadn’t disappeared entirely, however. On my first day of Hebrew school at the local conservative synagogue, the teacher asked my name. “This is Hebrew school,” I thought. “In Hebrew school, you go by your Hebrew name.” So I answered, “Sara.” The teacher proceeded to introduce the rest of the class. “Kevin, Ashleigh, Lauren, Beth…” I immediately realized my mistake, but in my anxious nine-year-old mind, it was too late to correct it. My two identities were kept separate until a year later, when I moved to the better public school district attended by most of my Hebrew school classmates. There was a lot of confusion and embarrassment and awkward explaining. The comic ridiculousness of having three names wasn’t lost on me either, and I quickly learned to be self-deprecating. More than twenty years later, some members of the congregation still refer to me as “Julie-Sara.”
I felt that duality when I offered to do more for my Bat Mitzvah than was expected by leading certain prayers usually reserved for the rabbi—to the bewilderment of my classmates—because I genuinely loved them and was moved by the melodies. I’m still moved by prayer, by the crescendo of an entire congregation singing Avinu Malkeinu during high holiday services. There’s a purity to it, a lifeline to the past that feels indestructible.
I remained Julie all through middle school, high school, and college. Richmond, Virginia, my new hometown, was a cultural lifetime removed from the Russian-speaking neighborhoods of Brooklyn where we’d lived for three years. In Richmond, I had one Russian friend, who, like me, barely registered as Russian. We spoke about Russian food or cartoons every once in a while, but mostly we bonded over Tori Amos and musical theater. I was Julie, the girl who played soccer (less than decently), obsessed over Beat poetry, and hung out with friends over plates of French fries at a smoke-filled cafe downtown.
Most new friends were surprised to learn I was an immigrant. The more I told the story, though, the more I felt it burrow into me and become an ingrained part of who I was. My immigration made me something other than an average suburban teenager. The cloud hanging over my family and every other family who’d gone through a similar experience was always there versus here. Stagnation versus opportunity. Ignorance versus truth.
And though my family assimilated quickly and willfully (no Russian television, few Russian friends), intrinsic differences remained. My parents are warm and loving, but they’re also unexpectedly direct, which has caught many Americans off-guard. They’re patriotic in a way U.S.-born citizens can never truly understand. And yet, there’s still a lingering cynicism that no amount of American positivity can scrub clean.
There are also the cultural mainstays of Soviet life my parents can never entirely forget—nor do they want to. Vladimir Vysotsky is the music of their youth, and I’ve never seen them feel music so intensely as when they’re listening to one of his songs. I can’t help but love him, too. My mother and I sing patriotic Communist anthems on long car trips. We register the dangerous naiveté of the lyrics, but the act of singing the songs—my mother and I, together—transforms them into something comforting.
My parents never took to processed American food, and our table, even at Thanksgiving, is laden with celebratory Russian dishes like caviar, smoked meats, eggplant dips and beet salads. Russian culture, at least in major cities like Moscow and St. Petersburg, was remarkably homogeneous under Communist rule. The food, the music, and the movies were all scarce, and so cultural “favorites” were everyone’s favorites, which is why, perhaps, it is so easy to bond with fellow Russian immigrants. True counterculture was reserved for the truly subversive.
During an internship interview my senior year of college, the coordinator uttered the name atop my resume.
“Thanks, Yulia,” she said. “We’ll get back to you.”
“Actually,” I responded, as I had many times before, “You can call me Julie.”
“But Yulia’s so much prettier.”
“Okay,” I said, unsure how to interpret the backhanded-compliment. “Yulia’s fine, too.”
For the past 10 years I’ve gone by Yulia in the workplace, though I continue to introduce myself as “Julie” to new friends. At first, I felt a bit like an impostor. It was strange to hear colleagues say my name. I barely felt Russian, way less Russian than many writers and authors whose Russianness was a central tenant of their writing, but whose bylines were Americanized names like Gary and Ellen and Julia.
Plus, “Yulia” is a formal name. It contains one more syllable than the casual Yulya. I’m not sure I’ve ever heard a Russian person call me aloud by my name, despite my mother’s fondness for it.
Was I fooling my colleagues into thinking I was something other than who I was? Slowly though, I grew into it. As I started getting published, seeing “Yulia” as a byline below a story I’d written felt right. It is my birth name, after all. It represents a unique life, a journey that’s taken me from a Communist childhood, to statelessness in Italy, to an Orthodox schooling, and finally, to American adolescence and adulthood.
I’ve decided I like the internship coordinator’s comment, about my name being pretty. It reminds me of my mother’s comments about why she chose it in the first place—her fond gushing over how beautiful she thought it sounded.
To minimize confusion when first introducing myself, I sometimes follow “Yulia” with the refrain “like Julia, but with a ‘Y.'” In a way, though, the name feels not at all odd or out of place for the city to which I’ve returned: New York City—the city of immigrants. It has a home here, a point of reference.
One night last summer I met friends in Coney Island for a Brooklyn Cyclones minor league baseball game. There was beer and popcorn and fireworks—a collection of all-American trappings. After the game we walked to a Russian restaurant, where we drank vodka and feasted on blintzes and borscht. On the boardwalk, within yards of each other, couples writhed to reggaeton and Russian grandmothers sashayed to old Russian ditties. Yulia feels like the name best suited to this mishmash of a city, itself a fitting metaphor for my own patchwork of an identity. Feel free to call me Julie, though, if you’d like.
Yulia Khabinsky is a research editor and writer living in Brooklyn, NY. Her writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Jewish Daily Forward, Narrative.ly and other publications. She blogs about New York at Notes From the Wonder City. Follow her on Twitter at @ykhabinsky.