Alex Khoroshan stood inside Temple Beth Hillel Sunday with a smile as wide as his native Ukraine, a man who could finally say to his wife--who was on this day again his bride--that they were two Jews from the former Soviet Union who were completely free at last.
On this bright afternoon at the Valley Village temple, Khoroshan, his wife, Olga Shelkovsky, and three other couples were renewing their marriage vows--this time the way they'd always dreamed, in a sacred temple. The religious rite was a privilege that for years had been denied each of these immigrants back home in the former Soviet Union.
"For the first time," said the 40-year-old accountant in the dapper, lime-green suit, with a white carnation and matching yarmulke, "I feel like I am really, really married."
This, then, was a day for four weddings and a funeral: The vows--uttered in the tentative near-whispers of people still unsure of their English--were a celebration of present and future as well as a way to lay to rest the religious persecution of their Communist past.
Back in Kiev, a city of 3 million inhabitants with just one tiny synagogue, going to temple to express his faith was a foolhardy thing for Khoroshan to do. Still, every day, the temple was crowded with Jews who took the chance of coming out and encountering government agents who took names and pictures.
"Once I went to celebrate a Jewish holiday, and a few days later I was called into my boss' office at work and told that if I ever did something so stupid again, I'd be fired," he said. "The chief officer of my company was there with KGB agents. They were not happy. Ukraine was the most anti-Semitic country in the entire Soviet Union."
The eight brides and grooms are among the 100 Jewish families from the former Soviet Union who are now members of the San Fernando Valley synagogue. But they are the first of many more in the congregation expected to renew marital vows in their new country.
"These are the first ones," said Jane Ulman, director of community service for Temple Beth Hillel. "A lot of people who are here today want to see these couples test the waters. For these people, this is a big step, something that would have been unthinkable back home."
Also in the crowd of 50 celebrants were two dozen visiting Russian Jews on a tour of Los Angeles.
During the brief ceremony, all four couples stood huddled beneath the wedding canopy known as the chuppah, each woman holding a bouquet of flowers in her trembling hands. Each couple shared the tallit, or prayer shawl, a proclamation that they planned to live their lives and raise their families as practicing Jews.
"Thank you for the example of what you are doing," Rabbi James Kaufman told the participants. "It's hard to be first. But you will inspire others. You are here in this country, here on this pulpit, because you have courage."
For Boris Entin, just being able to wear his yarmulke in public was like some dream come true. For him, the problem with being Jewish in Moscow was not so much persecution, but that his people were so absorbed into the prevailing culture that they were forgetting their roots as Jews--no matter how hard their ancestors had battled to keep the faith.
"Jews who wore yarmulkes on the streets of Moscow were asking for trouble," he recalled. "I can't say people would throw stones at you, but you would stick out, much like a white elephant on the streets of Los Angeles."
For Rivka, a bride who asked that her last name not be used, this day at the temple was one that meant she, her husband and their 3-year-old son, Eugene, could finally be proud of their religion. "For us, this marriage, this ceremony, is like a gift, a blessing."
Rivka recalls the tears she shed the first time she entered a synagogue in the United States three years ago. "Until that day, I really didn't understand all the things I had missed, how poor I was without all this," she said.
"There was freedom here. The people in the temple were like one big family. For someone like me, you cannot conceive what this meant. The handcuffs came off. They simply dropped to the floor."
Sunday was also a day of romance.
Throughout the ceremony, 36-year-old Galina Rovensky kept sneaking glances at her husband, thinking about the day back in St. Petersburg when they first met in the factory where both worked. "I liked him right away," she said of her husband, Mikhail. "Right away, I said to myself, 'This is the man I am going to marry.' Of course, he didn't know it yet."
Indeed, the couple were married--in a state ceremony in the ornate St. Petersburg City Hall. Anything else would have been unthinkable.
Now, living in North Hollywood with their three children, the couple often lie in bed at night--after the kids are tucked in--talking, laughing and sometimes crying, about the life they left behind, as if it was some other planet, some other world where things were not fair.