Oksana Baiul, figure skating champion, embraces Jewish roots
Oksana Baiul recently discovered a kosher grocery store five minutes from her home in Cliffside Park. The champion figure skater who captured the gold medal at 16 years old in Lillehammer, Norway, at the 1994 Winter Olympics loves the taste of challah and commented one recent Friday afternoon on the impending arrival of Shabbat.
Believing she was Russian Orthodox until two years ago, when she discovered her Jewish roots, Baiul has embarked on what she calls a slow path to learning what it means to be Jewish. And although she does not sit on the boards of many organizations, she has just become a trustee of Tikva Childrens Home in Odessa, an educational institution for Jewish orphans there, and will participate on June 20 in a West Orange fund-raiser benefiting Tikva and two other childrens organizations.
Baiul spoke with NJ Jewish News by telephone while driving with her fiance, Gene Sunik, from Miami to Richmond, Va. Gene, a Russian Jew, settled in the New York area when he was five years old. According to Baiul, he was thrilled to learn that he would not be intermarrying when the two wed.
Baiul, who was born in Dnipropetrovsk, Ukraine, considered herself an orphan by the time she was 13. Her parents divorced when she was two, and her father faded out of her life. She has no childhood memories of him. Her maternal grandparents died when she was 10, and she lost her mother to ovarian cancer at 13. Shortly thereafter, her then coach departed for Canada, and she was alone, often sleeping on a cot in the rink where she practiced. I basically grew up on my own, she told NJJN.
After she won the 1994 Olympics, she moved with her coach to the United States, but she said at 16, I was so young; I wasnt really part of the decision-making process. My coach said, Okay, lets move to America and live there. I said, Okay, lets go.
While in the United States, she began touring and competing professionally. But she also began making headlines again, this time for her wild behavior and heavy drinking and partying. In 1997, she was involved in a drunk-driving crash; by the next year, shed had another crash and entered a rehab program. Her reentrance into skating was widely reported in magazines like Sports Illustrated and on television shows like The Oprah Winfrey Show.
Today, Baiul continues to tour and skate, and she has her own figure skating apparel company, the Oksana Baiul Collection.
By the time she was 25, after nearly 10 years in the United States, she told NJJN, I realized, Im a Ukrainian person. My mothers grave is in Ukraine. So she decided to go back to find some closure.
Finding her father was a part of that trip. So was getting to the truth about an old rumor that she was Jewish, although she had been raised Russian Orthodox. When I was growing up in Russia, you were either Russian or Ukrainian. You couldnt be Jewish. That would be an embarrassment.
She first sought diplomatic channels to find her father, with no luck. Finally, she called the director of the rink she had skated in as a child. Convincing people at the rink she was really Oksana Baiul was the hardest part. They hung up on me three times before they would put the call through to the director, she recalled. He found her father within a few days by knocking on the doors of all the houses in the area. She then flew to Ukraine, and, with Gene at her side, she summoned the courage to meet her father. It was very emotional, she said. And while with him, she asked about her roots. Is that true, that rumor that I am Jewish? I asked. He said, Yes, your [maternal] grandmother was Jewish.
Gene was like, Wow! It sounded very unreal to me. Gosh, I thought, I was born and raised Russian Orthodox. In the end, she said, I really liked hearing that because I am sharing my life with a Jewish person. And she added, I am getting closer to Jewish culture, starting to learn what Judaism is all about.
She doesnt feel pressure to learn quickly, and is taking things at her own pace. Rehab, knowing I had to give things up for the rest of my life, that was pressure, she said, referring to her treatment for alcoholism. Being Jewish, that feels good. It feels natural, like a second skin.
In April, she accepted an invitation from Emily Lehrman, director of strategic development and operations for the American fund-raising arm for Tikva, to travel with a group of supporters to see the orphanage in Odessa and meet the children there.
Lehrman was banking on the parallels between the children serviced by Tikva and Baiuls own personal history, but she had no real connection to Baiul. I just reached out to her and hoped she read our material, said Lehrman. But even she was taken aback by Baiuls response. She called me immediately on her cell phone. I was surprised. We had made some preliminary effort reaching out to other prominent Ukrainian Jews, but the response has been cold, with a few exceptions. (Lenny Krayzelburg, Olympic swimming gold medalist and a Jew from Odessa, also sits on the organizations board.)
I was interested because it was an orphanage and because it was Ukrainian. But I had no idea how much it was going to touch my soul. We could speak to each other. And the people running the orphanage I became part of the family. When I went I thought, okay, its an orphanage, Im an orphan, well work together. But when I came back, I said oh, this is just perfect. It made an incredible impression on me. And it made me feel so good about myself.
The trip to Tikva also increased Baiuls interest in Judaism, she said, particularly after spending Shabbat there. As soon as she returned, she went to find the kosher grocery store, and has decided to try not to mix dairy and meat.
Im exploring Judaism now. Im just at the beginning. Im taking it one day at a time, opening myself to the experience. Its happening slowly but it feels good.
Baiul said the only other board she is on is a figure-skating club in Harlem. I dont like to get involved in something if I dont really understand what it is, just to throw the name around. Id rather have something good I can really put my heart into. She plans to take another trip with Tikva within six months.
Now I can share myself with the kids. I can raise money for them and go there and spend time with them. Its perfect for me.
Her West Orange appearance will take place at the 11th Annual Vitaquest Childrens Charities Golf Outing on June 20 at the Crestmont Country Club in West Orange. Proceeds will benefit the Tikva Childrens Home in Ukraine, the US Maccabiah Team, and Schneider Childrens Medical Center in Israel. At the outing, expected to attract 150 people and raise more than $200,000, a private skating lesson with Baiul will be auctioned off.
Johanna Ginsberg can be reached at email@example.com.