How do you combine a lifelong passion for theatre, an interest in your heritage, and a desire to connect with your grandma? Abbie Matz figured it out when she decided to create a short film, "Cultural Inheritance: Stories of Grandchildren of Soviet Jewish Immigrants*."
In the film -- which will be screened alongside performances of two Russian-Jewish themed plays during a 10-day theatrical event from August 16-26 at Piven Theater, 927 Noyes Street, Evanston -- Matz connects the dots from her grandma's life in the USSR and the tough decision to emigrate, to her burgeoning career as a Chicago-based IT consultant on assignment in New York City.
The film shows Matz, her friend Becky, and their grandmas, talking about keeping the traditions from "the old country" and how that heritage manifests in their lives today. The generations easily slip between Russian and English as they talk of food, family and sacrifice.
Matz strives to inspire people to connect to their heritage -- that definitely makes her a "Jew You Should Know."
1. Can you tell me a little bit about yourself?
I was born and raised in Highland Park, where I went to Highland Park High School. Growing up and all the way through the end of high school, I was passionate about the performing arts and the theatre world. After high school, I went to Indiana University, Bloomington, where I received a degree in Informatics and Business. I am now a technical consultant for a global consulting firm, which means that I am put on a variety of technical projects solving technical problems, and because of this I travel a lot, which I love.
2. What is the film about?
The premise of the film is that I wanted to look at the lives of the grandchildren of Russian-Jewish immigrants. I thought it was an interesting take on something that has been around for many years. I thought, here is this amazing "coming to America" story, but what most people don't ask about is how being a granddaughter of a Russian-Jewish immigrant feels, because why would someone ask that? I feel that there are aspects of this experience that make a person have a different outlook and think about things from a different perspective. My parents came to this country to build a happy, prosperous life, and that dream that they had inspired me to have a work ethic that makes me work hard for the things I believe in, including this film. My parents and grandparents built a family that is able to thrive without having a fear of government or the fear of the unknown. After my Birthright trip last summer to Israel, it piqued my interest in understanding where my grandma came from. I'm so grateful that my grandmother traced our family history and created her website, appledoesnotfall.com . I am so touched to be working on a project that will be promoting the play my grandmother wrote about our family's immigration story. This dream inspired me to tell that story through this film.
3. Who is someone that inspires you?
My grandma. She came here with nothing and was able to build a happy family. What she has been able to accomplish over her lifetime is very impressive. She is a smart, brave, and amazing woman, and having the opportunity to hear about her experiences is wonderful. I feel so fortunate that she is my grandma.
4. Can you tell me more about your grandma?
My grandma wrote a play, and I thought it was very inspiring that she wanted to write about our family history and put it on a stage for everyone to see. My grandma has always made it her mission that her grandkids should know our family history and understand where we came from, but also that we should be able to put that to the side and focus on where we are going. Once her play had been performed in Rhode Island, she decided to write another play and bring them both to the Chicago area. At that time, I had been looking into grants through the Russian Jewish Division of JUF to do a project that could be adjacent to her very large project, and I was brainstorming ideas of what I was able to do. I decided that a video seemed like the best way to showcase the past, the present, and the hopes for the future all in one neat package. I submitted a grant application, and once I was selected, I was excited to work with my grandma on something, which isn't what most grandkids do.
This whole process was very fun -- it was exciting to uncover old photos and memories and dive into a past that I previously hadn't put much time or effort into learning about. Looking back after the creation of this film, I realized that not only am I living the American Dream, but my parents and grandparents have been able to achieve that dream too.
5. What lesson do you hope a viewer of the film will take from it?
I hope to inspire people to go back, and ask your grandparents what their experiences were, because there will come a day when you won't be able to ask them, and there are things that only they will know. So, take the time to do that when you can, if you can. Also, personally, I am very proud of being a granddaughter and daughter of Russian-Jewish immigrants. I am proud to be Russian, and I am proud to be Jewish. It is something that affects me on daily basis. The way I talk, the way I am, is because I am a Russian Jew. So, I think it is important to surround yourself with people with a similar background than you have, because you have a bond with them that is never going to change.
I am really proud of my heritage and being able to continue that tradition with my children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren -- I want them to be aware of who their grandparents and great-grandparents are, and I want them to know what they are able to accomplish and what their ancestors went through in order for their descendants to have these amazing lives. I am the breaking point because I am the first one to be born and raised here -- my children and grandchildren won't be as close to the immigration story, but I want to share it with them and know their family's history.
6. Are there any family traditions that you still try to keep alive today?
I don't know if we really have any specific family traditions, but we do try to have family dinners for all the special events and holidays. My entire extended family comes, and we always have a large get-together. We have Russian food at all events, so I've never even had Thanksgiving food! I think it's a lot less about specific traditions, and it is more about just continuing the Russian-Jewish traditions that my great-grandparents had in Russia.
7. Why did you decide to become a technical consultant?
Growing up with parents in a technical space, they really pushed me in that direction. My parents are rational, logical people, who want to set themselves and my family up for success and being in technical sector of the workforce is a golden ticket. My brain works similarly to the way that their brains work -- it's rational and logical. I am also interested in seeing how far this world can go from a technical perspective, and although we have come very far, we still have a long way to go. I would love to be a part of seeing where technology will take us in the future.
8. What is one of your favorite things about working in corporate America?
Honestly, I have always loved fashion, and being able to pick out cute business outfits every single morning is very fun!
* The film "Cultural Inheritance: Stories of Grandchildren of Soviet-Jewish Immigrants" is a JUF Russian Jewish Division's Tikkun Fellowship project by Abigail Matz, funded by Genesis Philanthropy Group. Get tickets at https://www.firsthandtheatrical.org/ .