The Secret Wedding
By Alex Gordon
I didn’t attend my wedding. True, there was no wedding either; just a wedding dinner after a secret wedding. I was so used to living underground, learning Hebrew and Jewish history, reading samizdat, and participating in secret gatherings, that I could no longer imagine living openly in the USSR. The marriage palaces smelled badly of Soviet power. Chuppot and ketubot were dangerous artifacts, an aggression against the USSR. So, I decided to find out about the registry offices. There were many registry offices in Kiev. I chose the darkest, most dilapidated one, and went with my future wife to that basement. No witnesses were required there, which suited us, the children of the Jewish underground. The clerk at the civil registry office asked us what we wanted in their institution. We explained that we wanted to register our marriage. The clerk was stunned. She remarked in anger that they only register marriages of old people and recommended the marriage center. I saw, in my wife's dreams, a white wedding dress with a veil, while I pictured pompous palaces with red carpets on white staircases, marching up and down staircases of Soviet officialdom, official speeches, and the red veil of the hated regime.
A month later we came to sign a commitment to live a married life. Not only were we married without witnesses, but we informed almost no one about the change in our marital status. None of our friends, associates, or relatives, with the exception of the closest ones, knew of our marriage. On our way back from the registry office we met my mother’s second cousin. She asked us how things were going. We said we didn't know yet, because we had just recently gotten married ̶ half an hour ago. My aunt was shocked, offended, and hurt by my secrecy. I replied that we couldn’t celebrate yet since we didn't know how this marriage would end, because so many people were getting divorced.
Three days after going to the registry office there was a wedding dinner. My newlywedwife represented both of us at the bridal party. I was sick with purulent angina with a high fever. The sore throat was accompanied by an allergy to ceremonies. My stepfather and his parents supported me in not throwing a party under Soviet rule, believing that would have been a display of disrespect for ourselves. I lay at home sick, and contemplated the family situation I had created. When my wife returned from the wedding without her fiancé, she said that the guests had felt sorry for me. I lay sick, and tired, but happy to have escaped the guests and the pompous speeches. Gradually rumors of my marriage began to leak out. Friends, co-workers, and relatives expressed amazement and resentment over our secret marriage. But life in the underground continued. It was divided into two parts: the blackness under socialism and the bright future under Zionism — one harsh, material, and unpromising; the other spiritual, full of hope and joyful expectations. The first was the burden of current worries. The second one looked like a white and blue flag symbolizing a carefully concealed plan to climb Mount Zion.
In the early days of our acquaintance, I informed my wife-to-be of the clandestine nature of my life. It, my life, was like an iceberg: its main part underwater, deep in Zionism. When the wife-candidate first appeared in my apartment, I turned on the radio, found “The Voice of Israel,” and explained that this was my future address. The candidate had to consider whether she should choose to plan her life in a hot, Oriental, and dangerous destination. It was the only way, in my opinion, to get out of hiding. She told me later that my Israeli project initially seemed to her to be preparation for a flight to the moon.
In family life, one must have a map of the minefields, or else the marriage is in danger. The first danger comes from the daughter-in-law/mother-in-law relationship. My mother had one son: me. One can imagine the horror that gripped her over my marriage. When we went to my mother's house right after our marriage registration, we found her lying down with a headache from a hypertensive crisis. It was more or less an understandable reaction: it’s not easy to give one’s son to a stranger. The situation became less tense after the birth of my son since my mother's sense of possessiveness was split in half between me and my son. With the birth of my daughter – when we had already come out of hiding – her possessiveness became even further diminished, divided into three.
The second danger is the mother-in-law/son-in-law relationship. My mother-in-law was born in a Jewish village in Ukraine, into a large, poor, Jewish family where Yiddish was spoken, Ukrainian less often, and Russian almost never. My mother-in-law was born after the October revolution, which elevated her several steps up the social ladder. As a result, this girl from a Jewish village graduated from the Kiev Medical Institute, loved Russian literature, and brushed off her Jewishness. Her Russification was so great that she probably wasn’t happy about her daughter's Jewish move, but at least she didn't show it. There was ideological tension in my relationship with my mother-in-law. The Soviets had given her everything ̶ she’d gone from rags to riches – while the Soviets broke up my family. A cosmopolitan campaign drove my father out of the house, expelled my mother’s sister from Kiev, and drove my grandmother to her grave at the age of fifty-seven, who could not bear the family’s breakdown through the persecution and expulsion of her daughter and son-in-law. My desire to take revenge on the Soviets by immersing myself in Zionism did not meet with my mother-in-law’s approval. After her husband’s death, she’d lived in the St. Petersburg slums described by Dostoyevsky, with a tiny girl, my future wife, and an older sister who bore a striking resemblance to the characters from Sholom Aleichem’s Kasrilevke. When her daughter in a Leningrad courtyard called loudly for her aunt Riva, who had a typical Jewish name, itself arousing the dislike of her Russian neighbors, windows and mouths were opened and a pre-pogrom atmosphere was created. In Leningrad, during the 1953 case of the “doctors’ plot,” my mother-in-law was walking on a knife’s edge, waiting for a surgical procedure to be thrown into Birobidzhan, the so-called Jewish Autonomous Region in the Russian Far East, where few people moved because of the poor climate and harsh living conditions. She was ready for Birobidzhan, but not for Israel.
The third danger arose in a somewhat strange but expected way. My musicologist aunt thought that her former graduate student, who had become my wife, should continue to her musical studies and do a doctorate in musicology. My wife disagreed. I supported her not only because she was my young wife, but also because I considered musicology a field far removed from music, as well as being close to the Soviet ideology that I disliked. The battles over my wife's future studies in musicology were heated and were fed by my desire to get rid of the Soviet ideological burden and move to Israel. One day my aunt floated the idea of my wife doing a dissertation on “Lenin and Music,” under the guidance of her former student named Lenina. I had to respond to this Lenina with an Aurora’ssalvo, like the one that gave the signal for the storming of the Winter Palace on the night of November 7-8, 1917, bringing the Bolsheviks to power.
The fourth threat to family ties can come from children, at some point becoming the most major threat. Our child turned out to be a bomb planted under the well-being of my relatives.
Music was an important part of my family’s life. My mother’s grandmother had a great ear and sang songs in Yiddish. My grandmother also loved to sing. Not surprisingly, my grandmother's daughters studied music from childhood. Both of them graduated from music school and college, but my mother gave up music lessons, whereas her sister became a professional musician, the first head of the department of Russian Music History and dean of the vocal faculty of the Kiev Academy of Music. In our house in Kiev, most of the tenants were teachers at the academy and music school. All of them, including their children, played and competed with each other, pushing aside all non-musical concerns. After the “cosmopolitan” year of 1949 (“rootless cosmopolitan” being a pejorative Soviet epithet referring mostly to Jewish intellectuals as an accusation of their lack of full allegiance to the Soviet Union), about a third of the Jews in our musical house were removed from their jobs and expelled from Kiev, including my non-musical father and my aunt, who took the piano with her. Although I had perfect pitch and vocal abilities, it was piano lessons that were the most popular among Jewish children, and these were lost to me for lack of a musical instrument in the house. My “cosmopolitan” aunt took the “cosmopolitan” grand piano with her and deprived me of the opportunity to become a musician, making me an alien in a thoroughly musical home. However, the love for classical music became a component of my spiritual life, and not only my spiritual life, but also my family life. I married a musician, even though I had always been bent on the exact sciences and didn’t like the frivolous company of musicians.
Perhaps it was to compensate me for the loss of my musical future that my aunt one day landed in Kiev with her best pupil, whom she wanted me to marry. After a three-part battle that lasted several months, she got her way. Music captured me like Prince Igor from Borodin’s opera of the same name. My childless aunt found me a bride and insisted on our getting married, but she boycotted our wedding, for her victory in the matter of the marriage eventually horrified her when she realized she’d be losing her only nephew, who was captured by another woman.
Two years after we married, we had a son. My aunt, who visited us every year to correct what we had done without her during our first year of marriage, came to see her grandson and warned me against trying to dry him up scientifically and poison him with an anti-Soviet upbringing. She said she was very saddened that I was unable to give the child a normal (i.e., musical) upbringing, and that music was, after all, the most important thing in life. I agreed that music was important, but not musicology. My aunt screamed that I was a totally ruined person, that married life had not fixed me at all. She attributed my inadequacy to two reasons: my marriage, and the impossibility of her having a positive influence on me due to her distance from where I lived. Since it was my aunt who introduced me to her student and contributed much to our marriage, her criticism might have seemed strange, but not in our family. With us, everything was paradoxical and unusual, and most importantly everyone was against everyone else, even if we fervently loved each other. This kind of destructive love was familiar to me from childhood. The affection of a relative was a complex kind of relationship. Arguments went on about everything. Criticism was a necessary basis for communication, and agreement was rare.
The birth of a child hastened our preparations to leave for Israel. I did not want my son to go the way of my relatives, all of whom were genuine “cosmopolitans,” despite having been persecuted because of their Jewish background. All my relatives were against the Israeli option. My aunt said that I wanted to dry out my son in the land of sand, camels, and donkeys. My father declared that I wanted to turn both myself and my son into cannon fodder. My father’s brother, a staunch communist, made a powerful argument of historical significance. He argued that I would bring state repression on all my relatives, and that I was following the vicious path of a relative of ours who had gone to Palestine four years before my uncle was born, and who had become an embarrassment to the whole family. This adventurer and loser condemned by the whole family, went to rebuild the desert instead of building socialism in Russia. Thus, I earned the same condemnation as an “adventurer” and “loser” as my relative, the well-known Aaron David Gordon. My aunt declared that she expected nothing good from a country where only Jews lived. My father, aunt, and uncle, who never agreed with each other on anything, came to the same conclusion regarding my plans: adventurous, shameful, and a form of sabotage against the family.
While I was fighting with my relatives for the right to repatriate to Israel, I had to refute my aunt's accusations against my “dry” scientific method of parenting. I prepared for my son’s childbirth very thoroughly. An important element in the preparations was the purchase of a gramophone and classical music records. I believed that even if a child could not read and understand texts with wisdom, he needed to listen to serious music. I put him on records and hummed his favorite classical music tunes. By the age of three, the child recognized hundreds of tunes and had learned to sing properly, long before he could coherently speak. My aunt was pleasantly surprised by his achievements, but said that she did not believe they were due to my actions. At the same time, I read a lot of poetry to my son, trying to compensate him for his scientific “drying up” tendencies. But when my aunt found out that I had decided to go to Israel after all, she screamed at me that, for the sake of delusional Zionist ideas, I was willing to ruin the child's musical talent.
The only relative who defended the idea of repatriation was my son himself. In Russia he got into a lot of trouble musically. He sang symphonies and arias everywhere, and the children would smack him around because they didn’t like classical music. Another factor that encouraged us to leave was my son’s pronunciation: he pronounced the “r” sound in a Yiddish manner. Either he was copying one of our relatives who could not say the resounding Russian “r,” or he had some sort of Jewish speech inclination. He would come back from the street crying after the other children had teased him about his Jewish accent. With such an accent, a sad fate awaited him in the USSR. Children yelled at him to get out of Russia and move to Israel. Our son was so young that no one in the family argued with him. He did not understand their complex anti-Zionist arguments, and from the children’s street he brought convincing arguments in favor of packing for the trip.
The antisemitism in Kiev in the 1970s was so powerful that it eclipsed the rest of my childhood memories. When I was three years old, my mother sent me to a private Jewish kindergarten. The group consisted of six children. The teacher read books to us in her home, sorted out our childhood conflicts, organized games, and took us for walks in the Botanical Garden and Shevchenko Park near the university where I later studied. It was a warm home, devoid of Soviet officialdom, an oasis of kindness. There was nothing specifically Jewish in the educational conversations; no Jewish holidays were celebrated. There was just pre-school education following the example of German educator Friedrich Fröbel. Such educators in Russia in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were called “Frebelichkas”. It was teaching through human communication based on respect. There were several such underground Jewish groups in Kiev. Parents protected their children from the rampant Kiev antisemitism by placing them in children's groups. Even so, I was not able to hide from the antisemitism in Kiev. Eventually, after leaving the “ghetto,” I plunged into life unprotected. Kiev was not only the capital of Ukraine, but the capital of antisemitism. I did not want my son to have to take refuge in the children’s ghettos from the inevitable antisemitism. Our little son proved to be a decisive argument in the battle over Zionism.
When my son arrived in Israel, he continued to show great musical promise. He sang, incorporating Hebrew songs into his repertoire. His “r’s” sounded as if he had been born in a Jewish state or in the place where his maternal grandmother had lived. He was found to have perfect pitch and began to play the piano and guitar and compose music. Apparently, however, the process began that my aunt had predicted. Exposed to the desiccating influence of science, he began doing experiments at home in chemistry, physics, and electronics. His room became a laboratory. These scientific pursuits culminated in an explosion and a fire during one of his experiments, when he made gunpowder and injured his eye at the age of fifteen. These events, however, did not deter him from science. He became a doctor of physics, like me. There was less and less music in the house and more and more science. My son turned out to be a musical Trojan horse, launched into our family for its evacuation to the country of Israel. He became the leitmotif of our coming out of hiding.