Photo: Maxim D. Shrayer
The Jewish Stone
By David Shrayer-Petrov
Translated from Russian by Mira Isabella Shrayer and Emilia A. Shrayer
We were strolling along the shore of Lake Ladoga: Lyonya Kogan, my friend from the days of our youth, and I. Both of us were students. Lyonya attended the College of Civil Engineering, I—the Pavlov Medical School. Both of us were born and raised in Leningrad. Both liked hiking on the Karelian Isthmus. On that particular morning we had arrived from Leningrad by bus, unloaded our stuff, paid some ridiculously low fee at the office of the nearest vacation home and were accommodated in a room for six, its air already purple-grey from cigarette smoke. We pushed our backpacks under the beds, had cream of wheat and some bread for breakfast and went off to explore the shore. At the time we were both crazy about collecting rocks and minerals. Sometimes in different spots along the Karelian Isthmus we were lucky to find some rare rock shards that had survived since the glacial period, perhaps even earlier. No, please don’t get me wrong. We weren’t treasure hunters! We were fascinated with patterns and patterning on the surface of perfectly ordinary stones. Sometimes nature would leave its footprints: those mysterious drawings formed by crystals, inlaid on the facets of different minerals. There even was a place in Leningrad where the collectors of natural stone patterns would meet to share their findings, and to exchange various samples. I believe their meeting place was not far from the corner of Nevsky Prospect and Mayakovsky Street, near a soda fountain stand. Sometimes there would be a special delivery of the famous Lagidze soda flavors from the Republic of Georgia, and people would line up to get it.
And so this story began in the late 1950s on one clear Karelian day in July, when Lyonya and I strolled along the shore of Lake Ladoga. The immense lake water, blue and cold, lay in the chalice of granite shores. I don’t quite recall which of us discovered that wondrous smattering of rock shards. Nor do I remember who was the first to notice crystals of quartz sprouting through the feldspar surface, an outcropping which created a pattern of some mysterious script.
It looked as though some ancient writings were scattered on the pink surface of the Karelian stone.
“It looks like Gothic script!” Lyonya cried out.
I looked closely. No, it didn’t look like Gothic, but rather like Jewish script. Hebrew, or “ancient-Jewish,” as they used to say in the home of my late paternal grandmother. I could recognize some letters of the Jewish alphabet which my grandmother had taught me. She had a Jewish primer published before the Revolution, and during the Soviet years she kept it at home in case one day she would want to teach her grandchildren the basics of Jewish literacy. From time to time my grandmother would try to nurture my connection to Jewish culture. I remembered some of her lessons, and now they came in handy.
“Look, Lyonya, this is the letter shin: it looks a little like the Russian Ш (Sh). Only its vertical lines stretch a bit to the side like slender twigs, before they grow upwards. And here is the letter alef resembling the Russian X (Kh), except its two rungs bend more gracefully. And the letter kof is almost exactly like our P(R), while resh also looks like it, except it faces the other way. And ayin, you see, is almost exactly like the Russian У (Ou)!”
“Yes, yes.” Lyonya picked it up. “A wonderful discovery! Amazing! Quartz conjoined with feldspar forms letters resembling Jewish writings!”
It was in his nature to make lofty pronouncements. We would come across a very old oak tree, and Lyonya would say: “This wrinkled elder is a witness to Peter the Great’s life and deeds!” An attractive girl would walk by, and Lyonya would follow her with a long-drawn look and declare: “One could follow such beauty to the end of the world!” Except he didn’t go anywhere; just stared admiringly at the disappearing girl and sighed woefully: “Well, she is not for us, no!” Lyonya was a short guy and didn’t dare to introduce himself to long-legged girls. He was, one could say, a little odd, but the oddities of his character didn’t stop the two of us from beinggood friends. That day, on the shore of Lake Ladoga, we decided that after we got back to Leningrad we would show the unusual stones to connoisseurs from the Nevsky Prospect.
We returned to Leningrad and several days later went to meet with the collectors of rare and unusual stones. I’m not sure how it happened that neither of us brought the actual samples of the Jewish stones we had found at Lake Ladoga. “Jewish stones” was the name we had come up with, and later we were surprised to learn that in Russian encyclopedias such a stone with interspersing feldspar and quartz was indeed called evreiskii kamen’ (“Jewish stone”). Even Dahl’s Dictionary of the Living Great Russian Language carried a definition: “Jewish stone, or graphic granite, feldspar dotted with quartz crystals.”
Many years passed. Lyonya and I had matured: we became family men with advanced degrees in our pockets. Both of us had moved to Moscow. From time to time we would speak on the phone. Occasionally we would get together. We had stopped hunting for stones. Life was taking us further and further apart. In the late 1970s my wife, son, and I applied for exit visas to Israel. I was fired from the Research Institute of Immunology, Natasha, from Kometa Publishers. For over a year we waited for the decision by the Visa Office, and then they finally refused our request. We became refuseniks. With great difficulty I found a job as a rank-and-file physician in a local outpatient clinic. Natasha became a photography instructor in a workers’ leisure club on the outskirts of Moscow. Our social circle of friends got more and more limited to Jewish refuseniks. Many of them couldn’t find work. It was a miracle if a job popped up. Once a refusenik acquaintance of ours mentioned that he happened to know the chief engineer of a construction trust, a man who was willingly helping Jewish refuseniks to find work. This chief engineer turned out to be Lyonya Kogan.
In truth, I hadn’t called him for a long time as I didn’t want to put him in an awkward position. What if he avoided contacts with refuseniks? And now, luckily, the opposite had turned out to be true: he was actually helping them. That’s why I called Lyonya right away. He sounded very happy and invited me to his home for tea. Natasha and I went to visit with him. Lyonya and his wife, Zoya, had moved to a tower apartment building near River Terminal metro station. They received us like their own family. In their company we didn’t feel the burden of those refusenik years of anxious contemplation and waiting, when some friends would forget our phone number, while others would still call us, although less and less frequently. But now it felt like the old times at the Kogans’, when we would stay up late and talk. And the more we talked, the clearer it became how much they had changed. They had become religious. But unlike the Jewish refuseniks or Jews who hadn’t yet made the decision to emigrate but were returning to their roots and traditions, the Kogans had been baptized into the Orthodox Christian Church.
At first we thought we had misheard or misunderstood what they said. I mentioned before that Lyonya was given to lofty language. However, what we’d heard was true. Passages from both the Old and the New Testament, and talk of the Son of God, he alone capable of helping his people gain the Kingdom of Heaven. Beliefs backed up by quotations from Pasternak and Mandelstam; a little Icon of the Savior in the left corner of the living room, illuminated by an electrical lamp; and other visible and hardly visible signs of their religious transformation that testified to a new path in the Kogans’ spiritual life. However, to us they just remained old friends, who brightened our difficult years of fighting for the right to leave the Soviet Union. Even though the Kogans decided—at least at that time—to stay in Russia, their circle of Jewish friends didn’t get smaller, but actually widened. Both Lyonya and Zoya supported refuseniks with their friendship, with money, and connections.
At last, we received the long-awaited visas. The Kogans helped us with the packing, and the day before our flight to Vienna, they drove us to the airport to help us get our luggage through customs. The next morning the Kogans and our other friends staying in Russia came to Sheremetyevo airport to embrace us before the parting—perhaps forever. Would it be forever?
About three months after we landed in America, I wrote a letter to Lyonya, and he wrote back. Six months later he telephoned us from Moscow. Things were going well for them. Lyonya had teamed up with two friends to open an all-night café, Sova (“Owl”), and at the beginning business was great. At least, this is what Lyonya said when he called us in Boston. I was also getting cheerful postcards from him. I was stunned to find out a year later that Lyonya, Zoya, and their daughter Sonya found themselves in Germany, in a small town outside Frankfurt. Lyonya called me from Germany. As I understood, the Kogans had had a narrow escape from the Mob after they started harassing Lyonya and taking almost all of the money he was making at the Owl Café. Long story short, Lyonya had to give away his café to the Mob and applied to the German embassy for an exit visa. He sold his co-op apartment in the tower building with a view of the Moscow River, packed his suitcases, and became a refugee.
We now called each other regularly. I called from Boston, he, from some place near Frankfurt. Lyonya didn’t want to write letters, nor, as he put it, did he trust the postal service. He was the one who called more often. As a welfare recipient, he was entitled to a monthly coupon for international phone calls. We were his only friends in America. From what I gathered, neither Lyonya nor Zoya could find a job. Sonya was a junior in a local high school. At the beginning the Kogans received support from Jewish charity organizations. A few months later they started getting German government assistance, to which they were entitled as refugees from a country where they had been persecuted for ethnic or religious reasons. Lyonya and his family were eligible: they were Jews, and in Russia Jews were discriminated against. All was fair. Gradually the Kogans got used to living in their small town outside Frankfurt. The two government checks were more than enough to pay their modest rent and buy quality food products from the local shops and supermarket, to which they would drive in their new Volkswagen. They could even afford the membership in a local tennis club. And so Lyonya and Zoya began to play tennis with local tennis players, sometimes even twice a day, in the morning and in the afternoon.
“What can I say, old man. Life here is pretty darn good! The food is excellent and not expensive. We do sports, we take walks in the nearby fields. Little by little we’re mastering German—the language of the great poets Goethe and Heine,” Lyonya said on the phone.
Everything was going well for several years. The Kogans played tennis, Sonya was training to become a nurse. She now had a boyfriend, a car mechanic by the name of Walter who came from a neighboring town.
“Walter sometimes sleeps over in Sonya’s room in our house. Other times she stays over at his place. And it’s quite all right with the Germans, and this speaks to their openness and honesty,” my friend explained.
One day Lyonya woke me up. He sounded very alarmed: “Listen, my cholesterol’s way up. What do I do?”
I asked him banal questions: “What is in your diet? Do you eat much salty food? Is your blood pressure under control?”
“What kind of questions are these, old man? Naturally, we don’t avoid eating pork, if that’s what you mean. Pork’s very inexpensive here, and nothing goes better with beer! Also, I have dinner at our tennis club twice a week, with a mandatory extra-extra-large pork chop! We can’t lag behind the others; they all are our friends.”
“Lyonya, are you the only ones from Russia in your town?”
“There used to be a Jewish family from Vilnius. But the nearest synagogue is only in Frankfurt. And also these Lithuanian Jews, they didn’t hit it off with the locals.”
“And so what happened?”
“They moved someplace else.”
“What does it have to do with me? I don’t go to synagogue!”
“Do you have an Orthodox church there?”
“Not nearby. And why do we need it anyway? Zoya and I no longer feel attached to Orthodoxy. Sometimes we stop by their local Lutheran church on Christmas or Easter, just to be like everybody else. Not to stick out. Otherwise they’ll think we are atheists.”
“Do you also put up a Christian wreath on your door?”
“Of course we do! One shouldn’t violate local folk customs!”
That was some conversation Lyonya and I had! One would have thought that it made everything clear. However, we usually miss not some ideal cardboard characters from baggy novels, but our old friends with whom we’ve had so many frank and open conversations about life and whom we trust so much. We dearly miss the friends to whom we want to open up completely, the way we wouldn’t to any psychotherapist. There are times we hesitate to reveal the deepest tiers of our soul even to our spouses, but we don’t hesitate to do so with our genuine friends. With the Kogans, my wife and I were able to reveal our innermost thoughts. And I believe they felt the same about us. But for various reasons we hadn’t been able to visit them in Germany, and they hadn’t come to America. Finally an opportunity presented itself. Their daughter Sonya was getting married to Walter, the local fellow she had been dating.
We flew direct from Boston to Frankfurt. We landed at dawn, collected our luggage, and stood waiting for Lyonya inside the terminal. When we had last spoken on the phone, we had agreed he would meet us outside the customs office. We waited for forty minutes. He wasn’t there. Unfortunately our cell phone refused to work on German soil. It turned out we hadn’t thought of getting a special SIM card to replace our American one. At last Lyonya turned up, smiling his dear old smile except perhaps a little embarrassed. He was in such a hurry to meet us that he went over the speed limit and got stopped by a traffic policeman. Which is why, as we stood waiting for him in the airport terminal, Lyonya was having a back-and-forth with a guard of the German superhighways. In the end it all worked out and Lyonya got only a moderate fine.
Lyonya dashingly drove his new Volkswagen. Natasha and I were telling him about our life in Boston. Every five minutes Lyonya would point out yet another vista opening up through the windows of his trusty minicar. We expressed our delight, exuberantly but quite sincerely, as the views were truly beautiful. Memory immediately recalled illustrations of Grimms’ fairy tales from our childhood. Especially “Puss in Boots.” Fields of ripening wheat, golden like waves of a woman’s hair. Green apple boughs adorned with scarlet lanterns of fruits; yellow lakes of alfalfa fields; stork nests atop huge wooden cart wheels, which had been used on these roads two hundred years before or thereabout. What could we say? We could see how one would fall in love at first sight with such a blessed country. It happens at the theater that the viewers, overwhelmed by the luxurious set, forget all about the hustle and crowdedness of life behind the stage. Just the same as we forgot about death camps and gas chambers, about black smoke—all that had remained of our brothers and sisters who had been murdered here, in the midst of these fairy-tale fields.
We arrived at Lyonya and Zoya’s house three days before the wedding so that we would have time to look around, talk heart to heart, and try to understand our friends’ new way of life. And of course just to take long walks in the fields and woods, sit on their veranda, drink some vodochka and beer, just like we used to in the old days in Moscow. The Kogans were living in a well-built stone house with a garage for two cars. One was Lyonya and Zoya’s Volkswagen; the other, an Opel, belonged to Sonya. The plan was for her to live in Walter’s house in the neighboring town, and commute to work in Frankfurt. This is what Lyonya told us while we were racing home from the airport. We arrived to find Zoya waiting for us on the front porch. Sonya was not home; she was busy shopping for last things needed for the wedding. We hugged Zoya and started to get our suitcases out of the trunk of the Volkswagen.
“Wait,” Lyonya said loudly. “Don’t you notice something?”
We turned around. Nothing unusual caught our attention. On both sides of the street, there stood solidly built country houses.
“Lyonya dear, give us a clue what to look for,” Natasha and I pleaded.
“Here, look here!” our friend pointed to something on the wall, next to the jamb of the front door.
We looked closer. Laid into the wall was a piece of granite with clearly visible Jewish letters. A Jewish stone, one of the samples Lyonya and I had found long ago on the shore of Lake Ladoga. Hanging on the wall next to it was an old horseshoe. I kept a Jewish stone just like this one on my desk in Boston. I touched this homemade mezuzah—a talisman resembling in its symbolism the ones hung on the doorways in Jewish homes, and then I looked at Lyonya probingly. He understood my concealed question and smiled, bewildered.
“After so many years of oscillations, one must find a grain of truth,” Lyonya said.
We never spoke of it again. It was clear that Lyonya had had trouble untangling himself from this maze of religious problems. Lyonya was an honest if pliable person, who was burdened with too many problems.
The veranda attached to the back of the Kogans’ house overlooked meadows where a herd of black-and-white well-fed cows grazed all day. Every morning before breakfast Natasha and I walked down the veranda steps and strolled in the direction of the forest. The cows followed us with forlorn looks. They probably wanted to come along. But the meadows where they grazed were fenced off by thin mesh wire attached to aluminum poles.
The wedding reception was in a local restaurant. Thank God they managed to do without a church ritual. The whole official part took place in the mayor’s office. This suited everyone involved: Walter and his parents, Sonya, Lyonya and Zoya. A band was playing covers. Young people were dancing with abandon. Older guests were having generous drinks and appetizers. My dear friends were aglow with happiness. The wedding was coming to an end when one of the guests, a big red-faced gentleman with gelatinous eyes swollen with fat, got up with a glass in his hand (wine, vodka, or a different kind of schnapps—I don’t know) and asked for the guests’ attention. Natasha and I were sitting next to the Kogans, so I could hear Lyonya’s whisper: “Herr Stübbe, president of the local tennis club!” Stübbe or not Stübbe, I didn’t really care. But suddenly there was complete silence in the room, and I listened.
Stübbe began his speech quite traditionally. He toasted the bride and groom and wished them a long and happy marriage. Then Stübbe listed the accomplishments of Lyonya and Zoya: their achievements in the tennis game, their progress in mastering German, their success in cultivating a rare and exceptionally juicy variety of apples in their garden—and most of all the special hospitality of their family and the way all the neighbors loved them.
“The neighbors, and the members of our tennis club,” added Stübbe, his gaze spanning the wedding tables.
The guests roared approvingly, clapped their hands, and filled and emptied their glasses. However, an impatient clinking of a fork on the glass or plate brought them to order. This was Herr Stübbe, apparently displeased that he had been interrupted. Again, there was silence in the room as Stübbe continued.
“This morning, when I was walking by the house of our dear Russian friends, parents of the beautiful bride, I caught sight of some new detail decorating their entrance. This new detail on the wall next to the front door consists of a piece of stone with an inscription in some language alien to our people. What’s more, the letters on the stone laid into the wall stirred up some very bitter memories in me, memories of the shame unfairly brought on the German people. The entire German people, even though the culprits were a handful of fanatics. I hope that my friends, Herr and Frau Kogan, didn’t mean to offend their German neighbors and did it unintentionally. And if so, they will immediately remove this insulting and offensive stone with Jewish letters from their house wall, so that neither they nor we ‘would keep a stone in our bosom,’ as the folk saying goes.”
The toast of Herr Stübbe, who, as it turned out, commanded much respect in their town, led to everybody’s jubilation, even though most of the guests didn’t have the faintest idea what the toast meant. However, everybody jubilated. Seated at the table between Natasha and me (at the Kogans’ request) was a woman from the same town, who had no trouble translating from German to Russian.
Two days later Lyonya drove us to the Frankfurt airport, and we flew back to Boston. I couldn’t shake the memories of this philistine Stübbe and his insinuating and repugnant toast, in which traditional congratulatory words alternated with a hidden threat. Obviously, this heir to the stormtroopers regarded the Jewish stone as a menace. However, family and work are the best remedy for all kinds of obsessive thoughts, as Natasha and I returned to our everyday routine. In addition, economic and political life in America was so turbulent that even if we managed to follow the news on TV or read about it in newspapers, in all honesty Russian immigrants like us had no time to worry about the resurgence of Nazi ideas in Germany. We had enough trouble making sense of what was happening in America! Eventually the Kogans’ problems receded into the distant corners of our memory, where they continued to dwell, only rarely reminding us of their existence.
Meanwhile the events in the small German town near Frankfurt turned out not so favorably for our friends. Natasha and I learned about it too late even to be able to offer them sound advice. As it happened, two or three months after we had returned to Boston, there was a call from Lyonya. I will try to summarize the conclusion of my friend’s story.
Soon after the wedding, Lyonya went out for a game of tennis. The weather was perfect. Light clouds sped across the September sky. Lyonya’s hand longed for the feel of his tennis racket. And he missed socializing with his pals from tennis club, missed talking to them about world tennis events. He wanted to hear their take on the wedding, to eat and drink with them at the dinner table. On that particular day, a traditional dinner was scheduled for the tennis club members. Lyonya entered the locker room, changed into his sportswear, took his racket out of the case, and went to look for his regular tennis partners. Two brand new members were playing on one of the courts, but Lyonya didn’t want to play with them. He walked around the courts, then dropped into the lounge where club members usually hung out between games, reading newspapers, chatting, or playing chess. None of his regular partners was there. At this moment Herr Stübbe, president of the tennis club, came out of his office. Usually polite and benevolent, this time he didn’t even smile at my friend but barely nodded: “Oh, it’s you, Kogan…” Lyonya sensed that something wasn’t right. Truth to tell, those disturbing thoughts had been bothering him ever since the wedding, since Stübbe’s toast. And yet, as it often happens in life, we don’t heed our intuition, even if the truth seems obvious. Lyonya asked, hoping for what? a miracle?
“Herr Stübbe, you don’t happen to know why my tennis partners aren’t here? At least one of them? Maybe they are sick?”
For a moment or so, Herr Stübbe pondered the Russian Jew’s naïve question, as if wondering, What if the poor guy simply doesn’t know what is going on? And now, a broad smile forming on his face, Stübbe put his hand on my friend’s shoulder, walked with him down the hallway, and explained to him that he (Kogan) had made a mistake, and because of this mistake people didn’t want to play tennis with him, and therefore he (Kogan) should go home right now, remove this scandalous stone from his house wall, and throw it away for good.
“Looking forward to seeing you at our club dinner! Five o’clock as usual,” said Stübbe, and nudged Lyonya toward the exit.
My friend got home with feverish thoughts in his head. On the one hand, it seemed so easy to bring a chisel, hammer, and stepladder and get rid of the Jewish stone. That would have instantly solved all his problems with the tennis club. And not only with the club. Sonya had mentioned after the wedding that Walter and his family also didn’t approve of the alien symbolism, of the stone’s defiant message. However, Zoya stood by her husband, cutting off Sonya’s lamentations with, “What would you expect us to do—abandon our own selves?!”
Lyonya returned the stepladder to the garage, and put the chisel and hammer back with the other tools. Yet all he could think about was the Jewish stone. He thought that he saw some neighbors walk by his house several times, angrily staring at its façade. And he even saw Stübbe walk by, casting mean glances at his house. Maybe it’s better not to go to that dinner, and to forget about the tennis club? Lyonya wondered. Then they will leave me alone.
In the end he overcame all his doubts, put on a dress jacket and tie, and headed over to the club. The lobby was full of people, but it so happened that all his club acquaintances managed to avoid him, as though by chance. And Lyonya stood all alone like a small island in the middle of a cresting river. Even his regular tennis partner, the one who hadn’t shown up in the morning, dove into the crowd upon seeing my friend Lyonya. Just like that, not even an apology. Lyonya refused to think of these irregularities as anything but coincidence: every person had his own reason for acting antisocial. Gradually the club members moved into the banquet hall.
A whole team was usually brought in to prepare and serve dinners for the hungry tennis players. An experienced maître d’ by the name of Kurt was in charge of the dinner service. Lyonya was quite friendly with him. As a young man, Kurt had spent several years in Russia as a prisoner of war and remembered the lyrics and music of some Russian folk songs. Each time they met, Kurt would start singing a Russian song, “Ryabinushka,” or another one, and always wanted Lyonya to join him. Sometimes this little talent show would be left until the end of dinner, when all the club members had consumed a good amount of local beer. But this time Kurt met Lyonya at the entrance to the banquet hall. He looked a little embarrassed and didn’t shake my friend’s hand. What’s more, Kurt, the maître d’, blocked the entrance so that Lyonya couldn’t get into the banquet hall. Lyonya tried to get past him, but Kurt wouldn’t let him.
“What’s the matter, Kurt?” Lyonya asked.
“In the opinion of our tennis club members and Herr Stübbe, our president,” Kurt replied, “your presence at the traditional dinner is no longer desirable.”
After that, the Kogans’ life became unbearable. Neighbors shunned them. The local grocery store served them grudgingly. Sonya said that Walter wouldn’t set foot in her parents’ house until they got rid of “the repugnant stone.” Finally, the landlord demanded that they remove “the Jewish stone”; otherwise their rental contract would not be renewed.
“What should we do? What would you advise?” Lyonya asked me: “Give in? Move to another place within Germany, as far away as we can? Go back to Russia?”
I didn’t know what to tell him.
Boston, May 2011