(A Narrative of a Jewish World That No Longer Exists)
By Inna Gordon
Translated from Russian by Alex Gordon
After the 1917 abolition of the Pale of Settlement in Russia, Jews began to settle everywhere, in both the central and peripheral cities of the USSR. Assimilation proceeded apace, but antisemitism also grew and strengthened. Therefore, even in the most provincial Russian cities, where there were few Jews, the Jews found each other and intensely communicated with each other, warming themselves spiritually in cold Russia. But they spoke less and less Yiddish and more Russian, sometimes ashamed of their Jewishness and always laughing at each other.
Frieda Spielman, a longtime friend of my family, knew the rules of etiquette. She, like my family, was born and raised in a Jewish shtetl, of which there were many in early and mid-twentieth century Ukraine. Frieda imagined herself to be much higher on the social ladder, smarter, and more cultured than her fellow co-religionists. Her husband Nathan knew how to "twirl", as we said — that is, to do business. My uncle Grisha also tried his hand at business, but, apparently they "twirled" in different directions, because Grisha was poor, and remained poor, until the end of his short life, whereas Nathan succeeded. Nathan's family — comprised of his wife Frieda and his daughter Tamara, who was the same age as me — was relatively wealthy. They lived in a nice apartment and had money. Nathan got his girls, as he called them, imported clothes, which were unavailable in Soviet Russia in the stores. Frieda was a good and skilled hostess. She never worked anywhere outside the home; she worked only in her home for this home and her family. Material prosperity gave her the opportunity to develop her natural talents for cooking, sewing, and making her home cozy.
“What's the big deal," my Aunt Riva said indignantly. "She's a tsarina, with her nose in the air and thinking she's smarter than everyone else. She must have slept on a stove, like us, mit federn in kopf (with feathers in her head) as a child.”
Still, despite the arrogance of this family, we occasionally met with the Spielmans. The few Jews in our provincial Russian town reached out to each other, so today, for my birthday, we welcomed them along with our relatives.
“We” were my mother Dora — Dobrish Pinkhusovna, and in common parlance Dora Petrovna – and her older sister Riva. Riva was a name some Russians couldn't pronounce, so she was given names like Rimma, Irina, and even Anfisa and Evgeniya. One day, before the local council elections, she was sent an invitation with the name Reova (Reova, in Russian, is Crybaby) Fikusovna (daughter of a fig tree, instead of Pinkhusovna). I nicknamed Auntie Riva “Teoka” when I was a little girl, and then all my nephews, and even my friends, called her that. Teoka is similar to the Russian word "teotya", which means aunt. Gradually I realized that I didn’t want to pronounce the name Riva, which the children in the yard laughed at. I used to call out “Aunt Riva” from the street in front of the windows of our house, and the other children would tease me:
“Jewess, Jewess, we have a canary!”
“And who are you?” I asked them.
“We are Russians!”
Teoka had no children of her own. She had separated from her husband long before, and came to live with me and my mother after the sudden death of my father. He was a talented engineer, and a former Soviet army major who had fought against the Nazis, participated in the capture of Berlin, received several wounds, and been awarded numerous military honours and medals. This misfortune happened a month after he cheerfully celebrated my fourth birthday. And on the birthday described, I was thirteen.
Teoka ran our household and my mother worked as a doctor. Mom, the youngest of six brothers and sisters, was the only one who received higher education, and she graduated from Kiev Medical Institute.
On my birthday, I was in a state of joyful excitement starting first thing in the morning. After breakfast we began to prepare to receive our guests: we spread on the old rickety round table a white tablecloth, and on it Teoka arranged dishes with her culinary masterpieces. The first to arrive were the relatives: Uncle Grisha (with a passport saying Duvid-Hirsch Reznik) who was my mother's and Teoka’s brother; his wife, Aunt Minna; and their children, their son Petya and daughter Ada, both a little older than I. Petya was named after our grandfather Pinchas, but that name was too Jewish and did not sound good in Soviet Russia, so my uncle registered his son as Petya (Peter). Ada was named after our grandmother Ida, and was registered as Ida, but from an early age she called herself Ada,and became so in the official documents. Incidentally, I was also named after my grandmother Ida, but my mother registered me as Inna. Here's a paradox: Ada and Inna, two different names, yet the source is the same. Our parents, on the one hand, wanted to honour their deceased parents according to Jewish custom, but on the other hand protect their children from the hurtful mocking of the non-Jews around them. In this case, Ada herself changed the first letter of her name to make it less Jewish.
The delicious smells wafted from the festive table, and we glanced impatiently at the door. It didn't take long for the Spielmans to arrive. Frieda, as confident as ever, with her then fashionable short haircut, walked ahead, followed by Nathan in an expensive suit, and Tamara with her mind-boggling boots, which Ada and I immediately noticed.The air smelled of an amazing and subtle perfume. After the first greetings and congratulations, Frieda rushed to the set table and looked critically at it.
“Riva, will you let me make some adjustments?”
Without waiting for an answer, Frieda rearranged a few dishes.
“The salad would be better moved closer to the middle of the table, with the pâté on the right, and what is this? Vus is dus? Herring? Common herring? Riva, this is a food of non-Jews. Jews make chopped herring, forshmak. Didn't you know that? Well, don't worry, I'll invite you sometime and treat you to forshmak.”
Nathan spoke up:
“Well, Frieda, genug, we came to congratulate Innochka.”
He handed me a wonderful gift, a fountain pen with a hidden pen inside that I could never have dreamed of. Nathan commanded everyone to sit at the table, and announced: “I have a toast.”
Teoka poured cherry liqueur into glasses, and Nathan took his glass and tried to stand up, but as he did so, he lifted half the shabby table with his huge belly and the dishes rolled down the inclined plane. By some miracle, he managed to hold on to everything except the jar of horseradish, which fell, broke, and smeared all over the floor.
“What a crappy table!” Nathan was indignant. “It should have been thrown away a long time ago.”
We scraped the pieces of glass and horseradish off the floor. We had all lost the urge to make toasts and, under Frieda's watchful eye, we started to eat. No sooner had we swallowed the first bite than Teoka suddenly cried out:
“Wus tut ir?”
It turned out that Frieda had poked her hard in the side and asked in a loud whisper, so that everyone could hear:
“Riva, are you holding a fork in your right hand? Where are the knives? The fork should be in the left hand and the knife in the right. Bring the knives, please.”
Teoka and I ran into the kitchen to get knives.
“Damn you!” Teoka grumbled softly.
We found some knives, but there weren't enough for everyone. Ada, Petya, and I, didn’t get any knives. We took our forks in our left hands and, unused to this, picked at what was on our plates, not enjoying the delicious food that we ate only on holidays. But Aunt Minna decided to show some class. She put a piece of big piece of kholodets on her plate, gently cut off a piece of it with a knife, held the fork in her left hand, put the piece on the fork, and brought it to her mouth, as it should be done, with her left hand. Instantly the beautiful piece of food plopped down onto her new, soft, turquoise-colored dress. This new dress was a big deal in our family. Aunt Minna was so upset that two tears appeared on her round pink cheeks. She returned the piece of kholodets to the plate and began to mop up the stain on the dress with her handkerchief, which made it even larger.
“Well, Minna, don’t bother, you can wash it at home,” Uncle Grisha reassured his wife.
Frieda kept silent, as if she wanted to pretend she hadn’t noticed anything. There was silence for a while. Petya, quietly clutching his fork in his right hand, decided to hold out his left hand for the salad.
“Petya, why are you dragging your hand across the table?” asked the relentless Frieda. “Ask them to pass you the salad plate.”
Petya, a self-important young man, blushed thickly, helped himself to salad from the dish offered to him by Frieda, and bowed his head low to the table. I noticed that he did not eat. Frieda seemed to sense that things were heating up. She began to praise Teoka's gefilte fish, but didn't fail to point out that real gefilte fish is prepared differently.
“Riva, it's true it's very tasty, many people cook it this way, but I'll explain to you how to make this dish properly.”
Frieda was suddenly silent. No one was listening to her. Everyone was devouring the gefilte fish with the appetites of hungry people, holding their forks firmly in their right hands.
Then tea was served. Teoka brought out the shortcakes and a large poppy seed cake, which Frieda volunteered to cut properly. Teoka was silent but I could see that she could hardly contain herself. We hoped the "exam" was over, but it wasn't:
“Don't bang your spoon against your cup of tea, stir the sugar quietly.”
Finally, the excruciating meal was over. Only two people at the table had had a good meal: Frieda and Nathan. The whole time, Tamara sat there with a sour expression and smeared food around on her plate. Maybe it had been explained to her at home that it was improper to eat too much when one was a guest.
As they digested their meal, the older Spielmans struck up a conversation in Yiddish. Ada, Tamara, and I went to look at my presents, which I had put on a separate chair. I showed off the chintz sundress my mother had given me.
“Such a simple sundress? My father bought me an imported one, with narrow straps. Is that a desk lamp? Aunt Riva gave it to you? Those lamps aren't fashionable anymore.”
I didn't want to show them anything else. I distracted Tamara with something and we went back to the table. Soon the Spielmans were leaving. To say goodbye, Frieda uttered the exact words she believed cultured people should say when they leave:
“Innochka, be healthy and continued to study well, as you are doing now. Congratulations! Riva, you made everything delicious, thank you. Minna, Grisha, nice to see you, we haven't seen each other for a long time. Children, listen to your elders. Dora, come and visit us, we'll be glad to see you. Have a good day, everybody!”
When the door shut behind them, we looked at each other in confusion.
“A woman of high culture,” Mom said sarcastically. “She comes to our house and reprimands everyone. She ruined our party.”
Teoka stomped her foot and her little light brown eyes sparkled unkindly. “Look at her! Exactly like our grandmother Leah. Do you remember, Grisha? When we used to go to her for tea, she’d look down on us, because at our house Grandma Osne always lay on the stove mit krekhtsen. Let those smart people go to hell! Minna, Grisha, komen zi noch a mol! In a week I'll make the same recipes, and we'll have a proper birthday party for Nuli” (that's what she called me).
“Don't get upset, fishele,” she said to me. “We'll fix this.”
Exactly one week later Grisha's family didn't just come in; they piled into our house laughing, gyrating, and nudging each other. Without any preamble, we sat down at the table.There was no end to the jokes and ridicule of Aunt Frieda, especially when Aunt Minna laughed: “Riva, is the fork right? Oh, my God, where is the knife? May I put my hand in that pâté?”
“By the way, Minna,” said Mom with a laugh, “Frieda was right. You're supposed to hold the fork in your left hand and the knife in your right. It's just uncomfortable for us because we’re not used to it. But I see nothing wrong with holding the fork in my right hand and helping myself to a piece of bread with my left. The main thing is to eat neatly.”
“That's right, Dora,” said Aunt Minna. “Neatly! Thank you.” She stood up and gave us a sarcastic bow. “I've already eaten with my left hand and ruined my new dress. Thank goodness, the dry cleaner promised to get the stain out. Today I’m wearing a different dress, but even though it is old, it will serve. I don’t want to get it dirty, I do not have another one.”
While they were drinking tea, Aunt Minna, eating a considerable quantity of cakes, tinkled loudly with her spoon against the cup, as if to spite Frieda.
After the meal, Uncle Grisha sat down at the piano and began to play a waltz. He had never studied music, and did not know notes, but having a great ear for music, he could play any melody he heard — with his crooked hands — but he played. We danced till we dropped. The beautiful Ada was all flushed. Her bright blue eyes under her thick, long, black eyelashes were shining. Petya, a tall boy, this time well-fed and cheerful, waltzed well with her, then with me, and then with both of us. The grownups applauded us.
And Uncle Grisha was happy. Evidently he had drunk a lot of liquor and was in a great mood.
“Kinderlech!” he shouted. “Sit down and I’ll show you something. Riva and Petya, sit here and make this sound.” He sang an A in a low octave, and Teoka and Petya repeated it quite accurately. “And say, ‘On the trombone, on the trombone, on the trombone.’ And you, Dora, Inkele, and Adkele, make this sound.” He took the E of the first octave. “And say, ‘On the dulcimer, on the dulcimer, on the dulcimer.’”
We repeated the sound.
“And you, Minza, what am I going to do with you? A bear stepped on your ear — you have no ear for music. You know what? Grab this broom, rub it as hard as you can, and say: ‘Drey dem bezem, drey dem bezem, drey dem bezem’ (I'm rubbing a broom). Are you ready?”
We straightened up. Uncle Grisha stood in front of us, and we waited for his sign. I suddenly thought how slim he was compared to fat Nathan, and how good his shabby suit looked on him.
Uncle Grisha nodded his head, waved his arms, and we, surprisingly but true to form, tightened our sounds. Aunt Minna rubbed the broom so hard that the twigs on it flew in all directions. Uncle Grisha conducted the “orchestra” and sang, as always with perfect pitch:
“The sun of freedom shone.
All nations were glad to see it.
Let the sun keep shining.
If only the Jews were happy.”
I don't know where he got these words from, or the simple tune. Perhaps he composed it himself. It turned out so fantastic that we repeated the whole thing again for an encore. I was so excited and happy that I rushed over to hug my wonderful uncle.
We broke up late. When the table was cleared, a tired Teoka sank slowly into a chair. Suddenly she laughed, stuck-out tongue out, and made a funny face. The stuck-out tongue and the funny face were meant, of course, for Frieda.