Jerusalem As A Second Language

 

Jerusalem As A Second Language

(Excerpt from a Novel)

By Rochelle Distelheim

 

Jerusalem, 1998

 
The Russian authorities smashed the keyboard of my piano. Someone was enraged that a Jew would own such an instrument, that we would have such solace in our possession. 
 
I speak of the early 1990s, when the Soviet Union came apart into a collection of smaller countries. I speak of the man-in-charge: brave, but naïve, Mikhail Gorbachev, his dream of a Western-leaning Russia bringing a dollop of sanity into our lives. Gorbachev was the one who said to the Jews what had never before been said: Go, find happiness, find love, good luck, sending us off to other countries in a blizzard of applications and visas and papers stamped in gold leaf.
 
 
 
Allow me to introduce myself: Manya Zalinikov. Zalinikova, if I choose the feminine ending. Russian émigré, now living in Jerusalem..
 
“Manya, please, do not call us emigrés.”
 
This is my husband, Yuri, an atheist, like myself, or so I thought, burning with a sudden fever to “live like a Jew.”
 
“Speak up, Manya, say where we have arrived. Olim, new Israelis, this is who we are.”
 
Yuri is correct. Our family is now, since eight months, Israeli. But olim does not evoke the sensation of caviar crushed against one’s tongue, of sour cream sprinkled over cinnamon-scented blintzes the size of a thumb, steaming Black Crimean tea, sipped while seated at the stained glass windows of St. Petersburg’s Café Novotny, overlooking the lights edging the Neva River embankment. Nor does it speak of the sting of dry, fresh snow on the skin, of opening night at the Kirov Ballet, Katarina Chedlenko dancing The Firebird.
 
On the day this atrocity was enacted on my piano, we had already left Russia; Yuri, I, with profound resistance, our daughter, Galina, twenty, beautiful, complicated, mourning Gregor, the young man we found unsuitable – and were safe, if being in Israel can be considered safe.
 
Trunks packed with our books, family photographs, a few silver serving pieces, the brass samovar and cut-velvet shawls left to me by my mother,and my piano, were to follow. The piano: a Kesselstein-Beinberg concert grand. Rosewood. Hand-carvedand gilt-edged. One hundred and twenty-five years old. Impossible to replace.
 
Someone in The Bureau of Emigration Affairs, someone squat and muscular, with a primitive haircut, wearing a suit of undistinguished cut, white shirt, stiff collar, vulgar tie, committed this criminal act. How do I know? This man, these men, followed me, as they followed most Jews, through the streets of St. Petersburg when I was at university, scribbling in black leather notebooks: Zhid! Zhid! Medium height, medium-sized, dark-haired young woman, possibly -– probably – guilty of something, Jews always are. Carrying black market money, subversive pamphlets, Western literature? Matzos, perhaps? A ridiculous suspicion, in my case. Until coming to Israel, I had not known the taste of matzos.
 
He entered the warehouse where our possessions awaited transfer to a ship, lifted the keyboard cover and, seeing the exquisite symmetry of black and white, said, Nyet, then swung an axe at the keys, cracking all butsix in a clean line across the center, severing each one into precise, equal pieces.
 
In that moment between evil impulse and evil act, he surely wished it were my familyhe was about to maim.  But the random luck of living in the era of Gorbachev, and his fondness for perestroika – opennesshad placed us beyond this criminal’s grasp, yet not beyond his fierce wish to humiliate.
 
Where was I at that moment? In the absorption center in Jerusalem, perhaps, stumbling through instruction in beginning Hebrew. Or, perhaps, wandering Jerusalem’s Old City, a labyrinth of pale, ancient stone walls within walls, willingmyself tofeel, as Yuri did, that I had come home. Feeling, instead, that I hadlost onehome and not yet found another.
 
Why my yearning for Russia, where, until now, one’s Jewishness was treated as a birth defect? Unreasoned longing. Or, perhaps, a sad knowing that I cannot slip out of my St. Petersburg life as easily as a snake slips out of its skin.
 
 
 
When Yuri first spoke of leaving Russia, I said, “Why now? The Old Soviet Union is dead. No one – well, almost no one asks, who is, who is not a Jew.”
 
“That is not enough,” he said. “I want to live as a Jew.”
 
A stunning confession. How does one do that? You must have precedence, instruction.  More important, you must have feeling. Always, we had agreed, the less Jewish a Jew was in the Soviet Union, the safer he was. Deny, deny! My father, Stefan Gamerov, a Christian name. My mother, the same: Tatiana. Hair the color of winter wheat, Galina’s exactly; sliding green eyes, Tartar eyes. Few people guessed. If anyone spoke Yiddish to us in a public place, we blinked ignorance. If guests spoke Yiddish in our home, we raised the volume on the radio.
 
Then, one year ago, our cleverness failed.  A commissar in charge of causing difficulties for Jews idly flipped through personnel records at the St. Petersburg University, where Yuri conducted mathematical research, and, read: Zalinikov? An unfortunate name; foolishly, carelessly, passed down from father to son. The commissar stamped “State Suspect” in red on the appropriate papers, attached gold seals, punched a certain key on his computer. Yuri’s job no longer existed. Yuri no longer existed. Our cards for purchasing luxuries strawberries, chocolate, silk underwear, gasoline, for telephone privileges outside the country were withdrawn. Permission to travel outside of St. Petersburg, to own a tiny dacha, to send our child to the Academy for Gifted Children, was withdrawn.
 
We Jews, however, are survival artists. Through sympathetic allies, we bought the  required licenses, the essential gold seals, and located for Yuri another way of  earning money, as a merchant, a  way that served our purposes for a short time, but in the end, was responsible for our leaving Russia.
 
 
 
One month after we reached Israel,the piano was delivered to our flat in Jerusalem. Ilifted the lid, wild to run my fingers across each key, to play for my family a Strauss waltz, a Liszt mazurka, a Chopin ballade, with Yuri and Galina dancing, welcoming music once more into our lives. I saw the devastation and screamed, ”Yuri, help, please, please!” My fisted hands beat at the air, at thedamaged keys, imploring him to undo the crime. I wanted him to send up a cry of obscenities, I wanted him to wish for our new enemies a roasting in hell. He found instead a comfort in a quickly murmured prayer and a small sip of vodka.   
 
Later, sitting in our small Jerusalem garden, watching the lowering sun strike fire in the onion-shaped domes of the Church of Mary Magdalene on the Mount of Olives to the west, he suggested we practice our Hebrew and, as though in an earlier life he had spoken this language, his harsh, guttural sounds mingled with the fragrant night air in a series of confusing sentences. 
 
“I am filled to my upper extremities with happiness,” he said. Smiling, he waved his glass as though it were a baton, trying to thaw my grief with the heat of his enthusiasm, while I huddled inert, sour. Lifting his face to the azure sky, he said, “This night is beautiful, like a healthy woman.”
 
Galina, her skin already showing signs of sun and wind, despite my warnings “Cover  yourself, do you want to age early, like Israeli women?” – caressed her honey-blonde hair, settled back and giggled. “Bravo for you, Papa.” Turning to me: “Eh, Mamochka, always so brilliant, say something.”
 
At that moment, I hated these sudden strangers attempting tolure me to the other side of a divide I could not negotiate.
 
“Now you, Manya.”  The vodka and his eagerness to please slurred Yuri’s words.
 
My mouth, my voice, my being, refused to make peace with the severe demands of spoken Hebrew.  A hot surge of spite pickled my tongue. “How about this,” I said, lapsing into the security of Russian, “I am filled up to here...” Running a finger across my forehead, I added, “with,” and then dove into my small store of English words, “…the farm animal excrement!”
 
Shocked silence. Then: “Bravo Mamochka!” from Galina, who rarely flattered me, slapping her sandal against the stone floor. Turning to Yuri, she said, “She means bullshit, Mama means bullshit.”
 
 
 
Not an easy assignment, learning to be Jewish. When asked, am I from Moscow, from St. Petersburg, Kiev, Odessa –- Israelis ask many questions, even when they barely know you I say: yes. I say: I am from all these cities. I say: I am Russian, still Russian. I don’t say: Please, I cannot help it, I feel Russian. This would be taken to mean I do not feel Israeli. My new countrymen are many things, and proud is among these. They want everyone who comes here to love it. 
 
 After Yuri was dismissed by the Academy, we leased a stall in the central district of St. Petersburg, where street stalls attract shoppers on weekends. People with money, new money, so much money, they carry it in shopping bags, rather than trust it to the banks, eager to find places to spend it, as well as those without money, who are simply crazy for a way in which to divert themselves from thinking about the anarchy, almost lawlessness, that had infected Russia like a virus.
 
Yuri sold tape recorders, cell telephones, compact disc players, radios, imported, not always legally, from Warsaw, from Prague, Budapest and Munich. This pursuit was not satisfying work for a brilliant mathematician who, at twenty-three, had earned his Kandidat nauk studying calculus of variations, but it was profitable and, we mistakenly thought, allowed us to remain anonymous.
 
One unseasonably warm Saturday in September of last year, when the sky was an assertive royal blue, even as inconsequential ice bits floated in the Neva, and Galina and I were present to help Yuri, a pugnacious looking man in his forties, wearing a belted leather coat and sunglasses, in the style of the new wealthy class, visited the stall.
 
He had an expensive haircut, possibly Italian, and square gold cuff links, and a cell telephone in each of two coat pockets. I want to say he was a stranger, but Yuri later told me he recognized the man from photographs in the newspapers.
 
In this way we met Mikhail Dushkin. In the old days, he was an apparatchik, a petty bureaucrat in an obscure ministry, undoubtedly poring over papers in a dusty basement cubicle in one of the dreary gray cement government buildings near the Admiralty. In the new Russia, he would be a biznesmeni, a member of the new oligarchy,clever enough to connect himself to politicians who had amassed many millions in dollars, pounds, Deutsch marks, yen; politicians with business interests everywhere: real estate, aluminum, gas, highway construction, the television stations, making it possible for them to influence who was, and who was not,  among the democratically elected officials ruining our country.
 
He introduced himself, and half-bowed. Along with the money, he had acquired a thin patina of elegance. Slender for a Russian, but muscular, he used his shoulders as dramatic props, like a dancer or juggler, turning slowly, to better survey the scene before speaking. His eyes were hooded, darting from Yuri to me, back to Yuri. Nothing escaped this man. Some, not I, would have found him attractive compelling, certainly. 
 
Speaking to Yuri, he said, “I understand your business is going well.” I shivered, as though an alarm had sounded. Focusing his attention upon me, he went on to say that, while he was not himself Jewish, our success made him happy. “Now your husband is in an enviable position.” He paused, closing, then opening his eyes, as an actor or public speaker would, timing it for dramatic effect, before continuing.  “Now he can afford certain fees.”
 
“Fees?” Yuri asked. “What fees, to cover what services?  I need nothing from anyone.”
 
Galina gestured toward the jewelry stall opposite, where there were gaudy but tantalizing brooches, earrings, bracelets: imitations of famous designs, stolen, no doubt, from Paris, Madrid, London, and then she left. I watched Dushkin watch the sway of her too-tight, short skirt, her black silk legs, as she moved away.
 
“Your daughter?”
 
“Yes.” 
 
“Lovely.” He continued to look in the direction in which she had gone.
 
Yuri cleared his throat and rubbed his hands together, nervous mannerisms with which I was familiar. Dushkin smiled, one gold front tooth winking at us, and glanced toward a black limousine parked across the street, in which sat three men, also wearing sunglasses. “My bodyguards,” he said, and laughed.  “A foolish expense, but my colleagues insist. One cannot be too careful.”  
 
“A Mercedes,” I said, an irrelevance meant to delay what I knew would not be good for us.
 
He nodded. “One must give those clever Germans their respect, despite all we have suffered at their hands.”  He reached into an inner pocket of his jacket and removed a slim silver case, holding it up for a moment so that we might assess its value. Here was a man of importance. Of power.
 
Looking directly at us, he maneuvered his fingers and wrists, opening the case with an almost musical click, then removing a sizable cigar, the tip of which he clipped with a tiny golden scissors that had been cleverly secreted in the cover of the case. “Do you have a light?” he asked, as casually as though the three of us had met over lunch or at a wedding reception.
 
Yuri said nothing. I shook my head. “We do not smoke,” I said.  In my case, a lie.
 
“Ah,” Dushkin said, “a health enthusiast,” and took a silver lighter from another pocket. “My own doctor recommends I do the same, but, sadly” now smoking, he browsed among the stacks of merchandise, dialing the telephones, clicking the radios on, off, on. “I have an appetite for pleasure.”
 
Yuri seemed about to speak, but just then both of Dushkin’s cell phones rang, and he answered both, talking first into one, then the other, finally putting the mouthpiece of one telephone next to the earpiece of the other, so that his callers might speak to each other. Then he rocked back and forth, looking amused.
 
One of the bodyguards rolled down the car window and beckoned. Dushkin slipped the telephones into his coat and thrust his hand into an inner pocket. I thought he was merely rearranging his things before leaving, but no. When he pulled his hand out, it held a small, flat gun, which he offered to Yuri as casually as if it were a newspaper or cup of coffee. Yuri stepped back, then seemed unable to stand, and I put my arm around his waist. 
 
At this point Galina returned, wearing vulgar silver mesh earrings. Noting the gun, she stepped at once around Dushkin and to my side, linking her arm through mine, as she had in her childhood, on those days when she felt the need not for talk, but for physical contact, the two of us walking, hips brushing, laughing together over some inconsequential nonsense, as we no longer do. 
 
Again, the smile from Dushkin, the flashing gold tooth. “Oh, my mistake,” he said, in a soft, please-do-not-think-ill-of-me voice and returned the gun to his pocket. “I am so busy, I confuse details.” He was, he said, leaving for Kiev, but would return in one week to conclude what he callednegotiations.” Turning, he pressed a business card into Galina’s hand. “I always have room in my business for intelligent, beautiful women.”
 
Krisha,” I whispered to Yuri, as we watched Dushkin maneuver toward the curb, signal with one raised finger to the driver, then gracefully, for such a tall man, slide into the passenger seat.
 
“You called him what?” Galina said.
 
Krisha. Roof in Russian. Its meaning in the new society, the person one pays for protection, the person one counts upon to make certain he is not killed. “Say something,” I prodded Yuri, as the car pulled away from the curb.
 
“I heard what you said.”
 
“Then answer what I said.”
 
Galina glanced at the card. “This man is rich?”
 
“Do not speak of him,” I said, knowing, even as I uttered the words, they were a match set to dry tinder. “Do not consider him a human being.”
 
What followed was a Galina-gesture, a perfect collaboration of chin and shoulder, as graceful as it was irritating. “I am no longer a child,” she said, and slipped the card into her purse.
 
“Keep your head in your books. There is time for these things.”
 
Lately, she had been scrutinizing herself in the mirror; putting on, taking off,earrings, lipstick; brushing and teasing her hair; pressing black-penciled beauty spots into herchin, her coquettish look splashing like perfume over her words. I was acutely aware of how much she was no longer a child. We had not spoken of this before. I was waiting for –- what?Possibly for the wisdom my mother, Tatiana, had when I was Galina’s age; possibly, improbably, for Galina to lose interest in her face and hair.
 
 
 
A family’s forward motion into its future can change in minutes, swerving from the expected to the unexpected in the time required for a stranger to stand in an open-air marketplace and ask that you do not think ill of him. In ordinary circumstances, Dushkin’s visit would have incited my fierce capacity to protect those whom I love. What ensued the day following Dushkin’s visit, however, was anything but ordinary.
 
Yuri remained in bed in a state of sorrow, a Chekhovian melancholy, a condition rampant among many Russian men, but never before Yuri. They imbibe it with their mothers’ milk, it causes their lips to curve downward, permanently creases their forehead, paralyzes their will. A difficult malady to invite to your dinner table, difficult to take into one’s bedroom, one’s bed. Soon,  a condition even more troubling, also Russian, invaded our home.
 
Yuri, I soon noticed, was drinking: expensive, crystalline vodka purchased in the rear salon of the French pastry shop on Casimir Square, the bottles hidden in our bedroom armoire behind a nest of carved, painted cedar boxes my father had given to me on my sixteenth birthday.  
 
When Dushkin returned to the market stall two weeks later, we were still too shaken to attend to business. He found our surrogate in charge, Rudolph Brunovich, an old friend who was eager to step in while we pursued the necessary travel documents.
 
“Zalinikovs go away,” he told Dushkin. “Leave Russia.”  Dushkin, he reported, was annoyed. He made exaggerated, dismissive gestures with his shoulders, turning, turning again, to assess everything in the stall, sniffing at the empty air, jutting his chin, saying, without speaking, that he was a man who was forced to suffer undeserved losses. “Go where?” Dushkin asked finally. “Did they leave a message for me?”
 
Brunovich reported to us that he had stared into the distance, offering no information.
 
Duskin said, “Tell them I’ll be back.”
 
Five months later, we left our country. 
 

 

Copyright © Rochelle Distelheim 2020

Rochelle Distelheim, sadly, died just three months ago. A Chicago native, Rochelle earned numerous short story literary awards, including The Katherine Anne Porter Prize; Illinois Arts Council Literary Awards and Fellowships; The Ragdale Foundation Fellowships; The Faulkner Society Gold Medal in Novel-in-Progress; the Faulkner Society Gold Medal in Novel; The Gival Press 2017 Short Story Competition; Finalist, Glimmer Train’s Emerging Writers; and The Salamander Second Prize in Short Story. In addition, Rochelle’s short stories earned nominations for The Best American Short Stories and The Pushcart Prize. Her stories appeared in national magazines such as Glamour, Good Housekeeping, Ladies Home Journal, Woman’s Day, Woman’s World, Working Woman, Working Mother, and more. Her first novel, Sadie in Love, was published in 2018 when she was 90 years old. Her new novel, Jerusalem As A Second Language (from which this excerpt is taken) will be published soon.

 



 

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