By Hamutal Bar-Yosef
Translated from Hebrew by Barbara Harshav
“Sometimes I feel the need to pray to God, to cross myself, to plead,” she whispered. And immediately, as if dismissing an involuntary intrusive thought, she added cheerfully, “We love music. We often go together to concerts and opera. Next week, we’ve got tickets to Khovanshchina, but Anastasia will be at the kolkhoz. Would you like to come with me? You mustn’t miss the Kyiv Opera’s production.’”
Olga had invited me to her home other times, where I met Alexei: a tanned, muscular fellow, with a round, solid head, very short hair, and steely, light blue, shining eyes. He drank astonishing quantities of vodka, smoked thick, pungent French cigarettes, and looked non-stop at Olga. When Alexei came, Anastasia would flee the house and go sleep at friends’ homes.
About a year later, Anastasia’s chirpy voice could be heard over the phone in my Jerusalem apartment. In Hebrew. How was I? Thank God, her own health was excellent. She had converted to Judaism on a religious kibbutz. It was wonderful, very interesting, too bad it was over. She’d met great people. Now she was looking for work. Preferably with children. Did I know of anything? The Interior Ministry had not yet approved her status, and citizenship only followed after conversion to Judaism, so it was very hard with work. If not with children, then maybe somebody needed some cleaning. She hated that work, it was boring, but right now, was there a choice?
The telephone that woke me from my indulgent afternoon nap was from the Jerusalem police. What did I have to do with the police? In the winter dusk, I didn’t know if it was morning or evening. A woman’s voice was leveling out a dough of words that started with, “We’re interested in knowing if you’re willing to identify the body of a young woman who was found dead in an apartment in Neve Ya’akov.”
“Excuse me? Am I willing to what? Could you kindly repeat what you’ve just said?”
“We’re asking you if you’re willing to identify the body of a young woman.”
I asked her name.
The nasal voice responded, “That’s what we want to find out, seems like a new immigrant from Russia. Maybe Ruth Kotrelov.”
“I’m so sorry, but I know no one by that name,” I said sharply.
The sticky voice claimed that they had found my phone number in the notebook that belonged to the deceased, and there was no one to identify the body except me. I asked what she had died of.
“The body was found dead in an apartment; there were no signs of violence. There’s a baby assumed to be six months old. Healthy.”
I asked what she looked like. The police woman rustled among papers and read out, “Height one meter seventy-three, hair blond, straight and long, green eyes, very fair eyelashes, relatively dark skin, straight nose, freckles.”
I suddenly sat up, fully awake. Anastasia!
I’d met Anastasia when I was sent to Kyiv to teach a course on the history of Hebrew literature. Anastasia was one of a dozen students who were carefully chosen for this exceptional course, born in sin from the coupling of American money and Ukrainian pro-Western nationalism. The course took place in room 303 of a yellow building in the University of Kyiv, the oldest university in Russia, and one with a long tradition of antisemitism. They sat in front of me, wrapped in their overcoats and enveloped in suspicion in that dark classroom. Outside, soft snow fell incessantly. All the students had Russian names, although some of them – perhaps most of them – were apparently Jews, half Jews, quarter Jews. “He’s got such and such a percentage of Jewish blood,” some of the students would say of others, as in “he completed such and such years of study.”
“So Hebrew literature – how old do you think it is?” That’s how I launched my first class. The guesses ranged between fifty to a hundred years. I took out the first volume of the Bible, accompanied by an excellent new Russian translation, and asked if they were familiar with it. Two of them said, “Yes, that’s Psalms from the Old Testament that we sing in church.” None of the rest knew a thing about the Old Testament. Or the New Testament.
“Okay, so let’s read,” I said. “Who wants to?”
Blond Anastasia, as beautiful as a movie star, her flashing green eyes surrounded by thick golden lashes, read in her thin, almost chirping voice. In a Russian sing-song she recited the words, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth,” as if she were reading a poem by Lermontov, and it was clear she would retain that voice of a six-year-old child to the end of her days. Ilya – afterward I was informed that every Ilya was necessarily Eliyahu or Elijah – read aloud, “The earth was without form and void; and darkness was on the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God hovered over the face of the waters” in a tone that combined Bach’s cello suite with Talmudic questions and answers. My skin was covered with goose bumps and my head was slightly dizzy at the thought of educated young Jews, masters’ students, who knew Russian literature inside out, reading the opening chapters of Genesis for the first time in their lives. I explained every verse in the first chapter with respect, admiration, bliss, pride, astonishment, as if this text has just now burst out of me.
Learning from the first class, I came to the second class about fifteen minutes early as I wanted to be sure I’d be on time to stand with the other teachers in a line at the key room, take the key to room 303, sign for it in the guard’s register, and find the classroom in the labyrinth of the building. A few students were already there, including Ilya and Anastasia. He was bundled up in his dark gray felt coat with metal buttons, and a woolen scarf that was full of holes; she in a sable coat to her narrow thighs and long yellow suede boots over her jeans. The two of them came up together to my desk on the podium.
Ilya asked if he could ask me something before class.
“Why not?” I said. “We’ve got four more minutes.”
“So, it’s like this. We’ve lived here for more than twenty years without knowing anything about religion. We studied literature, art, languages, music, sciences, philosophy, but religion – that was forbidden. Our parents said to us: Best not talk about that. Now we know that there is religion. There’s Judaism. There’s Christianity. But what exactly is the difference between them – that’s not clear. Could you please explain?”
I saw a gleam in Anastasia’s eyes: the foreign teacher’s mettle was being put to the test. I said that to answer such a question in three minutes would be not only absolutely irresponsible but impossible. I said that the two religions had undergone many changes over the course of time and had so many versions and variations, but as I talked I felt I was protecting myself, and not helping them, and a different voice came out of me. “But I won’t leave you without an answer. Let me say something like this, totally off the cuff, and from a very personal point of view. Do you remember what we studied in the first class – that every day, almost every day, God looked at what He created on earth and said that it was good? About reality on earth – the light, the sky, the sea, the plants, the animals, man. I think the feeling that reality on earth is good, that life, especially human life, is good and holy – that’s one of the outstanding differences between Judaism, especially ancient Judaism, and Christianity, especially Orthodox Christianity.”
Ilya looked at me with uncompromising skepticism. Anastasia said, “Christianity, if you follow it to its logical conclusion, is a religion of suicide.”
“How do you get to that?” I asked.
“I know it all too well,” she answered, her eyes two gleaming daggers thrust straight into me.
I said that both Judaism and Christianity consider suicide a sin. About ten other students had gathered around us with other questions and objections on the subject of the differences between Judaism and Christianity. It was only by opening the second chapter of Genesis, the episode of the Garden of Eden, and reading from it that order was restored to the course and my academic conscience was assuaged.
At the end of the class, Anastasia told me that she couldn’t come to the next two classes because apart from her university studies, she was also taking a course to train teachers and kindergarten teachers, and they had been assigned to help in a kolkhoz collective farm for two weeks. But her mother wanted to invite me to dinner. Was that possible?
I was all alone in Kyiv. The decision to hold courses in Judaism at the university had come from high above. It did not exactly fit in with the desires of the dean and the rector, who were my official hosts, and they had deserted me after inviting me to one meal at a restaurant with overly sweet wine, slices of fat, pale sausage, and colorful cream cake. I lived in the Podol neighborhood, once a neighborhood of well-off and dignified Jews, and now run-down, with moldy peeling plaster that dropped from the plaster decorations on the walls of the faded houses. Darkness descended early on the city, the sidewalks were cracked, the lock on the door to the staircase didn’t work, the wallpaper over my bed was torn, the toilet didn’t flush, and the food I managed to buy in the market included rotten potatoes, mottled apples, and cabbage that looked like a beheaded skull. Only the black bread I bought in the bread store was wonderful. I missed real soup.
I took her mother’s phone number from Anastasia. Olga Alekseevna Kotreliova. I called her. Olga said it would not be hard for her to recognize me: she’d seen me with the dean and the rector when they introduced me at the university building and the library. She was the director in the Department of Rare Books. Anastasia’s mother met me in the lower level of the metro station to make it easier for me to find the house. She was holding a white carnation. Olga was a short, rotund woman in a long fur coat, and under it she wore a tailored greenish-gray velvet suit. Perched on her head was a beautiful hat of the same cloth, trimmed with white velvet flowers. Graying blond hair, cut straight, escaped from under the hat. On her feet were medium-heeled suede shoes and white silk stockings despite the fierce cold. She smiled at me with swollen lips, with gaps between her teeth and dimples that had already turned to lines. Her eyes were green and shaded by thin yellowish lashes that fluttered constantly, deep-set eyes, surrounded by a pinkish halo and wrinkles.
Olga Alekseevna tucked my arm under her warm one, and supported me so I wouldn’t slip in the snow that the wind had turned into a treacherous slide. And she held on to me until we had entered her apartment in a Komunalka, two small rooms with a toilet and a shared kitchen. She poured her own home-made cherry liqueur into crystal glasses because she said it was now impossible to get anything in the stores. She took out china plates and decorated silver spoons, a family heirloom, to serve an unforgettable beet borscht, glistening meat dumplings, thin cabbage pancakes and a fragrant, crispy potato pie.
After we’d talked about recipes and the lack of culture among the younger generation, Olga told me she had been divorced for about twenty years. Her former husband, a well-known philosopher and literary critic, lived in Moscow. He was a kulturolog, a scholar of culture, and semiotician, and he wrote articles on medieval culture. He had written a book about the concept of death in ancient Slavic cultures, about descriptions of the tragic transition from “here” to “there” in various cultures. When they had met, she was a student of advanced tailoring and he was a young soldier who had lost a leg in the war. She knew how to make hats, but who needed hats? Even senior women in the Party wore hats only in winter, simple hats of wool or fur. She worked at home, cooked, cleaned, and was fed up with that. It was boring. So she had gone to study library science, and she’d received a fellowship for a doctorate in Moscow. For a year, she travelled back and forth between Kyiv and Moscow. She met a lot of interesting people.
“Vsevolod became jealous, unbearable. Anastasia came after twenty years of marriage, she was a miracle. Of course she’s spoiled, a little capricious, but a wonderful girl, she’s my joy and hope. One day she’ll get married and there’ll be grandchildren…”
The faded corn-colored eyelashes briefly ceased their eternal fluttering, as if they were kissing a dream.
“There’s only one problem: you understand – or perhaps you won’t understand – at my age, a woman of sixty… For three years now I’ve lived with a man, his name’s Alexei. He works in Siberia, drilling oil and he comes here once every month or two. You won’t believe that he’s actually eighteen years younger than me, but it doesn’t prevent him from loving me madly. He gets drunk, he smokes. Anastasia runs out of the house when he comes here. I had hoped they’d get along…”
She fell silent and her light-colored, very delicate eye-lashes, quivered wildly, as if an electric shock passed through them. Speaking of the man brought tears to her eyes and a slight blush to her cheeks.
I recalled her saying, “Sometimes I feel the need to pray to God, to cross myself, to plead,” she whispered. And immediately as if she dismissed an unwanted perturbing thought, she said in a voice to raise her own spirits, “We love music so much. We often go together to concerts and opera. Next week, we’ve got tickets to ‘Khovanshchina ,’ but Anastasia will be at the kolkhoz. Do you want to come with me? You mustn’t miss the Kyiv Opera’s production of Khovanshchina.”
When we met in the foyer of the opera house, Olga gave me one of the two bouquets of flowers she had brought. Many of the people in the auditorium, even those whose clothes were old-fashioned and shabby, held bouquets of flowers that they would throw onto the stage at the end of the performance. At the intermission, I asked Olga why Anastasia had decided to register for a course on the history of Hebrew literature. Olga became gloomy. “She’s always looking for something different,” she said without a smile. “Always contrary. She keeps looking for something more interesting, or dangerous. She’s not afraid of anything. She reminds me of my sister who committed suicide. She also loved exotic languages and was fascinated by ancient Christianity.”
Olga invited me to her home a few more times, where I met Alexei.
When I got sick – and in Kyiv it wasn’t hard to get sick, because the air and the water were still steeped in radiation from the Chernobyl catastrophe – Anastasia came to my house with medicine, milk, oatmeal, electric light bulbs – things that were impossible to obtain in any shop at that time, even in the shops of Beriozka where drinks, chocolates and cigarettes were sold to tourists for dollars. Proudly, and with a special secret expression, she brought me a wedge of cheese. Her father had not reported their divorce to the authorities so her mother could go on buying in the special stores for those disabled in the Second World War. I repaid her with private Hebrew lessons – she and Olga would accept no other payment.
‘Mother is a wonderful woman,’ said Anastasia. ‘But Alexei—’And suddenly she leaned over to hiss in my ear, ‘I hate him! I hate him!’ Her face paled and the freckles were accentuated, her eyes grew red-rimmed and filled with green venom.
About two years later, in Jerusalem, I again heard that hissing voice on the phone, in Hebrew. Can I please tell her if I remembered her? She was living in Jerusalem, in the Gilo neighborhood. In a rented room. Can I please tell her if she could visit me?
She looked ten years older. Her eyes had grown bigger. She had turned paler and the freckles on her face had merged. Her shoulders had grown thinner and her hips broader. Her gait was a little unsteady. She wanted to convert to Judaism. She said that she had wanted to for a long time. Even back in Kyiv, yes, ever since then. She had a Jewish boyfriend in Kyiv and learned a lot from him. Yes, Ilya, he immigrated to Israel, he was living in Dimona, with his mother, but now they were just friends. My course had also had an impact on her; she wasn’t sure how much. She didn’t have a boyfriend at the moment, she wanted to convert to Judaism, and was desperately in need of work. She didn’t have a work permit, because for the time being, until she converted she was considered a tourist. She cleaned houses and staircases, but she’d wanted to work with children — in Kyiv she had completed the seminar for teachers and kindergarten teachers. How is her mother? She’s fine; they talk on the phone, though not much, because it’s expensive. She was still with Alexei.
“You can live without a mother,” she stared at me with knowing eyes, as she smiled and clenched her lips. I told her that, in my opinion, a conversion course in a kibbutz would be the best solution for her. I made a few phone calls and she chose the course in Ein Hanatziv.
About a year later, she called again. How am I? Thank God, she’s fine. It was wonderful in Ein Hanatziv, not easy, but very interesting, too bad it was over. She met wonderful people there, people with nobility in their souls, very interesting. Now she’s looking for work. She’d like to work with children. Maybe I know somebody? The Ministry of the Interior doesn’t yet allow her, so it’s very hard with work. If not with children, then maybe somebody needs a cleaning person. She likes working with people, not with machines, awfully boring, but at the moment there’s no choice. Mother will come visit at Passover, without Alexei, of course, God forbid. At Ein Hanatziv, they used to discuss the relationship with parents after converting, how conversion should not cancel the precept: “Honor thy father and thy mother.” But how can you feel honor for a mother who completely gave up her self-respect, who behaves in such a humiliating way? And on top of everything else, her mother had become religious, that is, Christian, God save us; she wants to celebrate Easter in Jerusalem. By the way, her name isn’t Anastasia anymore, but Ruth, after Ruth the Moabite, of course.
“When I have a child, I’ll call him David,” she laughs, and, in my mind’s eye, I see the first wrinkles around her eyes.
I bought a large bouquet of flowers and went to meet Olga at the airport. I took her to Ruth’s apartment in Gilo, a Jerusalem suburb. She cried and laughed silently all the way, wiped her tears with an embroidered, ragged silk handkerchief. She talked about how terribly she had missed Anastasia, about how religion had taught her to accept the torments of life – everything – with love: humiliation, guilt, sin, dirt, boredom. She liked the stone-clad apartment buildings and the light of Gilo. I took her to the Old City of Jerusalem to visit the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and the Russian church in Ein Kerem. I took her to a concert of the Israeli Philharmonic Orchestra.
Olga said, “Maybe I’ll move to Israel?”
Ruth said, “You can’t, you’re not a Jew. And what about Alexei?”
Olga was in Israel for three weeks and then she returned to Kyiv. I spoke with her on the phone once or twice, as a courtesy, and then we lost touch. That was a year ago, and now the police want me to identify her daughter’s body. There was nobody else to do it. And there was a baby. From whom?
She lay in the hospital morgue. She was covered with a sheet, her nose longer than usual, her pale yellow lips parted, as if she had just seen something strange, interesting, and she wanted to tell me something about it. I could barely tear myself away from those parted, mute lips. I explained to the police who she was, and asked that somebody inform her mother in Kyiv. I couldn’t do that. I asked about the cause of death.
“Not clear,” was the answer.
Did she commit suicide?
“Doesn’t look like it,” they answered me. “Looks like she had a high fever from diarrhea or dysentery, and she wasn’t treated.” Dehydration – and in winter…? Did I know what she ate? I didn’t. Did I know if she belonged to a health fund or clinic? I didn’t. It didn’t look like it. Did I know if she belonged to some congregation or synagogue? I didn’t. Was there anybody she could have asked for help? I didn’t know.
A few days later I stood next to Ruth’s mother in the funeral home in Jerusalem. I tried to hug her. She didn’t respond. The gray sweater she wore was frayed. Her face was gray, the whites of her eyes red, her upper lip clenched and lined. She looked at me with the emptiness of frozen amazement. She didn’t even try to wipe the tears that were streaming down her cheeks and dripping from her jaw, nor the drops from her mouth and nose. Aside from us, there were about three young people from the kibbutz at Ein Hanatziv around the coffin, and a guy of about nineteen, a sweet Israeli boy with long hair and an earring, who was weeping inconsolably. His parents were also there, standing next to him, with an expression of patient helplessness.
I overheard one of the girls from Ein Hanatziv, a plump girl in a long denim skirt, tell her friend that these were the parents of the fellow who had made Anastasia pregnant.
“They thought of getting married, but he wasn’t religious, and she was very conflicted. What would they do on the Sabbath? So they broke up, and she decided to raise the baby as a single mother. His parents say they will adopt the baby. He’s called David. Since a few days after the birth we didn’t hear a word from her…”
“The baby’s called David,” I said to Olga. It looked as if she had no idea what I was talking about.