The Secret Wedding
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. Hupa (canopy) and ktuba (Jewish marriage contract) were a dangerous enterprise, an aggression against the USSR. So I decided to find out about the situation in 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 were going to make a request 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. In my wife's dreams I saw 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 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 because we didn't know how this marriage event would end, because people were getting divorced.
Three days after going to the registry office there was a wedding dinner. I was introduced by my newlywed wife. I was sick with purulent angina with a high fever. The sore throat was accompanied by an allergy to ceremonies. Close relatives who attended the "wedding" were disappointed that there was no one to shout "bitter." My stepfather and his parents supported me, believing that to throw a party under Soviet rule would have been a display of self-respect. 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 felt sorry for me. I lay sick, tired, but happy to have escaped the guests and the pompous speeches. Gradually rumors of my marriage began to leak out. Friends, coworkers, and relatives expressed amazement and resentment over our secret marriage. But life in the underground continued. It was divided into two parts: the black 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 real concerns on the second. The second peeked out like a blue-and-white handkerchief, carefully concealed from the uninitiated by plans to ascend Mount Zion.
In the early days of acquaintance, I informed my wife-to-be of the clandestine nature of my life. It, my life, is like an iceberg: its main part is 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 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 projects 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 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 her marriage registration, we found her lying down with a headache from a hypertensive crisis. It was more or less an understandable condition: not easy to give the son to a stranger. The situation became less tense after the birth of my son. A mother's sense of possessiveness was split in half between me and my son. With the birth of my daughter-already after coming out of hiding ̶ it became even calmer: maternal agitation was 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 almost never Russian. My mother-in-law was born after the October revolution, which raised her several steps up the social ladder. As a result, the 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 may not have been happy about her daughter's Jewish move, but just didn't show it. There was ideological tension in my relations with my mother-in-law: the Soviets gave her everything ̶ "from filth to duchess" ̶ while the Soviets broke my family: a cosmopolitan campaign drove my father out of the house, expelled my mother's sister from Kiev, and reduced my grandmother, who could not bear the family breakdown ̶ 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 lived in the 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 Kasrilevka. When her daughter in a Leningrad courtyard, a stone bag, called loudly for her aunt named Riva, windows and mouths would open and create a pre-pogrom situation. In Leningrad, during the 1953 case of the "poison doctors," the "killers in white coats", my mother-in-law was walking on a knife edge, waiting for a surgical procedure to be thrown into Birobidzhan. 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 certainly continue to do doctorate in musicology. My wife disagreed with her. I supported her former graduate student not only because she was my young wife, but also because I considered musicology a field far removed from music and close to the Soviet ideology that I disliked. The battles over my wife's future studies in musicology were heated and fed by my desire to get rid of the Soviet ideological burden and move to Israel. One day my aunt floated the career idea of burdening my wife with a fancy dissertation topic on "Lenin and Music" under the guidance of her former student named Lenina. I had to respond to this Lenina with an Aurora salvo (its salvo gave the signal for the storming of the Winter Palace on the night of 7-8 November, 1917, bringing the Bolsheviks to power).
The fourth threat to family ties comes from children, at some point becoming the first. It so happened that our child turned out to be a bomb planted under the well-being of our relatives.
Music was an important part of my family's life. My great-grandmother, 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 graduated from music school and college, but my mother gave up music lessons, while my aunt 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" was a pejorative Soviet epithet referred 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 absolute hearing and vocal abilities, music lessons 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 a recluse in a thoroughly musical home. However, the atmosphere of love for classical music persisted, becoming a component of my spiritual life, but not only spiritual life, but also my family life. I married a musician, even though I had always been bent on the exact sciences, and I didn't like the frivolous company of musicians. How did this happen?
Perhaps my aunt decided to compensate me for the loss of my musical future and arrange a proper family life, from her point of view. One day she landed in Kiev with her best pupil, whom she had promised to marry me. 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, the composer and fellow chemist. My childless aunt had cheated me into a wife, but she boycotted our wedding, as the victory in entangling me in matrimonial bonds was dialectically replaced by the disappointment of capturing her only nephew with 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 the past year, came to see her grandson born 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 spoiled person, that family life had not corrected me. She attributed my degradation to two reasons: the impossibility of having a positive influence on me due to her distance from where I lived and my failed marriage. 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, fervently loving each other. This kind of mutually destructive love was familiar to me from childhood. The affection of a relative was an exotic kind of relationship. Arguments went on about everything. Criticism was a necessary basis for communication, and agreement was rare and hard to explain.
The birth of a child hastened our preparations to leave for Israel. I did not want my son to go the way of my "cosmopolitan" relatives, all of whom were genuine cosmopolitans, despite, or perhaps even because of, the fifth-country beating. All my relatives were against the Israeli option. My aunt said that I wanted to dry my son in the land of sands, camels, and donkeys. My father declared that I wanted to turn myself and my son into cannon fodder. A powerful argument of historical significance was made by my uncle, my father's brother, a staunch communist. He argued that I would bring repression on all my relatives, and that I was following the vicious path of our relative, who had gone to Palestine four years before my uncle was born, and who had become an embarrassment to the whole family. This loser and adventurer, condemned by the whole family, went to rebuild the desert instead of building socialism in Russia. Thus I earned the same condemnation as the "loser" and "adventurer" suddenly discovered by a relative, the well-known socialist in Israel, Aaron David Gordon. My aunt declared that she expected nothing good from a country where only Jews lived. My father, my aunt, and my uncle, who never agreed with each other on anything, came to the same conclusion regarding my plans: shameful, adventurous, and 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 childbirth very thoroughly. An important element in the preparations was the purchase of a gramophone and records of classical music. I believed that as long as a child could not read and understand texts with patterns of wisdom, he needed to listen to serious music, so as not to waste time. I put him on records and hummed his favorite classical music tunes. At the age of three, the child recognized hundreds of tunes and learned to sing properly long before he learned to speak coherently. My aunt was pleasantly surprised by such achievements, but said that she did not believe me and that there was something wrong in my actions. At the same time, I read a lot of poetry to my son, trying to get him rehabilitated 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 I was ready to ruin the child's musical talent for the sake of delusional Zionist ideas.
The only relative who defended the idea of repatriation was my son himself. 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 circumstance that encouraged us to leave was my son's pronunciation: he pronounced the "r" 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 birth defect. He would come back from the street crying after children teased him about his Jewish accent. With such an accent, a sad fate awaited him in the USSR. Children would yell at him to get out to Israel. Our son was so young that no one in the family argued with him. He did not understand the complex anti-Zionist arguments, and from the street he brought convincing arguments in favor of packing for the trip.
The anti-Semitism in Kiev in the 1970s was so powerful that it eclipsed my childhood memories. And I had a lot to remember. When I was three years old, my mother sent me to a Jewish private kindergarten. The group consisted of about six children. The teacher read books to us at 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, there were no Jewish holidays. There was pre-school education following the example of German educator Friedrich Fröbel. Such educators in Russia in the late 19th and early 20th centuries were called "Frebelichkas". It was teaching and human communication based on respect. There were several such underground Jewish groups in Kiev. Parents protected their children from rampant Kiev anti-Semitism by placing them in children's groups. However, I was not able to hide from the anti-Semitism in Kiev. Eventually, after leaving the "ghetto," I plunged into life unvarnished. Kiev was not only the capital of Ukraine, but also the capital of Soviet anti-Semitism. I did not want my son to take refuge from the inevitable anti-Semitism in the children's ghettos. Our little son proved to be a decisive argument in the battle for and against Zionism.
When he arrived in Israel, he continued to show great musical promise. He sang, incorporating into his repertoire songs in Hebrew. His "r" sounded as if he had been born in a Jewish state or in a place where his maternal grandmother lived. He was found to have absolute hearing. He began to play the piano and guitar and compose music. Apparently, however, the process that my aunt had predicted, who mistrusted me so much, began. The child began to be exposed to the desiccating influence of science. He began to do experiments at home in chemistry, physics, and electronics. His room became a laboratory. These scientific pursuits culminated in an explosion and fire during one of his experiments, which resulted in him making gunpowder and injuring his eye at the age of fifteen. These events, however, did not turn him away from science. He became a doctor of physics, as I did. 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.