My father was fond of saying that in a normal Jewish family a woman should play the leading role. He probably learned this from his mother, who had an iron grip on him and his brother. But this assertion was not entirely correct, because when he was a boy his mother had kicked his father out of the house for cheating on her with her friend; so, there was no father in his family, only a woman mother, to whom her sons obeyed all their lives. My grandmother Anna (Hannah) established a dictatorial regime in her family similar to the one that prevailed in the Soviet Union at the time.
When my father married my mother, he entered, as he liked to call it, a normal Jewish family, which was ruled by a woman, but not by my mother, but by her mother, my grandmother Rosa. Grandma Rosa didn’t know how to talk normally, she was giving orders. She commanded her daughters, their husbands, and her many relatives, who knew full well that disobeying her was dangerous. When my father fell under my mother-in-law’s power, he felt himself between two fires: on one side was a totalitarian mother-in-law, on the other side was a dictatorial mother. When my two grandmothers met, they argued incessantly. They would start arguing in Russian, then switch to their native Yiddish, but end the fights in French, which they had both learned well in gymnasium. Perhaps French was more convenient for expressing cold contempt than hot Yiddish. Perhaps my father could not stand Grandma Rosa’s totalitarian rule and did what his own father did: he cheated on my mother, and she threw him out. From under the rule of his first wife, or rather his first mother-in-law, he fell under the rule of another wife, who, fortunately for him, did not have a mother. The father was so afraid of his new wife that he was incapable of cheating on her.
So, my father’s second family was a perfectly normal Jewish family: my stepmother was in charge. My stepmother was a talented woman. She was a writer, an excellent writer of critical articles, which brought her royalties and pleasure. She knew how to praise the hero of her work, but sometimes she composed such a compliment that the hero of the essay came out spit upon and disgraced. She could also praise orally. When the person she praised relaxed, she drew from her rich critical arsenal a compliment poisoned with contempt and stung the interlocutor with it. For some people, however, she felt sympathy for them, and she praised them tenderly, in a friendly way, in their presence. She did this skillfully, so that the object of her praise believed her. He thought what a charming woman she was, and enjoyed her praise and friendly outpourings, considering them sincere. Behind his back, she smeared this man with dirt, ridiculed him, and told all kinds of humiliating stories about him, spreading hurtful gossip about him. In spite of her venomous compliments, people were drawn to her, for she was a very cheerful woman, able to joke and tell fascinating stories about famous writers with whom she communicated, and just about the people she knew. Her stories were always interesting, funny and intriguing to the listener. She was an artistic, witty, quick-witted person, and was also noted for her skill in creating intrigue and orchestrating manipulation. She was undoubtedly a gifted actress, for she could reincarnate and play a variety of roles, from angel to witch. At gatherings of people she was always in the center, spoke more than anyone else, knew English and German, and skillfully quoted great people in those languages, using their thoughts to exalt herself and humiliate those around her. She could not be friends with my grandmother Anna because my grandmother thought she was a liar. My grandmother, as usual, expressed the greatest degree of contempt for a person in French, which my stepmother did not understand, but she grasped the meaning and tone of my grandmother’s criticism. With me the stepmother was affectionate and friendly, confessing her love for me, though I was by no means sure of it.
One day the stepmother accomplished the feat of scouting. In order to understand what happened and how it happened, I must briefly describe the circumstances under which my stepmother met my father. In March 1949, a campaign was underway in the Soviet Union to condemn the “rootless cosmopolitans” i.e. people of Jewish origin who were literary and artistic figures. They were accused of loving foreign literature and art more than Russian, Soviet literature and art. My father was a professor of German and French literature at Kiev University. He was accused of praising the German, “petty-bourgeois” poet of Jewish origin, Heinrich Heine, and of undervaluing Russian and Ukrainian poets. My father was fired from his job as a “rootless cosmopolitan” and “agent of foreign intelligence,” criticized in meetings and newspapers, and forced to leave Kiev for the Ukrainian province of Chernivtsi, where he taught foreign literature at the local university for two years. There he met a final-year student who became his second wife. Life for my father in Chernivtsi was difficult. Although the charge of “rootless cosmopolitanism” was dropped, he was under suspicion all the time. Probably, they still considered him an “agent of foreign intelligence. His lectures were attended not only by students, but also by people he did not know, who were most likely “agents of Soviet intelligence” who recorded every word he said. Then they started bringing a tape recorder to his lectures to know what this “agent” was telling the students. My father could not endure this atmosphere of mistrust and suspicion and in 1951 he moved to Uzbekistan, where he worked at the Pedagogical Institute in Bukhara. Bukhara is heat, sands, snakes, scorpions, but my father knew that people can be more dangerous than poisonous snakes and scorpions. In Bukhara, he was no longer accused of being a “foreign spy”.
My stepmother was worried that her husband was considered a foreign spy and, perhaps, subconsciously wanted to rehabilitate him. Two weeks after the couple’s arrival in Bukhara, she unexpectedly had the opportunity to make a big step in my father’s rehabilitation by proving his amazing loyalty to the Soviet authorities. Since Bukhara had poor electricity, the stepmother bought a kerosene lamp for the house. But it turned out that during the couple’s home preparation for lectures at the Pedagogical Institute, the lamp was smoky, which interfered with their work and endangered their health. She had to go to the market looking for a craftsman who can fix the lamp. My stepmother found a tray in the bazaar where kerosene lamps were repaired. I remember my father describing my stepmother’s appearance in the Bukhara bazaar. On the eve of their move to Bukhara she had been at a resort and was very tanned. She was thirty-two years old. She had long coral earrings in her ears. She had a thin waist and curls of hair around her neck that my father compared to the curls of the main character in Leo Tolstoy’s novel Anna Karenina. Although my father was accused of disdain for Russian literature and a derogatory worship of foreign literature, he loved and knew Tolstoy’s novels well.
The lamp repairman was a sixty-year-old man in a cotton robe. Next to him stood a young man dressed in the same cotton robe, with a small mustache and a skullcap. Evidently, he was the repairman’s assistant. The stepmother explained the defects of the lamp to the craftsman, and he promised to repair it the next morning. When he took her order, he asked where she was from, whether she was a local or from Samarkand. She replied that she was from Moscow. In reality she was from Chernivtsi. But she wasn’t the only one who lied. Something happened that could not have happened in the Bukhara bazaar, where Uzbek, Tajik, and Russian were spoken. The master’s young companion addressed him in English, saying that the stepmother was lying, “She pretends.” The stepmother immediately contradicted him in English and assured him that she was telling the truth about her Moscow origins. It was the master’s turn to lie. He changed his face and said that he could not fix the lamp. He said he was sick and offered to bring her the lamp the next day. The stepmother reacted quickly:
– Maybe the lamp can be fixed by your English-speaking companion?
– What companion? No one is or has ever been here, and I don’t speak English. – The repairman remarked.
Her stepmother looked round: the tinsmith’s helper had disappeared. She was shocked: the Bukhara tinsmiths spoke English. They wanted to hide something from her, but apparently they were afraid to speak a language she might know – Uzbek or Tajik, which was very similar to Parsi, the language of neighboring Iran. It was not her husband who was an agent of foreign intelligence, but the tinsmiths in the Bukhara bazaar! – thought the stepmother. The next day she brought the lamp to the bazaar again. Neither the master nor his assistant was there. The stepmother immediately went to the very organization that had prosecuted her husband, my father, for espionage, and declared that she had caught an agent of foreign intelligence, but did not know which one. A few months later, the master tinkerer and his companion were arrested. They turned out to be Iranian spies. She was proud of herself and stressed that one should not look for imaginary spies like her husband, but for real agents of foreign intelligence, as she had done. At the heart of her success as an intelligence agent was a complete distrust of people, stemming from her own incurable tendency to lie.
Stepmother was an extraordinary person, her acting abilities were so great that she knew how to be truthful, sincere and frank. She had many crises in her life with my father. He was going to leave her more than once. Her solution to a family crisis was always the same: she threatened my father with suicide and made such plausible preparations for the act that my father believed, was frightened and retreated. In my memory, he was going back to my mother several times. Of course, this was after Grandma Rosa’s death, or he would not have dared to think of such a frightening possibility. In such cases, he consulted the chief authority of his life, his mother. But Grandmother Anna rejected my father’s hesitation between the two wives. She condemned my mother for many things, but most of all for the way she raised her son, that is, me. My grandmother was a socialist and patriot of the USSR, while I was a Zionist and anti-Soviet. When in 1979 I applied for repatriation in Israel, I was accused of treason against the socialist homeland. Every Jew could have been a traitor to his country – my father, who loved the Soviet Union, and me, who did not love it. My stepmother also criticized my interest in Jewish history and desire to immigrate to Israel, but unlike my grandmother she was not a socialist, and after the collapse of the USSR she wrote me letters from Moscow to Israel full of respect and love. I always admired her art of deceiving and controlling people.