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. Chuppot and ketubot were dangerous artifacts, an aggression against the USSR. So, I decided to find out about 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 wanted 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. I saw, in my wife’s dreams, 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 second 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 yet since we didn’t know how this marriage would end, because so many people were getting divorced.

 In family life, one must have a map of the minefields, or else 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 our marriage registration, we found her lying down with a headache from a hypertensive crisis. It was more or less an understandable reaction: it’s not easy to give one’s son to a stranger. The situation became less tense after the birth of my son since my mother’s sense of possessiveness was split in half between me and my son.

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 Russian almost never. My mother-in-law was born after the October revolution, which elevated her several steps up the social ladder. As a result, this 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 probably wasn’t happy about her daughter’s Jewish move, but at least she didn’t show it. There was ideological tension in my relationship with my mother-in-law. The Soviets had given her everything, while they broke up my family. A cosmopolitan campaign drove my father out of the house and expelled my mother’s sister from Kiev, 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’d lived in the St. 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 Kasrilevke. When her daughter in a Leningrad courtyard called loudly for her aunt Riva, who had a typical Jewish name, itself arousing the dislike of her Russian neighbors, windows and mouths were opened and a pre-pogrom atmosphere was created. In Leningrad, during the 1953 case of the “doctors’ plot,” my mother-in-law was walking on a knife’s edge, waiting for a surgical procedure to be thrown into Birobidzhan, the so-called Jewish Autonomous Region in the Russian Far East, where few people moved because of the poor climate and harsh living conditions. 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 continue to her musical studies and do a doctorate in musicology. My wife disagreed. I supported her not only because she was my young wife, but also because I considered musicology a field far removed from music, as well as being close to the Soviet ideology that I disliked. The battles over my wife’s future studies in musicology were heated and were fed by my desire to get rid of the Soviet ideological burden and move to Israel. Music was an important part of my family’s life. My mother and her sister were graduated from music school and college. 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. After the “cosmopolitan” year of 1949 (“rootless cosmopolitan” being a pejorative Soviet epithet referring 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 aunt, who took the piano with her. Although I had perfect pitch and vocal abilities, it was piano lessons that were the most popular among Jewish children, and these 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 an alien in a thoroughly musical home. However, the love for classical music became a component of my spiritual life, and not only my spiritual life, but also my family life. I married a musician, even though I had always been bent on the exact sciences and didn’t like the frivolous company of musicians.

Two years after we married, we had a son. The fourth threat to family ties can come from children, at some point becoming the most major threat. My aunt, who visited us every year to correct what we had done without her during our first year of marriage, came to see her grandson 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 ruined person, that married life had not fixed me at all. She attributed my inadequacy to two reasons: my marriage, and the impossibility of her having a positive influence on me due to her distance from where I lived. 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, even if we fervently loved each other.

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 my son’s childbirth very thoroughly. An important element in the preparations was the purchase of a gramophone and classical music records. I believed that even if a child could not read and understand texts with wisdom, he needed to listen to serious music. I put him on records and hummed his favorite classical music tunes. By the age of three, the child recognized hundreds of tunes and had learned to sing properly, long before he could coherently speak.

The only relative who defended the idea of repatriation was my son himself. In Russia 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. Children yelled at him to get out of Russia and move to Israel. Our son was so young that no one in the family argued with him. He did not understand their complex anti-Zionist arguments, and from the children’s street he brought convincing arguments in favor of packing for the trip. 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.

Article by Author/s
Alex Gordon
Alex Gordon is a native of Kiev (USSR) and graduate of the Kiev State University and Haifa Technion (Doctor of Science, 1984). He immigrated to Israel in 1979. He is a Full Professor (Emeritus) of Physics in the Faculty of Natural Sciences at the University of Haifa and at Oranim, the Academic College of Education. He is the author of 8 books and about 500 articles in paper and online and was published in 59 journals in 12 countries in Russian, Hebrew, English and German. Literary publications in English: "Jewish Literary Journal (USA), Jewish Fiction (Canada), Mosaic (USA) and Arc (Israel).

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