The year I turned five, about a week separated New Year’s Eve from Hanukkah, of which I knew nothing. I felt my Jewishness by the hitting and teasing of children in the yard, in the street. The existence of Hanukkah was silenced by my relatives. The time I waited for the New Year was three-color: white for snow, green for the Christmas tree, red for Santa Claus. And in general, no holiday was without red. The decorated Christmas tree took over the whole space of the room with its special smell of a forest creature not of this world. It softened the harsh tricolor of the holiday with painted yellow and blue flashing lights hanging on it, garlands of chains of gilded and silvered paper, multicolored baskets of candy hanging from it, bright Christmas toys. It took a long time to decorate the tree. Its beautiful appearance, the unlike anything else mystery of the rupture of everyday life, often ideologically sterile, and the mystery of the moment of life’s renewal filled me and completely captivated me. I thrilled in anticipation of the change of the year in the instant between December 31 and January 1. It was a moment of joyful hope, so meaningfully, solemnly, and harmoniously experienced once a year.
That year my grandmother suddenly said to me, “Come on, honey, let’s celebrate the New Year a little Jewish.” ̶ “Don’t Jews celebrate the New Year like everyone else?” ̶ I wondered. “They give the kids money.” ̶ Grandma said and gave me ten rubles, which was a huge amount for me. “Jews celebrate the New Year wonderfully!” ̶ I exclaimed and wondered, “Do Jews give their children the usual New Year’s gifts?” ̶ I asked. My grandmother handed me another gift. It was a little spinner. “Grandma, I have a bigger spinner than this one,” I said disappointedly. “I know. This spinner on New Year’s Eve reminds me of how the enemies of the Jews spun us around for years, but one day we “turned them back” hard and there was a big bang of our victory. In remembrance of that victory, the children spin the spinners on New Year’s Eve.” ̶ My grandmother explained. I wondered, “Grandma, how do Jews greet each other on New Year’s Day?” ̶ I asked. Now Grandma wondered, “I’ll teach you this greeting:
Je m’appelle janvier.
J’arrive le premier.
Pour dire aux enfants̶ .
Voila le nouvel an.
(In French ̶ My name is January. I come first to tell the children-here, New Year).
She pulled out an object from somewhere that I had never seen before, brought out some dirty pieces of candles, tied her head with a scarf, muttered some words I didn’t understand, and lit all the Hanukkah candles. “Our ancestors dealt a powerful blow on this day to their enemies. It lasted eight days.” ̶ my grandmother explained ̶ “So you have to light one candle on the first day, and then each day a candle: the number of candles according to the number of days. But we don’t have that many candles. Yes, and it’s dangerous to leave so many candles burning in a room. The neighbors will find out and complain about us. Don’t tell anyone about the candles, dear. A man should be able to keep secrets, especially New Year’s Eve secrets.” So for the first time in my life, I celebrated Hanukkah without knowing what I was celebrating.
In Jewish history, blood libels are an inherent feature of Passover celebrations. Blood libels and Passover pogroms were intertwined in an insurmountable knot of Jewish existence in Russia. A Russian Jew who had not experienced the accusation of using Christian blood did not experience his Jewishness fully, did not know it deeply. I managed to experience this not during the Sarra Modebadze case in 1878 in Kutaisi, not during the Beilis case in 1911 ̶ 1913 in Kiev, but in the early 1960s. To feel like a member of a Jewish conspiracy was honorable, interesting, and frightening. Whoever was not a Jewish conspirator could hardly understand the drama of this nation’s history.
* * *
Communism has so far departed from the historical scene, but it has left amazing examples of human cohabitation not foreseen by the old utopians. It invented communal apartments. The textbooks on Marxism-Leninism wrote a great deal about human life under communism, but the theme of the communal apartment was undeveloped.
Our communal apartment occupied half the floor of a late 19th century house. The distance between the floor and the ceiling in our apartment was four and a half meters. The height of our life was very spacious and conducive to dreams of a bright future, as Soviet people were supposed to do. But in length and width we lived very cramped. Before the October Revolution one family lived in the apartment, but with the victory of communism came modesty: instead of one family in the same area settled eight.
The apartment started with a common front door, which had signs with the names of the tenants and just one bell common to all. The signs said who to call how many times. This bell was the beginning of the problems between the tenants. How to signal that a visitor was going to this particular family? It was fine for someone who was called once or twice or three times, but someone who was called seven or eight times had to be extremely careful to count correctly and open the door for their guest, rather than serve other tenants by letting their friends and relatives in. Given the complicated relationships, and sometimes lack thereof, between neighbors, opening or not opening the door was often a matter of honor. So the tenants tensed to count the calls. The tension went so far that they decided to change the entire bell system. So as not to count for a long time, they began to call long and short. For example, one family called two long rings, and the other two short ones. So they limited the count to four. It seemed clear, but duration was a relative concept, and again there was tension and a nervous situation.
In our apartment, though, we had a much bigger flashpoint of tension ̶ one toilet for twenty-five people with eight light bulbs. Everyone wanted his own private light, which he paid for, and he made sure that others didn’t use his electricity. Everyone wanted to sit in the bathroom lit by a personal light bulb and feel independent and comfortable. But through the door demanded justice, that is, to vacate this most important institution of our apartment as quickly as possible. Personal rights were quickly running out at this point. How long was it allowed to occupy the toilet? This problem was the subject of lively and constant discussion, but remained unresolved. There were neighbors living in the apartment who sat in the shared toilet for as long as if it was their personal property. They were considered troublemakers in our community. They were knocked on the door while sitting, they were shamed on entering and exiting. Sometimes they denied the sitting times attributed to them, sometimes they admitted to their mistakes. How many toilets there would be under communism per capita, or rather per another part of the body, opposite the head, was not discussed at Communist Party of the Soviet Union congresses or in newspapers, was not analyzed in textbooks or at political meetings.
Another burning problem in our apartment was the bathroom, or rather the lack thereof. The huge, bright kitchen, with its large window and eight light bulbs, had only one sink, and there was a long line to it, especially in the mornings. The kitchen was regularly transformed into a bathroom. Its three gas stoves heated water for washing, which was poured into basins and troughs. Residents splashed themselves in the basins and washed the dirt off themselves to the disgruntled cries of other tenants who could not get into the kitchen and use it for its primary purpose ̶ to be the nurse. To feed twenty-five people, there had to be continuous cooking. The kitchen was a constant source of smells wafting throughout the apartment and alerting the neighbors to who was eating what. The kitchen was also a discussion club, a means of communication, a battleground, and a source of gossip. It functioned from early morning until late at night and was the heart and stomach of our apartment. Neighbors knew everything about each other: who ate what and when, how often they washed and how often they went to the bathroom, who visited who. There was no privacy whatsoever. Nothing could be hidden in our apartment.
Although Jews were a tiny minority in the USSR, they were the majority in our apartment: out of eight families, six were Jewish and two were Russian. There was one Russian resident in the apartment who sometimes drank until he lost his human form, and sometimes even until he lost consciousness. He often lay in various parts of our apartment, and we would step over him carefully and carry on with our business. He was a harmless man, and his wife was a very nice woman who suffered from her husband’s binge drinking. But in another Russian family there was a woman of a different type. Some neighbors called her German Shepherd, or Sheepdog for short, for her spiritual and other affinity with the Nazi occupiers during the war. Because of our drunken neighbor, the story played out that compelled me to write this story.
On Passover, Jews eat matzah. It was not easy to get it, because one had to go to the synagogue for it. For a Soviet man, an atheist and an advanced builder of communism, going to the synagogue was shameful and unsafe. Older people, backward elements and deluded custodians of Jewish tradition went there. The extraction of matzoh was left to the elderly, who had nothing to lose. Once we were secretly invited to a neighbor’s house for Passover. The neighbor’s hostess asked my mother to prepare and bring them “gefilte” (stuffed) fish. All the preparations for the Passover meal were kept secret even from the other Jewish neighbors. The matzah was a burning secret. It was unknown how the guests would manage to sneak the forbidden matzoh into the feast unnoticed.
In the evening, guests began to come to these neighbors. But still there were no guests to bring the matzah. Finally, the phone rang. We had a telephone in the common hallway. When someone was called to the phone, we had to speak in Aesop language, so that those in the kitchen, that is, next to the phone, or neighbors passing by would not understand the content of the conversation. I ran to the phone and called the organizer of the feast. She was happily explaining the way to the guests with the matzah. They had never been to our place. I heard the organizer, in response to the guests’ question, say in Yiddish: “Di sheheinim zaynen ayngeneme manchn” (“The neighbors are very nice people”). The door of their apartment was closest to the common front door. When we were already seated at the festive table, the bell rang, clearly indicating that the hosts were coming, and everyone was very happy that they were finally bringing matzah. A satisfied hostess went to open the door. After a minute, we heard a terrifying female yell in Yiddish, “Gwalt! a Kop!” (“Gwalt! Head!”). I, as the smallest and fastest, was the first one on the scene. It was dark at the front door of our apartment, which was rich with bells, but I could see matzah scattered on the floor. A crumpled sheet was lying at the very entrance. I realized that the matzah had been disguised as laundry. Next to the hostess stood an unfamiliar man and woman, the woman wailing very loudly: “A Kop! A Kop! nor der Kop! Wu of dair Kerper! A Shrek! Er of tate!” (“Head, head, one head! Horror! Where’s the body? He’s dead!”). I knew at once what had happened. When she came in, she stumbled upon the head of our drunken neighbor lying next to the door of our welcoming neighbors’ room. The rest of his body was hidden from her around the corner. The guest tripped over his head, was terribly frightened, dropped the whole matzah, and remained in shock. All the neighbors ran to her screams. Sheepdog also showed up. She started screaming even louder than her guest: “They’re having Passover! They stunned him and dragged him to drink his blood with matzah! Damn Jews! Bloodsuckers!” Her screams made the drunken man wake up and mumble: “They killed our comrade Jesus.” Having said this, he turned on his side and continued to sleep. The guest fell silent and went into the festive apartment with her husband. My hostess and I hastily picked up matzah and a sheet and followed her in, to the shout of our neighbor, “Bloodsuckers!” Thus our secret evening was discovered. Nothing could be hidden in our apartment.
It happened in France many years ago. On the evening of the lighting of the first Hanukkah candle, I returned from work in the afternoon, much earlier than usual. I had no holiday candles and no desire to go to the synagogue, but I must have finished work early on the occasion of the holiday. I went into the park near my house and sat down on a bench with a scientific book to read about the problem that was occupying me. There was not a soul in the park. I looked at the sky: a gray cloud had split the delicate blue-white sky. It rolled annoyingly across the sky, lonely and alien. An innocent and indifferent cloudless plain surrounded it on all sides. To my left, the stone Berlioz looked out at me, peering at the score of the Fantastic Symphony. I had recently learned that he was a painter and painted this sky. I looked at the sky again. A second cloud appeared in the distance. It came from nowhere and was also out of this world. I immersed myself in reading, but at some point I felt someone’s eyes on me. When I turned my head, I saw, on my bench to my right, a man of Middle Eastern appearance. I immediately felt at home. It was an Arab from the former French colony in North Africa. I recognized the unemployed man, living on welfare, otherwise it was impossible to explain why he was sitting in the park in the middle of the work day. The man looked at the book I was reading, “You read English. Are you from England?” ̶ he asked. I didn’t want to specify where I came from. I didn’t expect anything good from an admission of my Israeli ancestry. So I answered his question in the affirmative. “But you are not English. Where did you come from in England?” ̶ A new question followed. “I am a Hindu from Sri Lanka,” I answered. ̶ “Never heard that before,” my interlocutor remarked. “Where did you come from in France?” ̶ I asked. ̶ “From Algeria,” he said. ̶ “Never heard of it before,” I announced and immersed myself in reading. Obviously, he sensed that I did not want to keep up the conversation. For a long time, we sat next to each other in silence on the bench. The clouds were getting closer. It was beginning to turn gray. Finally, he asked: “How are you Indians doing in England?” ̶ “Very bad,” I said, and asked: “And how do you Algerians live in France?” ̶ “Very bad,” he sighed. There was a long silence. “Do you know who makes you Indians live badly in England and we Algerians live badly in France?” ̶ he suddenly asked. ̶ “Because of the English,” I immediately responded. No miracle happened: “Because of the Jews,” he parried. “Never heard that before,” I replied. He was very surprised, I was not. I lost all desire to read. I got up from the bench and went to the synagogue to light the first Hanukkah candle. It was gray-gray.
Alex Gordon is a native of Kiev (USSR) and graduate of the Kiev State University and Haifa Technion (Doctor of Science, 1984). Repatriated to Israel in 1979, he is a full Professor of Physics in the Faculty of Natural Sciences at the University of Haifa and at Oranim, the Academic College of Education. Alez is also the author of 7 books and about 500 articles in paper and online published in 56 journals in 12 countries in Russian, Hebrew, English and German.