Alex Gordon reflects on his father’s Jewishness.
In 1935 my father met his idol, the French writer Henri Barbusse, winner of the Goncourt Prize. Barbusse, a member of the French Communist Party who also met with Stalin, sought to persuade my father, a newly minted graduate in literature from Kiev University, to become a communist. My father disagreed, perhaps saving his life: in 1937 the mass Stalinist repressions began, the victims mostly communists. Yet his failure to become a communist hindered his career in the post-Stalin era when it was difficult for non-communists to occupy senior positions. This dialectic was characteristic of the USSR: it was dangerous to be a communist but hard to get ahead without being a communist.
The Soviet system after World War II regarded my father as flawed not only because he refused to join the Community Party, but also because he was a Jew. In 1949 he, along with other prominent Jewish writers, was accused of “rootless cosmopolitanism”, “worshipping Western literature hostile to the USSR” and “serving foreign intelligence”.
If Jewishness was my father’s first birth defect, another was a congenital heart defect which exempted him from military service. When war broke out he and my mother, already married, evacuated from Kiev and for two and a half years lived a half-starved life away two thousand kilometres away whilst hundreds of thousands of Kiev’s Jews were exterminated by the Nazis.
His exile and difficult return to the ruined post-war Kiev, followed by the humiliation of being considered a “cosmopolitan”, a “passportless vagrant”, a “spy” and in 1949 being fired from his positions at Kiev University and as editor of Ukraine’s main literary magazine made him breathe hard, worry hard and work hard. The Soviet designation of my father as “flawed” determined my family’s fate: my father left to look for work outside Kiev. He searched and searched; what he found was another woman and he broke up with my mother.
My father was criticized all his life, and criticism seems to have been a recurrent feature of my own life. My mother criticized me continuously, both when she was raising me and when she realized that it was too late to raise me. Later she would let me know how upset she was by my bad, inattentive attitude toward her. When I married she criticized my indifference and selfishness towards her in contrast to my attitude towards my wife. My mother never stopped criticizing me, yet never criticized my children, even when admonishment was due.
My wife brought our children up; I did so to a lesser extent, for whilst she focused on them I could rest from her criticism of me, watching with satisfaction as she criticized not me, but the children, and I had nothing to add to her precise criticism of our children. It did not occur to me that years later the criticism would rebound onto me, that my son would severely criticize me for my aloofness and neutrality in the relationship between him and his mother.
In a state where Jewishness was a flaw, I was criticized by all my relatives for my interest in it. At first, they criticized me for studying Hebrew and Jewish history and my fascination with Zionism, which threatened everyone in the anti-Zionist country. My father, who by then lived in Moscow, was especially critical: he criticized me for wanting to move to Israel and when I did so was intensely critical of my new country. When I left my father shamed me that I would bring bad luck upon him and other relatives because the Soviet government did not like Zionists. He was wrong: not a single relative suffered because of me. As time passed, he began to criticize me for being bad at navigating the problems of his complicated life in the USSR and for not wanting to visit him in Moscow. His criticism was partly fair, for I loved Russia neither near it nor far from it because it did not love me, as I am a Jew, and that is why I went to Israel. But in truth I never lived in Russia, I lived in the USSR.
My mother followed me to Israel as she needed to criticize me at close range. My father was satisfied with criticizing me at a distance, from Moscow to Haifa. For years I endured my father’s criticism for neglecting him and not wanting to visit him in Moscow. He was right: I did not like Moscow, as the capital of the state where I was born, studied and worked under conditions of state and private anti-Semitism. My father and I had both been considered enemies of the Soviet people: he became one in 1949 accused of “alliance with the international bourgeoisie” and declared a “traitor to the fatherland”; thirty years later I was declared a “traitor to the fatherland” for wanting to move to the state of Israel. My “betrayal” was apparently inherited from my father.
When the Soviets fell, my father shamed me for continuing to refuse to show him love and respect by visiting him. Finally, I could not resist my father’s criticism, and after 17 years of my life in Israel, I decided to go to Moscow to visit him. By 1996 we were no longer enemies of the Soviet regime because it no longer existed. But I was not sure that Russia had forgiven me for not loving it, and I prepared carefully for my return. Seeking God’s help, as preparation and insurance against misfortune on the trip, I visited a synagogue on Judgment Day and asked forgiveness from the Creator.
In Moscow, my father showed me in every way that he had long since stopped criticizing me for my Jewish interests and decided to show me how close he was to being Jewish himself. He took me to the Jewish centre, which he had enjoyed visiting lately. He extolled the atmosphere there, and indeed, I found many Jews in this centre, proud and happy to be Jewish, for which, in contrast to the USSR, there was no punishment. They were also happy because in the centre they were given food, which was valuable in Moscow, poorly supplied with food at the time. The centre was fun, with everyone singing Jewish songs and professing their love for the Jewish people and the State of Israel.
How great, then, was my surprise when, on leaving the centre, I read the sign with its name: “Jews for Jesus”. It was a Christian evangelical organization. I knew that the Jews had suffered because of Jesus, but I did not know that they had nevertheless grown so fond of him, after centuries of suffering due to accusations of his crucifixion. Of course, coming to the “Jews for Jesus” society was a vicious act. The Jewishness that my father had finally connected with was a sham. I knew immediately that in order to mend my relationship with the Almighty, I needed to urgently visit the synagogue and ask for forgiveness.