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A Jewish-Ukrainian Marriage

A group of ex-Soviets waits for visas and forms unexpected alliances on an Italian beach

Maxim D. Shrayer
May 11, 2022
Courtesy the author
Courtesy the author
Courtesy the author
Courtesy the author

June 1987. A crowded public beach in the town of Ladispoli on the Tyrrhenian coast. Volcanic sand, black, like refugee’s melancholia; hot, like exile’s purgatory. This is the ex-Soviets’ stomping ground as they—we—wait in transit for visas to the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand ...

A tall hefty woman with a double bun of russet hair came up to us and introduced herself. My parents and I had spread our towels by the water’s edge, right next to her family’s beach encampment with its multiple tote bags, assortment of beach toys and flippers, and piles of clothes anchoring the corners of a floral bedsheet. In her right hand the woman held a plastic bottle by the neck, as though preparing to strangle it.

“Soloveitchik’s our name,” she said to my mother, with a Ukrainian accent. “We’re from Lvov. And no, we are not related,” she added cryptically.

And the hefty woman kicked her head back, like a mare shaking a horsefly. She took a long swig of some carbonated nonsense from the plaintively squealing bottle. Her perceptive chocolate-brown eyes finished drilling holes in our foreheads and turned to the water, where three children frolicked together in a way that suggested they were siblings. The eldest, a girl of about 12, supervised the other two, boys of about 8 and 4. The girl and her younger brother looked very much alike, both with kinky black hair and pale skin, bearing a close resemblance to their angular, sluggish father who sat on the floral sheet reading a thick tome. The middle boy was different—bouncy and boisterous.

During that summer my parents and the Soloveitchiks became quite friendly, and I saw them almost daily. Alina did most of the talking in her family, leaving her husband, Leonid, or Lyonya, who had the furry smallish ears and tender protruding face of a giant anteater, to the tasks of carrying their belongings, supervising the children, and being a silent witness to what she called “telling it like it is.”

“I took after my Ukrainian papa,” Alina liked to repeat. “He always told people what he thought of them. Some didn’t like it. But they surely respected him. My Yiddishe moma, now that’s a different story for you …”

Before Alina’s larger-than-life personality entirely occupies the screen of my desktop, I should explain that each time she would introduce herself, Alina would mention that her husband’s family “were not related.” Related to whom? Of course very few understood what she was talking about. I had no idea until my father, at the time my principal source of Jewish spirituality, had explained that Alina was talking about none other than Joseph Soloveitchik, the great American rabbi and philosopher. The word “soloveitchik” means “little nightingale” in Russian, and it’s not an uncommon Jewish last name. “There’s more than one little bird by that name,” was Alina’s aphorism for the occasion. How did this woman from Lvov even know about Rav Soloveitchik, and why did she feel compelled to say this to strangers? There were many puzzles to Alina Soloveitchik.

Alina immediately designated my mother as her beach mate and confidante. It was her mission to rescue my mother from loneliness that fueled the friendship between the Soloveitchiks and our family. She sensed that my mother was out of sorts. Back in Russia, my mother tended to dominate over her female friends in an understated, trend-setting fashion. But she was so emotionally drained during the first few weeks after leaving Moscow that she let Alina take charge of her spirits.

Lyonya and my father would occasionally play a game of chess. A couple of times they went fishing off the jetty, but the bond was really between the women. The Soloveitchiks, Alina, and Lyonya (forgive the accidental dactyl—iambic feet can be too small) were each 40, significantly younger than my parents. They were headed for Cleveland, where Alina’s brother had immigrated eight years earlier with his wife, children, and Alina’s Jewish mother.

“You know, this is how G-d likes to tease us,” Alina explained on the second day of our acquaintance. She was holding a clear plastic bag half-filled with cherries, apricots, and plums, to which she helped herself while also smoking a cigarette out of the left corner of her succulent mouth.

“Now my darling brother practically sleeps at the synagogue, and he had himself circumcised and all that nutty business, but he used to be the greatest assimilationist in all of our beautiful city of Lvov. That’s my mother’s thin blood, her Jewish influence. My Ukrainian father—would you believe it—he used to yell at my brother when he tried to tell nasty Jewish jokes he’d pick up from his street pals. Ah, I tell you, nothing’s fair in this world. My brother didn’t even want to go—and he got out in three months. We got stuck for almost 10 years. And my papa’s lying in the grave outside Lvov.”

Alina spoke with pride and tenderness of her Ukrainian father, a former ace pilot and air force colonel.

“He would have been made a one-star general—he was already in charge of an airbase. But we got it into our stupid heads to leave, and the bastards forced him to retire. You can imagine what they told him upstairs. And through the whole brouhaha he never said so much as one word of reproach to us. Just suffered silently. Didn’t last one year in retirement—a stroke. Not even 65 he was, my papa.”

I wondered about Alina’s friendship with my mother, considering she didn’t have one good thing to say about her own mother, with whom she was to be “reunited” in America. One got the feeling that Alina blamed her Jewish mother for all their family troubles. Was Alina borderline antisemitic, in the domesticated way Jews sometimes allow themselves to be among other Jews? Today I might say she was self-hating, but back in Ladispoli my vocabulary lacked such terms. I simply sensed Alina’s unease about being Jewish. Yet Jewishness, and particularly Yiddish words and phrases and also those jackdaw intonations, were as much a part of Alina as a lining is part of a dress.

Having had a Ukrainian, non-Jewish father gave Alina a feeling of superiority. Torn between Ukrainians and Jews, she was of two minds about emigration, even after 10 years as a refusenik.

“Oh, I tell you, my papa, may he rest in peace instead of flying those crazy loops at their shitty Victory Day parades, my papa did this imitation of my mother’s Aunt Golda who lived in Czernowitz after the war—most of that side of the family were killed in the camps in Transnistria, but Aunt Golda had escaped to the hinterland in ‘41—O my Lord, so you could lose your stomach laughing. My papa was generally very nice to my mother’s meshpocha, but there were times he also couldn’t bear it.”

“You Muscovites wouldn’t understand,” she once told us as we joined with the Soloveitchiks for a picnic of tomatoes and cucumbers and scallions and melting cheeses at the beach. “I love Ukraine. I love the folk songs, their bittersweetness. ‘Nich yakamisyachna, zoryana, yasnaya / Vidno, khoch golki zbiray. / Viydi, kokhanaya, pratseyu zmorena, khoch na khvilinochky v gay’—‘Come out, kokhanaya, but for a minute, but for a minute to the grove,’” she sang out. Kokhanaya in Ukrainian means “beloved,” the feminine form.

Alina was also the first Jew from Ukraine I’d met who was so ardently pro-Ukrainian and so anti-Russian. “Ukrainians and Russians are so different,” she liked to repeat. “You know what my late papa used to say? ‘The Russians are all drunks. Only Ukrainians and Jews can get along.’”

And at times she seemed lukewarm toward her own adoring Jewish husband, who, at first glance, walked the dotted line separating a true mensch from a fictional stereotype of the gentle Jewish husband that Slavic mothers sometimes wish for their daughters to marry, in spite of congenital biases against Jews.

“My Lyonya may seem like a wimp compared to your darling boxer of a husband,” she said to my mother on one occasion, so loudly that not only father and me but half the beach could hear. “But don’t you assume he cannot stand up for me. You should’ve seen him when the KGB came with a search warrant in ‘83. I felt he would’ve ripped their throats out if they’d so much as touched the children or me.” And Alina shouted, “Careful, Lyonya, don’t drop them,” and waved to her husband as he carried both of their boys on straight arms out of the cresting waves.

Ours was, for the most part, a by-day beach friendship. Alina followed ironclad rules of childrearing, according to which children had to be in bed by 8. On rare occasions Alina and Lyonya would go out and join the other sunset flâneurs on the seaside boulevard. Their own home, two tiny rooms in a cottage they shared with two other refugee families, was much too cramped to receive visitors.

Of the two or three times the Soloveitchiks came over for tea on our balcony, I was home only once, and a long evening it turned out to be. At first my father read a new story he’d just written in Ladispoli. It was set in a refugee hostel outside Vienna, and Alina loved it. Afterwards I read a story of my own, called “Long Nose,” about an Austrian innkeeperess and her Jewish lover, a refugee from the western part of Ukraine. Alina didn’t like it at all.

“Young man, you’ve got a long way to go. In your father’s story I could feel those words, those colors, it was exactly how I would have described it,” she said without a shade of embarrassment. Lyonya kept silent, munching on an almond cookie.

“Well,” Alina said, lighting a cigarette, “I’m no writer, but I also have a story to tell you people. It’s about love. And about me. Here you go.” She uncrossed her legs and continued.

“You know how these things start. Lyonya and I went to university together. He became a research chemist at a classified facility, and I—a chemistry teacher. Then came the late 1970s, the wave, my father was still living, Ninochka, our eldest, was only 4. Which means I was almost 30—I didn’t want to have more kids right away, you know, kept thinking I’d go back to school for an advanced degree. So we applied, Lyonya was fired and also told at the Visa Office he would never leave. We became refuseniks. Two years later my brother Senya got out. Papa was already dead, and mother went to America with my brother. Like a wagon in autumnal mud, we got stuck. The year was now ’82, Lyonya worked at a fertilizer factory as foreman, I was still teaching chemistry—they couldn’t get rid of me. Students adored me, and I had the best test scores in the school district.”

“I was about half my present size, and not so bad looking—wasn’t I, Lyonya, wasn’t I?”

“You’re still gorgeous, Alinochka,” Lyonya answered placidly.

“Sure I was, before I had Sashka. I just haven’t dropped all this weight,” Alina said and dashingly slapped herself on the hip.

“In any case, I’m talking about paradoxes of love. I’d known a man for many years … since high school actually. He was my first. Later we got seriously involved at the university. He became a Komsomol leader, quickly rose through the ranks. He had everything going for him: origins, looks, smarts. Your classic Brezhnevite golden boy from the provinces. He’s now sort of trapped as second secretary of the regional party committee … He would’ve gone much, much higher if he weren’t such a dirty dog about women. I’d always known what he was all about, but I was drawn to this man, first in high school, then at the university. And especially drawn to him when we hooked up again, already after Lyonya and I became refuseniks. This man has a wife, also Jewish—he has a thing for Jewish chicks. Some fixation. We used to rendezvous in this Olympic gym, where his buddy was the head gymnastics coach—all three of us had gone to high school together. So he let us use his private locker room with a shower. This poison continued, lingering, until we finally got permission in March. I told Lyonya. He got down on his knees and begged me, begged me for hours, to stay with him. For the children’s sake, he said. And so here we are, going to Cleveland.”

As the wife and husband Soloveitchik were getting up from faded canvas chaise lounges, I looked at Alina as discreetly as I could, out of the corner of my eye. Large ropy veins, like aquamarine lizards, climbed up her heavy legs, bared beneath her hiked-up bright green skirt. But her face, still young and glowing, was startling in its dark, brooding Ukrainian beauty. “How can this be possible?” I remember thinking, “that I feel attracted to this overweight and loud 40-year-old woman from Lvov?”

The Soloveitchiks left Italy before us, and it wasn’t for two years that I saw them again. In 1989 I stopped for the night in Cleveland on my way to Bloomington, Indiana, to teach summer school. Alina was working as a lab tech. Lyonya already had two advanced Soviet degrees but went back to school to get an “American Ph.D.” On the inside, their ranch house in Cleveland Heights had the look of a Soviet apartment, and the wife and husband Soloveitchik both looked very Soviet, especially in contrast to their own Americanized children. The oldest, Ninochka, was already in junior high, and the two boys, Sasha and Vovochka, were going to a Jewish middle school.

Now, over three decades have gone by. Immigrant lives toss people about the country, and they lose touch—for no specific reason. But I also think certain memories and certain persons are most alive and vibrant when left in the past, exactly as we parted with them. I cannot imagine the Ladispoli beach without the Soloveitchiks in the center of the shot. Standing in the middle of a floral sheet under the sand-melting midday sun, Alina is changing out of her black bikini with gold buckles.

“Lyonya, get the bebeches and the children and let’s be going,” she commands, referring in Yiddish to their beach accoutrements.

“Alinochka, hold the towel, they’re staring!” the usually phlegmatic Lyonya loses his nerve.

“What’s the big deal, let them stare all they want. You should be glad your fat wife still has something to offer to the world.”

She turns to my mother, winks, and guffaws so contagiously that my mother cannot help but laugh with Alina Soloveitchik as the rest of us languish on the black sand of Ladispoli. There we’re still waiting for America.

Adapted from Maxim D. Shrayer’s book Waiting for America: A Story of Emigration

Maxim D. Shrayer is a bilingual author and a professor at Boston College. He was born in Moscow and emigrated in 1987. His recent books include A Russian Immigrant: Three Novellas and Immigrant Baggage, a memoir. Shrayer’s new collection of poetry, Kinship, is forthcoming.