Sam Vladimirsky, 'Untitled' from 'When Soft Voices Slowly Die' (2020)
Sam Vladimirsky, ‘Untitled’ from ‘When Soft Voices Slowly Die’ (2020)

My First Bible

Stories of life, death, and divided houses

by
Val Vinokur
May 12, 2022
Sam Vladimirsky, 'Untitled' from 'When Soft Voices Slowly Die' (2020)
Sam Vladimirsky, 'Untitled' from 'When Soft Voices Slowly Die' (2020)
  1. MY FIRST BIBLE

The first time I learned of the Bible was when my grandmother physically attacked it. She had wrested it from my mother’s hands, opened it, and started tearing handfuls of dense onionskin pages in two. I was almost 7 years old, and this happened in Ladispoli, a town outside Rome where Jews, formerly Soviet and suddenly stateless, would spend several months in an administrative purgatory, discarding their Israeli visas for visas that would allow them to enter less holy but more peaceable lands—America, Canada, Australia.

There were several parties that made—or else dropped—claims on our fate that winter of 1978-79. In exchange for my mother’s Moscow apartment, bestowed upon her late father as an “invalid-of-war,” my own father set aside a wife and son and allowed us to emigrate. In exchange for permission to leave, the Soviet state demanded a fee for the renunciation of our citizenship and passports. The PLO asserted the right to impede our exodus by hijacking an Austrian train full of Jewish refugees in 1973, which is why soldiers with black automatic rifles guarded our train to Rome from Vienna five years later. In Rome, the Israeli Embassy organized a screening of Exodus to persuade us to keep our original visas and follow Sal Mineo and Paul Newman to Zion. Although the Russians packed the theater, the film was dubbed into Italian, and the embassy’s claim was not sufficiently compelling. Next, Christian missionaries bid for our souls. And my mother, an atheist who could not pass up a freebie, accepted their generous offer of a Russian-language Bible. After all, this was not an easy book to find back home in Moscow at the time. When my grandmother found the Christian Bible, it was immediately clear that she did not share my mother’s disinterested curiosity. The enemy had been invited onto our shelf.

A few days after her altercation with the Bible, my grandmother was standing on a chair to change a lightbulb, fell, and broke her arm. Soon after that, her arm still in a cast and sling, she asked me to hold a loaf of bread so she could cut it. She sliced about a quarter of the way through my right index finger, leaving a neat curved scar in case I forgot.

In June of 1941, my grandmother decided to remain in Leningrad, where she was studying, while her older sister, a teacher named Dasha, returned to their native Usvyat in Belorussia to spend summer vacation with her mother. Not long after Einsatzgruppe B entered Usvyat, Dasha was shot dead with about 40 others in front of her mother––possibly on Nov. 8, 1941, on the ice of Lake Usvyat. (I say possibly, because there are two Usvyats—one near Vitebsk, the other near Pskov—and, thanks to the thoroughness of the Einsatzgruppen, nearly all the Jews were massacred in both. This reminds me of how my American relatives promulgated a wartime story about a certain Cousin Boris, a teenager who escaped the burning of the Vilno ghetto and joined the partisans, a story that turned out to be about another Cousin Boris altogether, the latter being the other’s nephew.)

In the meantime, the German army encircled Leningrad and starved its inhabitants—my grandmother and her younger brother among them—for 872 days. I don’t know if my grandmother associated this Bible with this particular enemy or with enemies of the Jews in general, or whether her dramatic reaction was simply another item in her standing assessment that every decision my mother made, major or minor, was perilous—even as she unquestioningly followed her daughter and grandson through Vienna and Rome and into exile in Miami Beach.

The Bible is just a book. The Bible is not just another book. The Bible inscribes itself into the flesh. William Tyndale translated the Bible into English and was strangled and burned by the Church for his trouble. For the same offense, John Wycliffe’s bones were exhumed, burned, and cast into the River Swift.

I always imagine that my grandmother tore only the New Testament part of the book. In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus is told that his mother and brothers are trying to push through the adoring crowd to see him. Jesus rejects them and explains: “My mother and brothers are those who hear the word of God and do it” (8:21). The word of God makes and unmakes everything, especially families. Abraham is told to get up and go from his father’s house to a land that God will show him, told to circumcise himself, twice told to cast out his first son, told to sacrifice his second son and then told not to sacrifice him and slaughter a ram instead. In the Gospels God decides to sacrifice his own son for a change, upping the ante, going all in, as if the house can bet against itself.

2. EROS & THANATOS

They freeze and lock eyes. This happens every time my dog comes across a squirrel in the park, which is often. The leash becomes rigid and Max won’t move forward, back, or sideways. The squirrel doesn’t move either. For a full minute, they stare and perform the most (maybe the only) existential dialogue:

DOG: “O Life! My life!”
SQUIRREL: “O Death! My death!”

Life and Death look upon each other with thorough admiration and absolute repulsion––a geometry of awe. I am an intruder on the primal scene. I stamp my feet to remind the squirrel to scramble up a tree. I remind Max that we have to move on and that a free lunch awaits him at home.

Men and women sometimes look at each other that way. The first time my father saw my mother––a Sophia Loren lookalike with a good job and a Moscow residence permit, a Jewish girl unlike the Russian one his older brother had eloped with––he thought: “Life!”

“Thought” is probably the wrong word. My father was a medical student from Kursk who desperately wanted to find a way to remain in Moscow after the completion of his training there. So he fell in love with my mother and quickly married her. I don’t mean to imply this was mercenary or somehow in bad faith. He was moving along the path afforded him, pulling at a leash held by invisible hands, accumulating impressions along the way, and all the sudden he saw her: “Life!”

I wasn’t there to see it, of course. But this is how I’ve come to imagine their meeting, upon examining Max and the squirrel. Nor was I there when Max finally caught and killed a young squirrel in a different park last year. My wife was there; she tied up the dog, dug a small hole, and buried his victim. I don’t know what I would have done—probably just run away very quickly. I am grateful it wasn’t me walking the dog that day.

As for my mother, from her one-dimensional point along the two-dimensional line, I am sure she saw it too: “Death!” Her own father––a meek soul beloved by all, a veteran with a bad heart and a lung lost to German shrapnel––would wince every time he saw her with a new suitor. One of them was a handsome young surgeon, who told my mother how badly he had wanted to kill a “disgusting yid” on his operating table earlier that afternoon. When she interjected that she happened to be a Jewess, it turned out he didn’t mean all Jews. Another one, an engineer, took her on a cruise down the Moscow River. There was a horrible commotion at the ferry terminal when a child’s errant fingers were crushed against the side of the boat as it docked. Serves them right, my mother’s date smirked, these kids not listening to their parents …

The other suitors were probably not monsters, but most of them were not Jews and therefore, as far as my grandfather was concerned, could always molt into monsters. This feeling was just the accumulation of his 50-odd years of experience in the Russian imperium. To ease her father’s suffering and prepare for his death (which would come soon, only six months after my birth), my mother agreed to marry the medical student from Kursk. They had only dated a few months, but at least he was Jewish, sang and played a seven-string guitar, and was lovelier than the young Stalin in his 1911 mugshot. Incredibly, his name was also Iosif.

As I write this, my mother is still among the living. But as my father began to live, she began to die.

In her very womb I was formed by the waning tumescence of Soviet power. Engorged, a sleeper agent inserted in the field, leeching whatever I needed from her bones, muscles, glands. I was the reason she found herself in a special car and––like Red Riding Hood through a forest of wolves––being driven to a KGB Special Facility in Pereslavl-Zalessky (one of Moscow’s onion-domed “Golden Ring” towns), to visit her new husband, who was fulfilling his mandatory military service there as the physician-in-residence. I had been conceived during a brief furlough, in the two-room apartment my mother still shared with her parents in Moscow. She contracted gonorrhea on that furlough. When she confronted my (eventual) father about this––perhaps he caught his social disease from one of the nurses––he told my mother he would give her a divorce and she could just abort the child. But somehow she just couldn’t. So she continued to die, and he continued to live and live and live.

I suppose my mother would tell me this story, many times, because she thought it proof of her heroism. I suppose it is proof of some kind, at least if one defines a hero the way Homer did: a warrior, someone who acts, without any moral claims. Or as Aristotle did: an intermediate kind of personage, not especially virtuous and just, whose misfortune arises not from vice or depravity, but from an error of judgment. So my mother is a hero. There isn’t a single person in the world––least of all herself––who can judge her. She doesn’t exactly judge herself, but she exists in a counterfactual realm: She shouldn’t have married my father, she shouldn’t have left Russia, she shouldn’t have moved to Miami, she shouldn’t have let her son go to sleepaway camp, she shouldn’t have let her son go away to college, etc., etc.

My father never claimed to be a hero. That was reserved for his father, my other grandfather, who fought all the way to Berlin as a lieutenant colonel in a tank division. My first memories were of my father’s father, who died of a rare lung disease when I was 4 and who once told my uncle that if I pissed in his mouth he would drink it. I saw him on his deathbed, but I was not at his funeral, at which, I later learned, the citizens of Kursk organized an impromptu procession with his open casket through the heart of the town––a Russian Orthodox practice that had been banned for decades by the Soviet authorities. It turned out he had been everyone’s secret saint, not just mine.

My father never claimed to be a hero, and he never acted like one, even though, as one of Moscow’s best radiologists, he saved easily thousands of lives. He was—still is—a radiologist because he enjoyed being good at it. He lived, having remarried and fathered a daughter less than 10 years after my mother and I left Moscow. It’s true he wasn’t faithful when he was married to my mother. He once confided to my cousin, who confided to my wife, that he couldn’t stand my mother’s smell. What was he supposed to do? At first, she was life, and then she became death––and life was elsewhere.

The world wants to be seen. And sometimes I can pay attention. Like a Saul Bellow character: “I saw and saw and saw.” Dog sees squirrel, squirrel sees dog. Life and death can’t keep their eyes off each other.

3. TRANSPORTS

There are times when it is difficult to tell if you are treading water, floating, or swimming. I suppose this is a pretty good description of bewilderment—a feeling of having been thoroughly led astray or lured into the wilds, so thoroughly that you don’t even know if you are just surviving, or floating on the lazy river of life, or even intentionally paddling to some destination.

One time, I was about 8, I suddenly realized I was floating away on an Atlantic riptide and had to swim to shore. At that moment a swell lifted and threw me onto the invisible pile of a ruined pier––a broken column of rust and splinters. It stuck to the soft flesh of my stomach as the waves kept lifting and dropping me back onto it. When my mother noticed me flailing and screaming, she swam over, shoved me off the pile and was herself impaled in my stead.

There we were, unmoored and moored, taking our turns atop this jagged ghost of what was probably once a fishing pier or maybe even an anchorage. Finally, my mother’s date––some Russian man who had driven us out to this narrow, empty little beach on Collins Avenue and 30th Street on a late summer evening––paddled out to us on a pink inflatable raft and brought us back to shore, our palms and abdomens scratched and bleeding into his towels. It would take a year or two for the labyrinths of those scars to fade. This didn’t seem like a metaphor back then, but after teaching literature for almost 30 years, it starts to look like one.

Before he died of bone cancer, a friend of mine described how he once rescued a drowning Japanese tourist in Vieques. He told him: “If you don’t stop thrashing, I will let you go under, because otherwise both of us will drown.”

For my first handful of birthdays in Miami Beach, my father would send me a telegram from Moscow. “Dearest son!” he would begin and continue in the clipped effusion of formal Russian epistolary sentimentality: “I congratulate you on this birth day. Firmly kiss and embrace you. Wish you joy success health. Your father who misses you.”

About a month after I turned 14, my mother and I visited New York over spring break. When we arrived at JFK, there were two men waiting to pick us up––a Russian man in a black leather jacket and his mentally impaired brother, like George and Lennie from Of Mice and Men, which I had just read in English class. I had never met them before, and it did not seem like my mother had ever met them either. They drove us through Brighton Beach, the brother sitting with me in the backseat amiably explaining how I might soon come to call him uncle. Finally, we arrived at the Coney Island Houses, where they lived together. It appeared that we were to spend the night. This is where we were staying. I plastered the headphones of my Sony Walkman (a bar mitzvah gift) to my ears, shut myself up in a bedroom and began to pace between the door and a window that looked out onto a desolate Housing Authority parking lot. When my mother came inside to check on me, I furiously whispered that we had to get the hell out of here. She immediately agreed. She seemed embarrrassed. We looked in the white pages and found a number for a young American cousin, Lis Fiekowsky, who instantly told us to come crash at the house she shared in Queens with her Deadhead roommate and an Irish boyfriend who played bass in a blues band and had a braid that went down to his thighs.

Fleeing Brighton Beach for Queens felt like crossing an Iron Curtain. Lis worked as a taxi dispatcher––like a loudmouthed New Yorker from central casting. The Deadhead roommate had Transformers action figures and a vinyl collection I can still see when I close my eyes: The Clash, Jimi Hendrix, U2 bootlegs … I made my own cassette recordings of all of them. I still have those dimly audible tapes. That same visit, my mother left me at the Plaza Hotel to visit a girl I had a minor crush on, a classmate who was also visiting New York but who could stay at the Plaza and not in Queens or Brighton Beach. In the lobby we ran into Brooke Shields and her mother, and snapped furtive photos of them.

That spring in New York transported me to a new world, the world that had been hidden but now revealed, miraculously. The evening before we returned to Miami, we were watching the news with Lis and the Deadhead. It seemed to be a weather report. And it was, but not just that. The meteorologist was tracking the fallout from a nuclear disaster in Chernobyl. Prevailing winds would waft its brilliant plume across Scandinavia––where Swedes were obliged to pause their consumption of reindeer meat––and over Western Europe––where men working outside in the rain of Killearn for the Scottish Water Board would eventually all die of cancer––and then all the way to North America, where, two weeks later, spikes in radioactivity were detected in the milk of Duluth and the rainwater of Washington state.

I didn’t know I was watching the overture to the implosion of an empire that evening in 1986. We flew back to Miami through a thunderstorm the next day. Three years later, my mother and I did something that would have been inconceivable when we left the fortress of the Soviet Union in 1978. Having exfiltrated, we returned to Moscow as American tourists. We would spend a month there and in Leningrad, as it would still be known for another two years. We traded two suitcases of used clothing for tins of caviar and Red Army surplus. Whenever friends or relatives would ask, I explained matter-of-factly that I had no wish to see my father. I was insistently indifferent.

But the day before we left Moscow, my mother called him without warning me. He showed up in a tracksuit, this doctor of radiology––full of cigarette baritone and bluster, telling me how much he regretted never having been able to teach me mat, the art of Russian obscenities. He left 20 minutes later. He had a newborn waiting for him at home.

Val Vinokur, a professor of literary studies at The New School, is the founding editor of Poets & Traitors Press.