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“I can substantiate it,” Dmitri replied weightily. “Very much so.”
“I’m interested in knowing whether your parents ever talked to you about religion,” I said.
“We never had that problem, and neither did I,” he said. “For example — off the track, but it’s an example — it is very common in America for young singers who are studying to sing in a church choir. Singing in a small choir in a good church with a good director is a very useful musical education. I sang on Fridays and I think on Saturdays at a wonderful… would it be Reform synagogue… in Boston. And we sang stuff like some of the most difficult in modern religious music by [Ernst] Bloch. So yes, it was never much of a problem. These were Jews, but they were Jews who had grown up within a cultured atmosphere; therefore the various trimmings of liturgy become more or less absorbed by a child. I know my mother knew a lot of these things. She knew much more than I, of course, but I could ask her certain details, meanings of certain words, meanings of certain similes.”
I queried that one gets “the sense that it was important for your mother that you understand that she is Jewish and know exactly what it is.”
“Yes, probably it’s something that a young American boy, whether he is Jewish or not, when he goes to school he has to understand the whole mystique aspect of life in America, which is not devoid of prejudice,” Dmitri Nabokov replied. “My mother was very clear about all of these things. She explained about the degree to which I should think about this in my own life. She knew it would never be a problem for me. I’m big; I’m strong; I don’t let offenses go by easily, not that I had many.”
I asked if he had had any “spiritual upbringing or religious instruction.”
“Yes,” he said. “As is the case in English-speaking countries, particularly America and England, there is a certain religious wing over the school, often Protestant. It’s there more as a tradition [in private schools like St. Mark’s which Dmitri attended]. And some of the most enjoyable stuff I did at the schools was singing in Handel’s ‘Messiah,’ [Bach’s] B Minor Mass, things like that. I greatly enjoyed this. And that created a certain contact with Jewish culture, reading certain things that were suggested to us, to better understand what the references are, what events occurred, what is the true meaning of certain biblical narratives. And my mother asked me if I wanted to go to Sunday school [at the church in Cambridge, Mass., where he sang in choir]. I’m sure I answered ‘yes,’ because I went. I had friends there, and I had a good time, and I loved music.”
Dmitri Nabokov was born in Berlin in 1934 and fled Germany with his mother in the spring of 1937, spending three more years in France and coming to America on board a ship chartered by the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society. Reflections on the Shoah and vestiges of anti-Semitism in the America of his childhood and teen years entered our conversation.