Your Duty as a Jew
‘It’s your duty as a Jew to stay here in Kiev.”
Oh boy, thinks Tolya Epshtein, oh boy. So many Jews have left for Israel and America already, half the Jews he knows. And now his wife wants to join the outflow. So, Tolya came to the synagogue where Jews gather after services to gossip about new administrative shortcuts and cost-savings. Maybe certain bureaucrats could be bribed to speed up the paperwork? But, leave it to him — he’s arrived after everyone left the synagogue, except some fanatic little babushka wearing a standard-issue white kerchief and early spring black-cloth coat.
“Right here,” she says, standing in the synagogue vestibule and tapping a knobby finger against the binding of a book. “Right here in the portion Emor, the Torah says we should hallow the Name. Kiddush Hashem.”
“Praise the Lord,” Tolya says.
“Don’t be disrespectful.” She shakes her knobby finger and says: “You should stay, you young people. No understanding of Jewish values.”
“Excuse me, Auntie, but it’s not Jewish for me to want to raise my little girl where she’ll never hear ‘kike’ on the streets?”
“Very easy to hallow His Name when life’s kind. The real test is to maintain faith in the face of persecution.”
Can he be hearing right? Is this survivor of Stalin’s purges, Hitler’s slaughters, Khrushchev’s massive synagogue closures, Brezhnev’s anti-emigration persecutions — can this survivor be saying it’s better that Jews suffer? “But Auntie, when there’s an alternative, why should we subject ourselves to antisemitism? Even today, synagogues are attacked here, our cemeteries are vandalized, neo-Nazis beat us up and the authorities do nothing. Wouldn’t our Jewishness flourish better elsewhere?”
“As we say on Pesach, in every generation someone arises to seek our destruction. So, in every generation we must prove our devotion, put our trust in the Almighty for deliverance.”
“What else is emigration, but deliverance?”
“If your faith isn’t tested by suffering, you can’t prove you’re a good Jew.”
“Is that what the Torah says? That a good Jew is a suffering Jew?”
“Look at Job.”
“You want to live like Job? Zayt gezunt. But not me. We’re never far from pogroms in this country. What kind of devotion is it to be a dead Jew?”
“Martyrdom is holy.”
“Martyrdom is stupid.”
“You’d denounce the Name?”
“I’d sanctify it by protecting the very life He granted us. I’ll go where future generations can live safely and regard Jewishness as a blessing rather than a curse.”
“Such blasphemy you speak! In a synagogue, yet! You’re just like my daughter, turning your back on us elders.”
The old lady turns her head aside. “She left for America. She left me to rot here.”
“She wouldn’t take you?”
“I should go? I should leave the only streets I know? My husband’s grave? My parents’? I’m the mother! I’m the one who deserves respect. My daughter should have stayed. No respect. She abandoned me.”
“Surely she sends you money.”
“The American way, money.”
“She doesn’t telephone?”
“I don’t answer. I should talk to a daughter who refuses to care for me in my old age? Because of her, I have to trudge out for bread and medicine in winter. And she took my little grandson with a yidishe punim like you’ve never seen. America, an entire country based on leaving parents to die alone and forgotten across one ocean or another. Who’ll visit my grave?”
Tolya winces. “I go twice a year to my parents’ graves, on each birthday and yahrzeit.”
“You know from yahrzeit?”
“I lay flowers, clean away weeds. I place stones.”
“You know to place stones?”
Tolya wonders whether his parents’ souls will forgive his departure. He’s thought about this. Will they know he’s gone? Will they miss his visits? “You think they’ll feel lonely?”
The old lady grabs the sleeve of his tweed jacket. “So, you do care about your parents.”
“Of course I care.” His voice is nearly a whisper. “Being a Jew means forever having to choose between the future and the past.”
“You understand better than I thought.”
“Whatever I choose leads to sadness of one kind or another.”
“So, if you go to America, you’ll suffer?”
“In some ways, of course.”
The old lady nods. “Kiddush Hashem.”
Tolya shakes his head, then leans down and gives her dry cheek a kiss. A long kiss.
She clutches the back of his neck.
“Goodbye, Auntie,” he says, pulling to stand upright.
But she holds on, not letting him go.
Daniel M. Jaffe, translator of the Russian-Israeli novel “Here Comes the Messiah!” by Dina Rubina (Zephyr Press, 2000), lives in Santa Barbara, Calif.