Friday, January 8, 2010

Tel Aviv family

These last few days are a mix of aimless wondering and intense meetings with family. Yesterday I missed meeting Vered at the park Gan Meir -- either my Russian cell phone is malfunctioning or I dialed the number wrong -- so instead of hanging out and talking about comparative literature I watched dogs being sold. Right outside the park, on the street of Melech George (or King George) people sit in a row holding their puppies on their laps or tied to the metal fence and advertise the puppies' qualities. "He doesn't bite at all! And she's already toilet-trained and won't stain your couch." Of course, the conversation is happening in Hebrew and there are so many curious customers that I probably wouldn't have understood anything even if I spoke the language.

My family in Israel is divided roughly in two groups: those cousins who came here within the last 30 years from the Soviet Union and the families of my grandparents' first cousins who stayed in the West after the October Revolution and then eventually found their way to Palestine. There was, for example, my grandmother's Margo's father Grisha. He came from a family of eight siblings and they lived in Riga, Latvia. The family was relatively well-off: they owned a chocolate factory and an apartment building. According to the family legend, Grisha was a gambler -- an unsuccessful one, and had to run away from his debts. So he went to Petrograd, leaving behind three small daughters aged 3, 5, and 7 (my grandmother Margo was 3). Grisha's sister Edna was studying in Germany, in Berlin, at the time. She married a doctor and they had two sons, and in 1936 another sister, Annette, came to Berlin to help Edna's family move to Palestine. The third sister, Fanya, went to the United States. Annette though came back to her two sons in Riga and during WWII perished in a concentration camp. One of her sons survived the war (I think because he was in the Red Army) and after the war he married and had two daughters. My father was very friendly with them growing up, he visited them in Riga and they came to Leningrad. In the late 1970s, at the earliest opportunity, both of them picked up and moved to the United States, to Denver. The connection though with Edna's family was lost until Perestroika, when my dad started going to Israel for work. Edna was still alive on my dad's first visit to Israel, but not a few years later when he succeeded in finding her family. Later, Edna's two sons visited my grandmother Margo back in St. Petersburg -- but I was in the US by then and never met them until this week.

The visiting continues even today, when all of us are leaving. One of our cousins told us that one of our ancestors on my mother's mother's side who had come to Palestine back at the beginning of the 20th century had started a kibbutz at the foot of Mt. Gilboa, and there's still that kibbutz and a cemetery with more than 100 graves somewhere out there. This, however, we shall have to leave for another trip. It's much too much too much too much too much.

My dad's strategy of asking everyone in Israel a question in Russian first, before switching to English when necessary, pays off with some fascinating stories. A man we met making puzzles at Nachalat Binyamin market yesterday was from Poland, but spent seven months in "Siberia" when he was nine years old, prosecuted by the Soviet authorities as an agent of the "West," a potential spy. (His parents were exiled too). "Siberia" is really a catch all term for all Soviet exiles: Vologda, the town where this man was exiled to is about 300 miles east of St. Petersburg and 300 miles north of Moscow. Not Siberia. But still.

Another man whose story we got is a cab driver who immigrated 15 years ago from Moscow. In Moscow, he worked as a dental technician (something like a hygienist?) and here he also continues to work as a dental assistant by day, and by night drives a cab to supplement his income. After a few of my dad's questions, this man started telling us why he doesn't regret his decision to move, even though things are hard here, harder for him personally than they were in Russia after the Soviet Union fell apart.

This is also what makes this trip so demanding: at the first prodding, people are telling us their life stories and their family histories. Everyone has a tale of strife and survival to share. Everyone is asking us to share our stories as well, and we're finding ourselves repeating the same phrases over and over and over again. This is one of those things that make Israel, as they say here, "a warm" country, where everyone is interested in your business and has an opinion about it. For the moment being, I'm longing to return to San Francisco (which I've been advertising as a similarly warm place), and take refuge in its relative anonymity and hide behind my desk for some months in a row. As my grandmother Margo claimed, rest is a change in occupation.

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