Scoundrel Time

The Question

My relationship with Misha started over an argument about religion. It was 1993, and back then he and I were participating in an orienteering competition in the woods near the town of Narva, Estonia, where he grew up. I grew up a few kilometers east, in Kingisepp, a town named after an Estonian Communist though by then within the borders of Russian Federation. Both countries had so recently been the USSR that, our troop leaders, the former youth Communist brigade members, all still referred to the countries as “ours” and “a Union.”

Misha and I were fifteen. We were both Jewish and gay, though neither of us yet had words for our mutual attraction. He and I were on rival teams, sprinting through the woods based on the readings of our maps. On the second day, two people got so badly lost that it took the whole camp to nightfall to recover them. At night, at the celebratory bonfire, one guy from the rescue party claimed that he saw a sign from God, a lightwell, that pointed to the area of the woods where the lost kids were.

“You two ought to light candles at a church,” the boy advised. “It was a true miracle.”

“Nonsense! So, they missed a couple of control markers. We knew where to look,” came a protest from somebody on the Estonian team. “If you seriously think that God is in charge, why bother with maps?”

I peered into the darkness to see a dark-haired, wiry boy who didn’t set any speed records that day, but was part of the successful rescue party. I’d noticed him earlier in the day for his long eyelashes and a curious gaze directed at me. I remember thinking about his name, “Misha,” that it rhymed with my own name, “Grisha.” Misha had made me very self-conscious of the Star of David I wore on my chest. Once he started making fun of the believers, I took the necklace off out of embarrassment. I hoped he hadn’t taken it for a religious symbol, or me for a religious zealot. 

Religion was in vogue in those days. After many years of Communist party-approved militant atheism, people in Russia and Estonia alike were eager to return to their roots, which many felt were in various brands of Christianity. Most of the boys around donned crosses: the day before, when we’d been setting up camp and it had gotten hot, the gold and silver pendants were all I could see on the pale, muscular chests of my comrades. 

As much as I followed Misha’s logic, I wasn’t going to argue with other people’s religious feelings. Misha was right and also clearly asking for trouble. He wouldn’t let the conversation rest even when one of the rescued kids said, “Well, I believe God was watching over us . . .” 

“It’s all a fad,” I remember Misha yelling. “Do you all seriously believe that God forged your brainless craniums only then to give you ball sacs? Imagine him working out how many sperm each of you fuckers deserves!”

He was witty and brave, but this didn’t help him at all. After his outburst, two bigger guys from his own team picked him up by his armpits and carried him down to the swampy riverbank to sober up. “Dry up,” as the expression goes in Russian. I thought it wasn’t sportsmanlike of them. Soviet youth were supposed to aspire to a higher standard. So, what if now the Soviet Union didn’t exist? I brought him dry clothes and let him share my tent. Romantic, isn’t it?

 

Thirty years later, after many, many digressions from what I like to think of as our epic love story, Misha and I are legally married under the Supreme Court of the United States-mandated decision to legalize same-sex marriage. We share a lovely two-bedroom condo in San Francisco, California, and we have a nine-year old son, Eli.

What we told Eli is that Misha and I met on a camping trip, and lately Eli has been asking us, how come we don’t go camping anymore. He really wants to go camping.

Misha, whose parents took him straight out of an Estonian bog and away from the temptation of men’s chests, to Haifa, Israel, not realizing until it was too late just how many men’s chests were available for his enjoyment there, spent the entirety of his adult life as a playboy in the urban jungle. These days, he thinks that having a single mosquito inside our condo is more nature than he can handle. I take care of the succulents in our front yard, but he refuses as much as to pick up a watering can. We haven’t actually camped together since we were children, and we certainly haven’t camped in California. Aren’t there rattle snakes and mountain lions here in the woods? No, thank you. 

But Misha cannot say “no” to Eli. So, he came up with the brilliant idea to sign Eli up for Boy Scouts. 

Now Boy Scouts can help Misha and me pass our competitive outdoors training to the next generation. Or so Misha figured. Halfway through his Bear Cub year, Eli comes to us with a problem. 

“I need to meet a rabbi,” he says. We three speak Russian at home to each other, but the last word Eli says is in English.

“Excuse me?” 

Misha explains. “He saw a kid get a badge at a pack meeting. There’s a badge for learning about Judaism. For real. He needs to talk to a rabbi.”

“Only in America. How do we get from practicing knife skills to the rabbi?” 

“You take him,” Misha dictates.

“Why me? The Boy Scouts were your idea. You’re the one whose parents are in Israel.”

“I’m allergic to religion,” Misha says. 

“So am I.”

“But what about the badge? I want it,” Eli says. 

“Admit it, Grisha. You’re actually curious about it. You kept that Estonian yarmulke from my cousin’s wedding.” 

“I’m happy to let you have it.”

But, fine, I agree to take Eli. Misha knows me well. Unlike him, I’ve never lived in Israel. I’ve never been inside a synagogue outside of a couple of weddings. I don’t have relatives who practice. And I am much too sentimental for my own good. Misha knows about my grandfather who in his old age remembered the Hebrew of his childhood and whiled away his last years by reading the Torah. After he passed away, I kept his book alongside his dentures. Misha’s now using this knowledge against me.

 

The neighborhood synagogue is in an Edwardian building covered in rainbow flags. A man near the podium invites us to welcome the rabbi, who is not at all like I had imagined. She’s a slight woman with long, wavy hair colored midnight blue and she has an acoustic guitar strapped over her shoulder. While waiting for things to start, Eli and I discuss how he might approach the conversation with her, should he have the opportunity after the ceremony. 

“I will only ask one question,” Eli declares. “What should it be?”

Talking to unfamiliar adults is prohibitively difficult for Eli, or at least has been until he turned nine. His schoolteachers say that he’s been coming out of his shell in third grade. Never in his life has he expressed the desire to talk to another authority figure. I think it’s unlikely that he will actually talk to the rabbi himself, but what if he does? I’m treading carefully trying to avoid planting self-doubt in his mind. I believe Eli can do anything that he sets his mind to. In any case, having only one question to ask would be convenient.

“What are you most curious about?”

“I want to know everything about it.”

“You mean Judaism?”

“And Jewish people. Like, why are there Jewish people?”

“In one question?”

“Yes. What should it be?” 

“How about, Where can I learn about Judaism?”

Eli thinks about it and shakes his head. “My question is, I want to know everything.”

“How about . . .” I begin, but the rabbi is strumming her guitar, calling us to order. 

We’ve been given prayer books to follow along. The rabbi names the page number for each prayer, then sings it as a song to her guitar accompaniment. She’s a skilled, confident musician and the songs are melodic and, though I’ve never heard them before, have familiar overtones.

Helpfully, the book includes translations of the Hebrew lyrics together with the English transliteration. I expected not to be able to understand anything. Perhaps that would’ve been better. All the prayers say the same thing. My Communist childhood comes to life again and I recall the teaching that religion is a self-delusion of the powerless faced with the forces that they can’t control. If you keep saying God is great over and over again, you might actually come to take comfort in the idea of being a part of something so wonderful. 

After fifteen minutes, I tune out and start thinking of Eli’s question. What would I have wanted to know at nine? At that time, I knew nothing of Judaism. This was a decade before my grandfather decided to take up his Torah study. At the time, he and my grandmother still believed in what they were taught as young children that religion was a dangerous superstition and that Jews were better off studying physics and math and following in the path of Einstein and Garry Kasparov. It had never occurred to me to ask them questions about it, because the very word “Jew” sounded dirty to me. Nobody ever spoke it out loud, unless it was to spread some bit of gossip. 

How much of this history should I explain to my son so that he understands where I’m coming from? And while I am on the topic of Soviet Jews, I might also explain the Pale of Settlement, blood libel, pogroms, the Russian revolution, the Holocaust, the USSR itself, the trope of rootless cosmopolitans, refuseniks, the mass migration to Israel, Ashkenazi genes and Parkinson’s disease that debilitated my mother, and how come Eli himself speaks Russian with us but lives in California and his grandparents are in Haifa and Kingisepp. And then I should add as a coda the history of the Estonian people, who had been brutally forced out from the lands where Misha and I grew up and whose bones must’ve been underfoot on the paths that he and I traipsed during our orienteering meets. 

Or maybe Misha just admits to Eli that we aren’t really into camping anymore and we forget about the whole thing. 

In any case, what Eli should be learning about is the history of Jewish people, not Judaism. Is there a badge for that? 

I notice that Eli is chanting the rabbi’s songs under his nose. 

I am all but ready to congratulate myself for escaping the brainwashing unscathed when the congregation begins singing “Sha-a-alom A-lei-chem, Sha-a-alom A-lei-chem.” They are singing it in unison and swaying slightly. There’s an Army of Lovers cover of this song. This track was popular in Kingisepp’s, Narva’s, Tallinn’s, and St. Petersburg’s discos in the late 1990s. Misha and I got shitfaced to this Eurotrash track a few times together before his parents took him to Israel to become a “normal Jewish boy.” Also, before I discovered gay clubs, also, before I earned my badge in the tech corporate world that allowed me to move to California. As I say, digressions.

By the time the ceremony ends, I’ve got nothing to offer Eli but tears. 

Luckily, there’s food and drink after to occupy his attention. He takes two Oreo cookies and a couple of crackers. I blow my nose and my yarmulke pops off my head accordingly.

Of course, that’s when the rabbi comes over. She no longer has the guitar and though she walks with a cane she stops to pick up my head covering. A friendly smile graces her face as she hands it over. 

Looking at her up close, I notice that she’s older than me. I’ve been duped by the blue hair. Her eyes are surrounded by wrinkles, “crows feet,” I recall the English expression. She looks like a wise old crow. She reminds me of my aunt back in Kingisepp who brews her own berry liquor and prays to Putin. She and my parents blame me being gay on the band Aerosmith. 

I push Eli toward the rabbi. “Hi, I’m Greg. This is my son Eli. It’s our first time in a synagogue.”

“Welcome,” the rabbi says. “Let me know if you have any questions I can answer.”

“I have a question,” Eli says.

He hangs on to my jacket and doesn’t step forward, but everything inside me screams, “Yes, you go kid, you can do it!” I give him a little nudge on the shoulders.

“Yes?” the rabbi raises her eyebrows, waiting. There are other people who need her attention, and Eli is taking too long.

“. . . Is there a way I can practice Judaism at home?” Eli asks.

I suppress a cough.

The rabbi gives another toothy smile. Of course, she does. “What a great question,” she says. “There certainly are many ways of practicing Judaism at home. Do you know about our afterschool program?” 

This isn’t at all an answer to Eli’s question, he’s quick to point out on our walk home. 

“What were you hoping to hear?” I ask.

“Like, maybe she’d give us a book or something.”

“There are many books.”

“How many?”

“Where do I start . . . Have you heard of something called the Torah?” 

 

When we get home, Misha greets us with extreme enthusiasm. The level of his enthusiasm is only partially explained by an oversized glass of red wine in his hand. 

“I’ve looked it up! It’s called an Aleph badge! It comes with sixteen pages of questions! They give the kids two years for it. Eli has until next year to find all the answers. He doesn’t need to actually join a synagogue!”

“I liked the synagogue,” Eli says. “They had cookies.”

After Eli goes to sleep, I get myself an imperial stout and tell Misha about what happened at the synagogue and the question that Eli came up with.

“We’re not, though. Right? I’m not interested in Judaism,” Misha says.

“Are you still interested in Boy Scouts?”

“I’m interested in being free to believe what I want. I’m interested in not being brainwashed.”

“The rabbi has blue hair and a guitar. She won’t test you on your inner truths,” I tell him. “Eli still wants that badge.”

“Supporting Eli doesn’t mean we have to give him everything he wants,” Misha says, slurring his words in Russian. “Support” is a very long word in Russian and, twisted, it sounds more like “I’m really drunk, tread lightly.” 

I start humming, “Sha-a-alom Aleichem, Sha-a-alom Aleichem.”

He looks at me, not recognizing. I find a video on my phone, and then he remembers. 

“So what?” he says. “It’s just one song. One trip to the synagogue and you come back a believer?”

I rush to reassure him, that just like him, as a Jew, I am atheist. I don’t practice, I don’t believe, I am not moved, I’m not even curious anymore. But as much as I dislike religion, this particular synagogue was kind of nice. I could feel there was a community there. Perhaps they would teach Eli something about Jewish history that he should know. Eli’s telling us that he’s ready to learn; and clearly, he’s learning already. Try as we might, we can’t stop him. And this blue-haired rabbi in a synagogue decorated with rainbow flags seems to be like a safe place for learning. 

“Learning more about religion doesn’t threaten my profound belief that God is a fiction,” I say. “Come with us next time.” 

He looks at me around his wine glass. “You can’t be serious about this. Check your compass.”

I suppress a momentary urge to grab him by the armpits and dunk him into something wet. He has not lost his knack for saying obnoxious things in the most offensive way possible. 

As soon as I think of fighting with Misha, I spit three times over my left shoulder like my grandmother used to do to avoid evil eye, take a sip of my beer, and cuddle up closer to him. He smells sour, but that’s probably just because of the wine he spilled on himself.

No matter what Misha says, my willingness to keep my mind open doesn’t mean that there’s anything wrong with my moral compass.

I know what he means, though. He wants this conversation closed. Fine. Misha has only been staying true to himself for thirty years. He isn’t ready to change. Gotta love this about him. But what I said is true too. Perhaps I am ready to explore religion. And this doesn’t need to deny our history or our future. Once upon a time, I believed that Misha loved me for my loyalty to his strongly held beliefs, but it’s dawned on me lately that he might equally be drawn to my curiosity, my willingness to entertain the beliefs of others. 

So, blue-haired rabbi, if I were to ask you one and only one question for my own sake, it might be: What is it that keeps our people together despite all of our differences? And, yes, I am curious enough to consider returning to your synagogue on my own again, soon. 

 

_____

Olga Zilberbourg is the author of LIKE WATER AND OTHER STORIES (WTAW Press). Her writing has appeared in Narrative, World Literature Today, The Believer, Electric Literature, Lit Hub, Alaska Quarterly Review, and elsewhere. She serves as a co-moderator of the San Francisco Writers Workshop and co-runs Punctured Lines, a feminist blog about literatures of the former USSR. She is searching for representation for her first novel.

_____

Image By: Olga Zilberbourg