Tag Archives: Russia

You Won’t Believe This

Below is the first segment of a new short story—’You Won’t Believe This’—never before published. As I say at its beginning, I’m telling you this incredible story to: “Test your core belief in the divine, or your firm conviction in reality and reason.” Enjoy the ride.

‘You Won’t Believe This’

But it happened. And I’m going to tell you about it no matter what, just to test your core belief in the divine, or your firm conviction in reality and reason. And at the same time, while keeping my imagination mostly at bay, I’m going to ignite the power of my memory and let it loose. See where it takes me.

To Tel Aviv in the early eighties, as I recall. It was just a regular summer day—hot, humid, and miserable—with no indication of the miracle about to occur. Truth be told: I was ready to kill myself that day. It was only a matter of how soon and how to go about it. What else could go wrong, I kept asking myself as I was walking home from work. My home was a rented two-bedroom apartment with a view of the beach; close enough to smell the foam of the waves and feel the touch of the breeze coming ashore. You should be so lucky. But thinking about it as I was getting closer to home gave me no comfort on that sweltering summer day, when even the sycamore trees along Ben-Gurion Boulevard couldn’t outsmart the sun, and offered little to no escape from the suffocating humidity in the air, and the relentless beating of the late afternoon heat.

Seriously, you have to live in Tel Aviv in August to understand the force this mixture of humidity and heat can generate. But never mind that, it’s not what I wanted to tell you. What I wanted to tell you was how much I hated my life that day, and how much I hated the multitude of people walking in the boulevard, talking too loudly and sending my way stinky vapors, so busy with their pathetic daily lives. I hated the cars passing by nonstop, polluting the air with their black fumes and loud honks. Only in Tel Aviv do drivers honk like that, so insanely and so insistently.

Mostly though, I hated my work. The video magazine I’d been working on for the last three months, in my position as the head of Video Production for the Histadrut, the all-powerful Israeli umbrella trade-union, had been canned for good not even an hour earlier by my fat-ass boss. He was a low-grade apparatchik who’d bluntly accused me, at the end of a loud argument in his office, of failing to understand that I was working for a political organization, not an independent production company. (He knew my aspiration, the jerk, I give him that.) As a result, I’d neglected to include—and not for the first time, mind you, it was made clear to me—the mandatory opening interview with the Chairman of the Cultural Division.

“What is it here, Russia?” I’d asked rhetorically, trying to be clever.
All hell had broken loose as result of that remark, and I’d been shown the door in no uncertain terms. Not sure at all, I realized too late, that I would be able to open that door tomorrow. Or the day after tomorrow. Or ever again.

Oh well, add that to your list of pains, a nagging voice whispered in my ear as I was crossing Ben-Yehuda Street.

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An Unexpected Treasure

G.G. as Anna Karenina

Watching the latest version of Anna Karenina on the big screen lately took me back to – of all places – the kibbutz where I was born. How could it be, you may ask. Well, here’s how: At the end of summer a couple of years ago, while a last heat wave was sweeping the Sacramento Valley, my yearlong love affair with Anna Karenina had come to a sudden end as well. I had spent almost a year huddled with her on my lap, and when she jumped down to her tragic end, she had left me behind sad and lonely, yet so much richer and complete. I knew her ending from the beginning, of course, but I had no way of knowing that my journey with her would lead me back to my birthplace, a kibbutz in northern Israel, and to the discovery of a completely unexpected treasure.

It took a while, though, because that’s how I love to read: slow and easy. And because I could never understand why book-reviewers, especially here in America, always gave the biggest compliment to a new novel by saying it was a real “page-turner.” Not my cup of tea. With that in mind, I grabbed a copy of a newly translated edition of Leo Tolstoy’s novel from my bookshelf, determined to finally give the eight-hundred-plus-page classic its due. I hesitated to take this plunge, among other reasons, because I’m a Dostoyevsky fanatic. It was his novels, with their gripping plots and possessed characters, that had accompanied and guided me when I left my kibbutz and moved to the city of Tel Aviv. I tried Tolstoy once or twice, but it never affected me the same way.

But with Anna Karenina so many years later, slow reading became the name of the game. I would read just a few pages sometimes, but most often a chapter or two. On occasions, I would go back to a previous scene and reread it, just as I did with the one where Anna is being torn apart from her beloved son, knowing very well that she would never see him again; the horrible shadow of her tragic end hovering above her, waiting patiently to carry her to her last station.

And talking about last stations, halfway through the book I took a break from reading one rainy Sunday and went to see the movie by that same name: The Last Station, about Tolstoy and his wife Sophia in their later years. I was struck by Sophia’s words when, on a most beautiful horse-drawn carriage ride, she tells Tolstoy’s young secretary that the most ardent followers of her husband don’t understand his writing: “He writes about love and family, not about the Russian People and their social and political system.”

Humbly, I beg to differ. And by doing so, I return also to the hidden treasure I alluded to at the beginning. Sophia was only partly right: the horses in front of her were, indeed, Anna and her lover Count Vronsky. But the carriage she was riding in was carrying the story of her husband and herself, Levin and Kitty, and by and large the more important story: that of the Russian people. Kostya Levin (Leo Tolstoy himself, no doubt) was writing about changing the Russian class system, the injustice treatment of the peasants, his agricultural experiments, and last but not least, his wish to give all his wealth and land away to a working-class commune.

How amazing it was for me to discover the origin of the place where I was born and grew up in, hidden in the pages of Anna Karenina. It was Tolstoy then, who had first put the foundation to the idea that years later would create the Israeli kibbutz. That small place, which the scent of the sweet peas blooming in my balcony at spring reminded me of so much, was founded as a commune of people working the land—poets, writers and musicians among them; great dreamers all of them—where there wasn’t even money to be found as I was growing up.

Looking back, it was a place only a Russian Novel can accurately depict. And so I praise slow reading, it enables one to discover certain truths; a fit no page-turner, no Kindle device would ever be able to accomplish. It is entirely possible that because of my slow reading, because I read carefully and didn’t rush to reach the end, that I was able to discover this great secret: It was not Karl Marx, not Lenin or Trotsky who gave birth to the paradise that was the place of my childhood and youth. It was Tolstoy.

* Appeared first on The Times of Israel

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