Sunday, October 9, 2011

In my mother's memory

Here is the English text of the essay I wrote in my mother's memory published in the Haaretz newspaper in Hebrew.

My mother is not dead.

I know, of course, that she is. I have been at her tomb, which overlooks the arid landscape of the Mount of Olives, whipped by the scorching desert wind and tended by a phlegmatic Arab caretaker. Nor do I believe in an afterlife. Like my mother, I am an atheist.

But it is impossible to accept that the presence so strong, so vital, so full of unspent words and quick ideas, is gone. There is a Maya-shaped hole in the world; not just for me and my sons but for everybody who has been touched by her. And with time, this hole is not shrinking but growing bigger and darker.

Is there anything on the other side of it? Like Alice in the Wonderland, I am pausing before this ominous darkness, hesitant to enter. But as any sci-fi fan knows (and my mother was one), a black hole may be a passage to other worlds and other dimensions. So she would understand why I am embarking on a voyage into the past through the gates of her absence.
The past, they say, is a foreign country. Like any foreign country, it demands from the visitor some knowledge of its language and some conformity with its mores. So I will have to brush up on the discarded language of my childhood, Russian, and reluctantly put on the half-forgotten identity of Lena, Maya’s little girl. And as I am doing this, I am discovering what countless others have discovered before me: when you lose a parent, you lose the certainty that your own past has even existed. There is nobody anymore to confirm that my recollections of my childhood are accurate. Nobody but memory and imagination, which are ultimately the same.

And so I dive through the black hole and find myself in the Wonderland of the past, where years are compressed into a single sunny afternoon. And I encounter the two of us in the garden of our dacha. My mother, young and beautiful in her tailored 60s dress, is reading to me. What? Lewis Carroll. Or maybe Dickens. The Wonderland suddenly grows remote, dissolving in the golden glow of nostalgia and regret. It is hard to see, hard to hear. But I am pretty sure it is not Pushkin. Her many Israeli readers identified her with their idealized image of “Russian culture”. She knew that culture better than most but her favorite writers were French. As a child I fell asleep with the lullabies of Pablo Neruda and grew up with the stories of Wizard of Oz and Hans-Christian Andersen.

The world knew two Mayas: a literary scholar and essayist who wrote beautiful and penetrating studies of Marina Tsvetayeva, Mikhail Bulgakov and Nikolai Leskov; and a fiery critic of the Israeli politics and culture, a nemesis of the post-Zionist left. Neither is the Maya I meet in the Wonderland. Instead I see a girl who says bitterly: “I could have been another Simone de Beauvoir had I not been born in this cursed country”. And she could have. She had the intelligence, the talent and the drive to have become a world-renown public intellectual, a shaper of opinions, a pundit in the mold of Slavoj Zizek, Jean-Jacques Derrida or Cornel West. But she was hemmed in, imprisoned behind the barriers of totalitarianism, cultural provincialism and linguistic inaccessibility. And as these barriers started crumbling one by one with the fall of the Berlin Wall, the spread of globalism and the ascension of the Internet, it was too late for her.

But she never stopped pounding on the walls of her many prisons. When we were in the late unlamented Soviet Union, I was often angry at her dissident pursuits. I did not appreciate having to lie to my schoolmates about my mother’s occupation or coming home to find a KGB officer noisily slurping tea at our kitchen table. When she was hounded into aliyah by the KGB who was getting mightily tired of her ties to Zionists, Ukrainian nationalists and cranky “true” Communists, I was relieved. Now I could finish high school in peace and embark on a suitable academic career, unencumbered by a mother in the Gulag. And yet, no sooner did her train leave the station in Kiev that I knew with absolute certainty that I would follow. The call of freedom that she exemplified was too strong to resist.
This call was what she was. She was one of those people who cannot be pinned down to a single definition, a single identity, a single image. She kept changing, kept trying on and discarding opinions, ideas, and friends. Even in her last years, heavily weighed down by failing health, she escaped in her mind into the places she would never visit: England, China, America. She was curious about everything, from nuclear physics to Japanese comics. Just before that final, fatal hospitalization she told me she wanted to study economics because she had come to the conclusion that perhaps Marx was right, after all, and economy did influence history.

And this is why, meeting her in the Wonderland, I see her not as an old and venerable sage but as the teenager that she was when I was born. Like Alice, she keeps growing and shrinking, changing face and voice, age and opinion, always different and always herself. Freedom is always young.
And this is why I know that my mother is not dead. It is not simply that her words live on after her, speaking to new generations of readers. Despite the popular cliché, books do burn; opinions fade; wisdom of one age is rejected by another. But if thoughts die, freedom of thought is eternal, always seeking new forms, calling upon all of us “to strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield” (Tennyson).

My mother liked to call herself an officer’s daughter. This seems rather surprising, considering that my grandfather, who died at the age of 26 in the hopeless battle against the Nazi occupation of Kiev, was a devout Communist. But in fact, they were very much alike. My mother repudiated her father’s beliefs but not his fighting spirit. And her weapons were more formidable than the pitiful hand-gun issued to my grandfather to hold back the invasion. My mother, a charismatic speaker and a superb writer, had the power of words at her disposal. And words can inflict deeper wounds and deliver more painful defeats than bullets. Words may not break your bones but they crush empires. The Soviet Union withstood the onslaught of the Wehrmacht and disintegrated like a bad dream when its lies were exposed. Israel will never be the same after the uniformity of Hebrew has been shattered by the many dissenting voices of the Russian aliyah. The world buffeted by the verbal flood of the Internet is undergoing the greatest revolution in human history. My mother knew the power she wielded and she never held back.

But I do not see her as some sort of Joan of Arc, inspired by an absolute belief that so easily slides into fanaticism. Her loyalty was not to ideologies but to ideas. She had a playful and clear mind that cut through the obfuscations of faith; mocked certainty; and deflated self-righteousness. Not a martyr for a cause but a free thinker, my mother saw through the doublespeak of pious orthodoxies of all kinds. When Alice in the Wonderland was confronted with the kangaroo court of the Red Queen, she said loud and clear: “Stuff and nonsense! You are just a pack of cards!” My mother had the same capacity to cut down to size prophets, politicians and peddlers of comforting lies. More than once, some petty tyrant would yell: “Off with her head!” But it was their heads that eventually rolled while my mother walked away, unscathed, shrugging away the burdens of the past. Her only allegiance was to the restless spirit of intellectual freedom that is always eager to topple the idols of yesterday and to explore the playthings of tomorrow.

…Here she is in the garden again, my mother, and as I am running toward her, I realize that we are now the same age.
“Hey,” she says, “I just discovered that Michel Foucault was completely wrong!”
“Mum,” I say, “I have trigonometry homework! I need help!”
“I’ll do it!”
“Do you know what cine and cosine are?” I ask dubiously.
“No,” she says. “But I can learn.”

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