Sunday, April 13, 2008


After my former wife and I were married, she was surprised to find out that I talked in my sleep in Russian, a language which in some respects I know much better than my native English. (The fact that she found that out only after we married is of course an indicator of how long ago that was.) I owed this speaking ability mainly to two women who supplemented my college classroom language instruction by teaching me how to actually speak the language.

I connected with one of them, Shulamith Schneider, through our family physician and friend Dr. Irving Berlin. She was one of his aunts, a native of Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania, and the daughter of a learned rabbi who was himself a distinguished scholar of languages and of religious and classical texts. His name can be found in major Jewish reference books, with the fact that he was killed by the Nazis in 1941. It was partly this personal background that inclined her to help me with my spoken Russian when I was at home in southeast Virginia, where she had made a life and a career as a pharmacist after leaving Lithuania. To many of the poor people who bought from her, she was known as “the little doctor”. She was indeed short, and in that time and place, I do not doubt that she was the closest thing to a medical contact that many of them had.

When I was at home in Hampton during my college years, she and I would sit out on the back porch of her modest home on occasional evenings, listening to the mosquitoes and reading through and discussing classical Russian poetry and prose. In return, I was able to expand her library of Russian books somewhat, the closest to any payment that she would accept. Her Russian, although dated, was excellent, so good that in high school she had acted as a tutor in Russian to the daughter of a Russian general, a young woman who like many prerevolutionary nobles had been brought up with French as her primary language, but with a change of times needed to improve her Russian. It is a fundamental aspect of Judaism to emphasize the role of the individual in community, and in America, Ms. Schneider had made a place for herself by her professional skills and the way in which she used them. As the little doctor, she won the acceptance and trust of an impoverished clientele. But with such a clientele, violence is rarely distant; her brother Moses, who had come to America with her, was at one point the object of an attack so violent that I can still remember the lines of knife scars on his face. After he died, and I married so that I came to Virginia less often, I would still visit her, but eventually she told my wife and me in her now subdued Russian: “It is good that you are visiting me now. The next time you come, you will not find me alive.”

The other Russian woman from whom I learned to speak Russian was a member of the university language staff, who ran regular conversation lessons with material supplied by the Slavic Department. Her own education, although not academic, was also excellent, but it was the education of a Russian noblewoman, which she was, the Countess Nina Georg’evna Murav’yova. When I came to know her well, I learned that she shared an apartment half way between Harvard and MIT with an elderly Russian economic geographer, Taras Vasil’evich Butoff. A series of graduate students in Slavic languages sublet rooms in the apartment, one of whom I was during the summer after I graduated from college, before I married.

Nina Georg’evna had a sharp mind and an acerbic tongue, but she had difficulty in adapting to life in America. Her English was limited, and in her large bedroom she slept under a beautiful overhanging canopy, one of her remnants of former wealth. Like many Russians of an older generation, she knew much classical Russian poetry by heart. But the world in which she lived was foreign to her. To learn to drive an automobile was an unimaginable achievement to her. As a noble, she had been brought up to be above the crowd, not to learn to serve them as did Ms. Schneider. But other people made possible her occasional indispensable interactions with the official world, like the young Boston attorney who joined our conversation classes informally and fought off various Massachusetts authorities for her gratis when it was necessary. When, having read through and tired of all the Russian and French literature that appealed to her, she decided that she needed to read “Moby Dick”, it was up to me to find and buy for her a Russian translation of it, which eventually I was able to do. Still, even within the large upper floor of the apartment house on Hancock St. where she had her residence, much of the time she lived basically in isolation. When she had the stroke that killed her, she lay undiscovered for some time in her bedroom before her apartment mates finally broke into her bedroom when she did not respond to calls and knocks.

On rereading these sketches, I grow terrified that as I grow older, I approximate to Nina Georg’evna’s inability (suicidal in the long run) to adapt to changes in my place and world.. But I see the same effect even more strongly in the area of religion. I see the same pattern of inability or refusal to adapt in various ongoing conflicts in religion, with the resulting damage magnified by efforts to capitalize on them for political and career purposes. Those who adapt to a changing world are therefore deemed guilty of heresy; those who refuse to adapt are the virtuous orthodox, who perhaps have never suspected that the fate of the dodo might be relevant to theology. To add a note, when friends and family cleared out Nina Georg’evna’s effects, they found the Russian translation of “Moby Dick” that I had given her, and they had no idea what to make of it, it was so uncharacteristic of her to branch into a new area of thought. Actually, she had read it and was impressed, I can say from personal knowledge. Perhaps there is always a glimmer of the possibility of opening up to new ways of thought, but the present and prospective damage from such ongoing disputes is overwhelming.

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