Marc Chagall, Russian Wedding
It is increasingly difficult to talk to my babushka Sonya. She is 92 years old, with her age revealing itself through dementia and speech impediments. During our brief phone exchanges, we talk past each other, each hoping in vain that the other has grasped the words and thoughts we are trying to convey. She tells me about visitors she has had, which may or may not be figments of her imagination, and I share tidbits about my life, frequently reminding her the name and age of my son.
Our relationship used to be very different. My babushka left her fulfilling career as a pediatric orthopedist in Moscow and followed our family to the US in the early 1990s. For years, she lived close enough to pick me and my brother up from school, cook lunch for us, and read for hours from her favorite O’Henry and Arthur Conan Doyle stories. She smiled when I brought home a rose picked by a boy in elementary school and then watched me tear up (and later tape back together) a note from him after my first break up. During my college and law school years, we enjoyed long visits over tea and dessert, and I reaped the benefits of her fascinating stories and advice. I am so grateful that I decided to record her oral history 10 years ago allowing me to turn to these recordings when I need a dose of her wisdom and humor.
I continued to seek my babushka’s relationship advice long after that first rose in 5th grade. One might think that a woman who grew up in a shtetl near Odessa, was evacuated to Baku during the war, and then built her life in Moscow may not have insight into the travails of dating and marriage in the US. But, I found more parallels than you might expect. I told her about the challenges of making a connection with a partner, who understood my Russian-Jewish culture, but also shared my interests, ambitions and values. She in turn shared her experiences of meeting and being proposed to by many young men during and after the war, none of whom kept her attention for long.
I asked her about the importance of religion in her choice of partner. Most grandparents who grew up in shtetls, surrounded by spoken Yiddish and gefilte fish, tend to be naturally partial to Jewish spouses. But, in my babushka’s case, she met Sasha, a non-Jewish, political economist, twenty years her senior, while working at a rehabilitation sanatorium. They spent a few weeks together, bonding over their love of Moscow, and she was attracted to his intellect and sense of humor. Sasha disappeared for a year and then reappeared to propose to her, admitting that he hadn’t slept all night on the train journey to see her, worried that she would be snatched up when he returned. She lit up when she talked about Sasha, who passed away long before I was born. She said that he did not jump into conversations often, but when he did, everyone stopped to listen. She emphasized how well-read and well-traveled he was, and listed his academic and professional accomplishments. She explained that, unlike her grandparents, her parents were not religious Jews. It was important that her future spouse was not anti-Semitic, but his religion mattered less. Sasha had many Jewish friends and was from a non-religious Orthodox Russian family, so they found common ground and did not see religion as a decisive issue for their marriage.
This story resonated with me when I met the man who would become my husband, at a wedding in the South of France. He was charming, well-traveled, and a passionate academic. I found myself drawn to his stories and impressed by our many overlapping interests. Yet, despite his seemingly Russian tastes – he loves camping, classical music, and dance – he is neither Jewish nor Russian, which gave me pause. We spoke for hours, month after month, about religion and life, finding more similarities than differences. While neither of us was very observant, we valued the community and tikkun olam (“repairing the world” through social justice) component of our respective religions. I fought through my competing desires to marry someone who met my cultural checklist and my wish to spend my life with this person.
Then, I brought him over for tea with my babushka. Over several visits, their only frustration was their inability to speak to each other directly without translation. Despite the language barrier, they loved each other’s company and stories. Before long, Babushka Sonya blessed our relationship, danced the horah and lit sparklers at our wedding, and eventually sang to our infant son. While my babushka’s story and input was not the deciding factor, it was an important, comforting voice in a chorus of strong opinions on interfaith marriage. In the end, much like my grandmother, I married for love.
And religion, well – it has not proven to be the decisive issue.