Category Archives: Russian Jewry

My Mother, A Jewish Southern Belle

by William Levine (Belmont, MA)

In a Yankee cemetery in 2006, my eulogy for my Atlanta born and bred mom, dead at 82, didn’t do her  justice. I didn’t play Dixie. I had contemplated using Elvis’s version from 1972, but my sense of political correctness trumped my Southern born and raised mom’s legacy.  

While I was growing up in suburban Boston in the ‘50s and ‘60s, Dixie was the only song my Boston born dad and my mom asked orchestras to play.  It was an anthem for mom.

Though mom lived over 5 decades in Massachusetts, and only two decades in Atlanta, she never stirred herself into the clam chowder melting pot.  She may have lost some of her accent over the years, but Atlanta and Georgia were always on her mind.  New England’s climate was always too cold and as were most of its inhabitants. She in turn always had that Southern graciousness so she fielded all her phone calls, from friend or foe, with a warm chatty, “How are you, dear.”  

Her real pet-peeve about Yankee living was the cost of it. She would often tout the cheap household labor in the South, not apologizing for Jim Crow.  Her well-off family always had live-in help and mom would sometimes sadly admit her maids raised her, an only child, as much as her parents did.  She would occasionally strongly suggest to my dad, an only moderately successful dentist, that we hire a maid.

Once as a precious elementary schooler, I told mom about the amazing Mount Rushmore in the far away   South Dakota with humongous carvings of the presidents.  She countered with Stone Mountain in Atlanta in which Southern heroes Stonewall Jackson. Robert E.  Lee and Jefferson Davis were carved into immortality.  What’s more she had actually seen Stone  Mountain in person. Whereas South Dakota in the early ‘60s might as well have been on the moon.

In the early 1960s, I asked mom about the two senators from Georgia, Richard Russell and Herman Talmadge. This inquiry most likely came after I had devoured the paperback, Meet the Senators, and wanted to get her informed opinion. I remember that mom extolled both legislators as Lions of The Senate types, ignoring their arch-segregationist credentials. 

Occasionally, her Yankee family would take a gentle swipe at her beloved South. Mom would then sometimes counter with “The South Shall Rise Again,” mostly joking.

Of course, I am raising the point that my mother sounded more like a Daughter of the Confederacy, than the grand-daughter of Russian empire Jewish immigrants, who arrived in Atlanta about 25 years after it burned down. Mom’s paternal Jewish family was large and well-known. Her father was one of 11 Bresslers and the spot of his department store in Atlanta is a registered neighborhood historic site.  Her uncle was president of Atlanta’s conservative synagogue. My mother, Irma Bressler, immersed herself in the clannish world of Atlanta’s Jewish population.  This world of temple, Jewish social events, Jewish organizations dances was the impetus for her happy teen years. She didn’t date Rhett Butler types, but was instead very happy to be popular with the boys at Georgia Tech’s Jewish frat. 

Her Jewish insularity most likely softened the antisemitism of 1920s and 1930s Georgia.  Mom was born in Atlanta in 1924, just 9 years after the infamous lynching of the Jewish pencil factory manager, Leo Frank, wrongly convicted, due to antisemitism, of murdering a young girl employee.  The Frank Case drove 3,000 worried Jews out of Georgia, though mom’s future parents were not among them.  When mom turned 1 in 1925, there were more Klansmen than Jews in the US.  The New Georgia Encyclopedia says about the post Frank trial years in Georgia, “During the succeeding decades Jews were attacked by the Klan, the Columbians, and other right-wing groups. They were tolerated but also singled out as different.”

It does seem ironic then that mom, a Southern outsider, embraced the Southern culture’s uber-maxim of “The Lost Cause” that emphasized the honor of the valor of a Confederacy fighting for states rights and home-turf protection and not slavery.  But though her innermost concentric cultural circles were Jewish, the larger, peripheral concentric circles advocating the Lost Cause were hard to ignore. Most likely she first learned of the War of Northern Aggression in the textbooks at the historic Spring Street school in the early 1930s.  From then there was Confederate Memorial Day, the statues of Civil War heroes, and social norms to reinforce her regional pride.

My mother’s racial biases were more societal than personal. Thus, she was easily awakened to the Civil Rights movement’s goals, I remember her being excited to attend a lecture by a Southern civil rights journalist in the late 1960s.  She always voted Democratic, as the South moved Republican after 1960. Most tellingly, I don’t know of any band playing Dixie for her, after a Bar Mitzvah my family attended in 1964.

Before Alzheimer’s locked down mom’s brain when she was 75, she understood that “Dixie” had become an anthem with many negative connotations. My sister and I also understood this, but we also understood that Dixie was a short-cut to her treasured Southern identity.  In 2014, we unveiled my dad’s grave marker.  Dad and Mom are buried in the same plot.  The gathering was just my son and I, and my sister and her two kids   We recited a few required prayers. Then we added our own flourish. My nephew, amped by his IPOD and Elvis, sang a few bars of his version of “Dixie.” To our family  this memorial requiem was not Lost Cause specific, or callously played.  The song just defined who mom was, a Jewish Southern Belle, for better or worse.  

Bill Levine is a retired IT professional and an active freelance writer residing in Belmont  MA.  He still prefers pecan pie to  Boston creme. 

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Yosl and Henekh

by Mark Russ (Larchmont, NY)

My father, Yosl Russ, was born in 1907 in a shtetl 30 miles southeast of Warsaw called Kaluszyn (Kal-u-sheen).   Kaluszyn, the Poles corrected my pronunciation to Kal-oo-shyn (I explained mine was the Jewish pronunciation), was a midsize commercial town that was on a major trade route between Warsaw and eastern Poland and Russia. My father was one of six children born to a poor family that dealt in the beer distributing business; they had a small tavern connected to their home.  The family was observant like all others in the shtetl.  Crisis struck the family when my father’s father suddenly passed away in 1917, one of millions of victims of the Spanish flu pandemic.  With no means of support, the family moved to Warsaw.  My father was sent to live with an aunt at the age of 10 and spent his teenage years performing housework and eventually learning to work in the knitting trade.  He, like so many others in his poverty-stricken, working class generation in Poland became radicalized, gave up religious observance, embraced a Jewish brand of socialism and internationalism, and went on to organize like-minded Jewish youth in Warsaw.  He became active in the Jewish Labor Bund, the principal Jewish political party of his time and place, a Yiddishist, consistent with the Bund’s tenets, and a leader in the party-affiliated sports and outdoors organization, Morgenshtern.  The latter provided organized physical activity and an appreciation of the natural world to slum-bound, impoverished Jewish working youth.  He led “ski trips,” hikes and other expeditions in the Carpathian Mountains and environs of Warsaw.   It was in this context that he met my mother. 

My parents never wanted to return to Poland after the war.  They had escaped east to Bialystok and the Soviet Union in 1939, one step ahead of the German advance into Poland.   They spent the next 18 months in a forced labor camp in Siberia cutting timber.  The Sikorski-Mayski Agreement was struck in 1941 between the Soviet Union and Polish Government in exile in London, effectively liberating all Polish citizens held captive by the Soviets.   My parents, like tens of thousands of other Polish Jews who had taken the same path, made their way south in a harrowing journey through the Soviet heartland.  They spent the remaining war years in Uzbekistan.   After the war they briefly returned to Poland to see who had survived; all but one sibling on each side of the family perished.  They lived in a German DP camp for a time, Paris for a year, and eventually immigrated to Cuba (where my sister and I were born), and finally, to Philadelphia. 

This background is necessary to explain what happened when my wife  and two adolescent children decided to visit Poland.  Initially, the trip was planned as part of a larger Bar Mitzvah journey for my nephew’s son that was to begin in Poland and end in Israel.  Timing was such that we could only join my sister’s family for the first part of the trip.  I shared my parents’ reservations with respect to visiting Poland.  I imagined a land full of anti-Semites, denigrating me and insulting me on the streets of Warsaw.   Although I had powerful trepidations about the trip, I remained curious about what it would be like.  Part of me was drawn to travel there.   

My father had a younger brother, Henekh.  Growing up, I heard bits and pieces about his life.  I heard that he was smart, quick-witted, passionate, and very energetic and capable.  I also knew that he was very well thought of.  My parents’ friends, all Holocaust survivors, many of whom were bona fide heroes in the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising and partisans in the Polish forests, all knew him and held him in high esteem.  He was one of them.   As I grew older I read some the biographical sketches that had been written about him in Yiddish texts.  Before the war he had been a leader in the young adult section of the Jewish Labor Bund, the Tsukunft, and served on the Bund’s Warsaw central committee, a major achievement for someone so young.  With the advent of the Internet and newly discovered references to him in a variety of books and documents, I learned more about him over the years.   I learned that he had been an active member of the Jewish underground in the Warsaw Ghetto, and that he had been the co-editor of one the underground newspapers, Yugnt Shtime, preserved as part of Emanuel Ringelblum’s Oneg Shabbat archives.  He also authored a “diary” consisting of the proceedings of meetings and historical events related to the Bund in the Warsaw Ghetto, preserved in the YIVO Archives in New York.  I learned that his infant son was killed during a bombardment in the Ghetto.  According to Marek Edelman, the leader of the Bund fighting organization in the Ghetto, Henekh’s vote broke a deadlock resulting in the decision to create the Jewish Combat Organization (the Bund’s military group) in the Warsaw Ghetto.  Henekh and his wife were captured and sent to the Majdanek death camp near Lublin for four months.  I read that he had engaged in acts of heroism while incarcerated.  He and his wife were ultimately sent to Werk Tze, the section of the notorious munitions factory commandeered by the Germans in the town of Skarzysko-Kamienna midway between Krakow and Warsaw.  This factory had three sections, the third, Werk Tse, a combination factory and concentration camp, was reserved for Jews.  The work in this part of the factory was so dangerous and toxic (they used picric acid as part of the munitions processing that literally turned the skin yellow) that the life expectancy of Jews in this setting was 3 months. 

And I knew two more things.  I knew that my uncle and his wife, along with others, were shot in the forest outside this camp in a failed attempt to escape following a rumor that the camp would be liquidated the following day.  And I knew from the time I was a small boy that my father had always said:  “If I knew where my brother Henekh was buried, I would bring flowers to his grave every day.”  These were words I never forgot, words that expressed both a connection and a loss too intense to comprehend.   I had always imagined a “grave” waiting for flowers that would never come.   

Mixed feelings regarding our trip to Poland gave way to clarity of purpose.  I did not know where or how my family perished.  Only Henekh’s journey could be traced, and, with the help of my research efforts, Internet and modern technology, I was intent on addressing my father’s wish.  I found a map of the factory where my uncle and aunt had been incarcerated in Felicia Karay’s book about the Skarzysko camp, Death Comes in Yellow.  With the help of Google Earth, I was able to superimpose that map on the current map of Skarzysko.  I contacted the local historical museum in the town and was informed that parts of the factory still exist, that it is still a munitions plant, but that it makes classified weapons (many of which, ironically, it sells to Israel), and that I would need permission to visit.  My goals were to visit the ruins of Werk Tse if they were to be found and the forest where my uncle was murdered.  With this information in hand, I was able to surmise the approximate location of where Werk Tse stood and that a forest still exists outside the factory complex.  As expected, it was to the east, precisely the direction they would have gone in 1944 to reach the advancing Soviet army.  With help from the local museum staff I was able to contact the factory administrator and set a date for a visit for my wife, my children and me.  We arranged to have a guide as well who would drive us from Krakow to Skarzysko and on to Warsaw, our final destination.  My plan was simple; lay flowers at the ruins of Werk Tse

In Krakow, we stayed in what had been the Jewish quarter, on the block lined with “Jewish” restaurants, each with its own ensemble playing Yiddish folks tunes and klezmer music into the night.  Initially odd and off-putting, there was an air of respectfulness among the locals we met, and, for me, a kind of strange familiarity that counterbalanced an otherwise bizarre and awkward scene.  We visited Auschwitz and toured Krakow, including the site where the Krakow Ghetto had stood.  On July 30th, coincident with the exact day that my uncle and aunt were killed (this was not planned), we bought a bouquet of flowers, and were off to do what we set out to do.  That very morning, however, I received an email from an administrator at the munitions factory stating that he regretted to inform me that the factory was about to start its annual two week summer holiday and that our visit could not take place.  I asked our guide for advice.  He said we should not respond, check in with the museum staff first, and then make our way to the factory and “play dumb.”  If asked, I was to lie about getting the email that morning.  This made me very anxious (I am not a good liar), but fittingly seemed to evoke the uncertainty and tension of an earlier time.   We followed his instructions.  The museum staff could not have been friendlier or more welcoming, and, in a show of support and enthusiasm, two of them piled into our van in a scene reminiscent of “Little Miss Sunshine,” and we were off to the factory.  Our guide took the lead, spoke with Security, and after what seemed like an eternity, arranged an impromptu meeting with a plant administrator.  A long and tense discussion took place in Polish in the parking lot of a surviving factory building.  I was not called upon to lie, but did learn during the negotiations that Werk Tse no longer stood.  However, there was a memorial at the site of Werk Tse, which they referred to as the “Patelnye,” which was absolutely off limits for a visit.  The word “patelnye” was instantly recognizable to me as it was one of the many Polish words that made its way into Yiddish vernacular and my family’s kitchen.  It is the word for frying pan, and came to epitomize the horrifying conditions of the labor camp in the most grotesque terms imaginable.  I also learned that the larger factory complex had its own memorial.  It was located in the surviving and refurbished building immediately in front of us.  They called it the Room of Remembrance and it was dedicated to all those who had perished in the era, Poles and Jews alike.  After what seemed like endless negotiations, we were informed, begrudgingly, that the administrator could take me alone into that room, and just for a minute.  Realizing this was the best I could do, I took my flowers and followed her to the room.  Among the various military artifacts and other memorabilia in the room was a simple stone memorial dedicated to the Jews who had perished.  In an experience that was robbed of meaning and emotion, I lay the flowers down in a perfunctory manner, and left.   

But my real goal, to honor my father’s wish to visit my uncle’s “grave,” was not yet realized.  Naturally, there was no grave, but there was the expanse of forest immediately adjacent to the site where the camp had stood.  I knew that somewhere in that forest, my uncle, aunt and others had been shot.  After dropping our new friends at the museum, I instructed our guide to drive down the road that bordered the forest.  At a small dirt road, which I found on Google Earth, I asked him to stop.  My wife, daughter, son and I walked down the road to a small clearing in the forest.  This was certainly not the spot where Henekh perished, but it would have to do.   We read my uncle’s biography.  My son chanted El Malei Rachamim, the memorial prayer for the dead.  We hugged and shed some tears.  I suddenly felt this pang in my heart; I had used the flowers to support our ill-fated visit to the factory, and could therefore not fulfill my father’s wish to lay flowers on Henekh’s “grave.”  And just as suddenly, I had this epiphany.  I had, in fact, fulfilled his wish.  My children and my family were his flowers.  We had done what we set out to do. 

But the story does not end there.  There is a postscript.  Part of our itinerary in Warsaw included a visit to the museum, POLIN, dedicated to the thousand-year history of Jews in Poland.  It is a magical place, first rate, detailed, comprehensive, and beautiful.  After wandering through centuries in the galleries, we walk into a gallery devoted to the history of Jewish political movements between the two World Wars.  We approach the section devoted to the Jewish Labor Bund.  The exhibit includes several “Ken Burns style” slide shows depicting photographs of the era.  As I watched one of these slide shows I gazed upon a photograph of a large group of young people in boats on a lake.  To the right in the photograph was a handsome man, bare-chested, wearing sunglasses.  I swear it is my father.  But I am very familiar with how the unconscious desire to see things can influence what you see.  I call my wife and ask her, without preparation or warning, to watch the slide show.  “Oh my G-d, it’s your father!”  I break down.  She then goes to a second slide show in the exhibit.  She says, “Quick, come here.  It’s a picture of Henekh.”  He is marching in a parade, his clear and piercing eyes evident, dressed in the uniform of his party.  The poignancy of the moment does not escape me.  For however long this museum will stand, my father and his beloved brother will be together.  And, perhaps for at least a brief moment in time, one brother’s wish will have been honored, bringing a modicum of peace to another brother’s soul.

Mark Russ is a psychiatrist in Westchester County, New York.  He is Professor of Clinical Psychiatry at Weill Cornell Medical College and Vice Chair of Clinical Programs and Medical Director at NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital/Westchester Behavioral Health Center in White Plains, New York.  Dr. Russ was born in Cuba and emigrated to the United States at the age of 2 with his parents and sister.  He was the first in his family to achieve a baccalaureate degree and attend medical school.   Dr. Russ has contributed to the scientific psychiatric literature and is beginning to publish fiction and non-fiction pieces.

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Furniture

by Steven Sher (Jerusalem, Israel)

Before proposing, Grandpa Sam

bought furniture and Grandma Anna,

pragmatic, agreed to marry him.

That’s what passed back then for love,

the young torn from their families and homes,

fleeing Russia before the next pogrom.

A couple needed a proper bed,

a table and chairs, a dresser and sofa.

They even believed that sturdy

furniture would prop up any failings

in their feelings, that they could build

a life around it and six kids.

Sam died before I was born. Named after him,

I don’t put too much stock in furniture.

Anna outlived him thirty years,

the stern and proper widow

always sitting straight and proud

in an upholstered high back chair

before the family when we gathered

every week around the solid table

Sam had bought so many years before.

Steven Sher’s recent titles include What Comes from the Heart: Poems in the Jewish Tradition (Cyberwit, 2020) and Contestable Truths, Incontestable Lies (Dos Madres Press, 2019). A selection of his Holocaust poems, When They Forget (New Feral Press), is due out in 2021, while his prose will appear in New Voices: Contemporary Writers Confronting the Holocaust. For Flowstone Press, he is editing an anthology of Oregon poets. Steven lives in Jerusalem. If you’d like to read more about Steven Sher, visit his website: steven-sher-poetry.wixsite.com/writing

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Queen for a Day

by Herbert J. Levine (Sarasota, FL)

My grandmother loved to watch Queen for a Day, 

listening to each woman tell her sad story,

until they placed the crown on the winner’s head.

The American competitors needed washing machines.

My grandmother needed only her husband,

dead for more than twenty years.

How many separations she’d endured 

in the years when, with trumpet calls, he’d rallied the Czar’s troops 

against Japanese and Germans, 

the years he’d peddled door to door in New England towns,

while she ran a market-day saloon 

for the drunken farmers

and when he sent the money to buy tickets

having to separate from her mother, 

who would one day be killed by Hitler’s villains, 

also from her youngest brother and his wife, 

who left their baby girl with a Gentile family,

dying to save their comrades. 

If she could once have spoken of these things, 

she might have broken down at last and wept

not as queen for a day, but as mother of all our catastrophes.

“Queen for a Day” is from Herbert Levine’s second book of bi-lingual poems, An Added Soul: Poems for a New Old Religion (2020).  Many of the poems in his first book of poems, Words for Blessing the World (2017) are being used liturgically in a variety of congregations. He divides his time between Sarasota, FL and central Maine, where he and Ellen Frankel have three granddaughters.

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From Russia with Love

by Judith Rosner (Sarasota, FL)

“Take these candlesticks my child,

And when you light the Sabbath candles

In your own home with your own family,

Remember me and the family you came from.”

My grandmother, a girl of fifteen, heeded her mother

And carried these silver twins, wrapped in a pillowcase, 

Across the ocean from old world to new.

As her mother hoped, she faithfully

recited the Sabbath blessing over them

Each Friday evening, her family gathered at the table. 

Now two generations later, these candlesticks 

Still stand tall upon their three-pronged legs

In my home, handed down from my mother.

Grape vines etched upon their stems

Show off hanging clusters of ripened fruit

Amid the dings and dents of age and

Dark spots where tarnish resists polish.

Though weighty to the eye,

Hollow bodies give them little heft,

Light enough to be carried

Across the ocean years ago

By a girl of fifteen,

So that on this Friday evening,

I may light and pray over the candles they cradle,

As did my mother and grandmother before me,

To welcome the Sabbath and remember this story.

Judith Rosner, Ph.D., is a retired college professor, leadership trainer, and executive coach. She has published in the areas of leadership and management, stress and health, and women in the professions. Currently she writes poetry and personal essays. Two of her poems are published in the literary magazine Her Words  (The Black Mountain Press), her poem, “Forest Sanctuary,” appears in the Living Peace 2019 Art of Poetry Anthology and two of her essays appear on The Jewish Writing Project.  Judy and her husband split their time between Sarasota, Florida and New York City.

To read her stories on The Jewish Writing Project, visit:

Y’all Are Different: https://jewishwritingproject.wordpress.com/2016/06/13/yall-are-different/

My First Aliyah: https://jewishwritingproject.wordpress.com/2016/08/15/my-first-aliyah/

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My year in Cleveland

 In memory of Elina Rashkovsky.

by Nina Kossman (New York, NY)

Today I can no longer say how it happened that, at the very end of my childhood, I became convinced that I would never become friends with Americans my own age. I remember my parents’ friends in Cleveland, a German-Jewish couple who invited us to their house, since we were a rarity in those days, the first Soviet-Jewish family in Cleveland, and besides, my father spoke German, which was his native language, and my mother understood German, which wasn’t her native language, she learned it in school, anyway, to get back to the German-Jewish couple who invited us to their house and who were very welcoming and very kind to us that first, dreary year in Cleveland. I remember sitting in their spacious living room, thinking that I’d never like anything in this country, no matter how spacious its living rooms or how welcoming its grown-ups in their spacious living rooms, and I remember Mrs. Kleishtadt, a cheerful, intelligent woman in her fifties, saying, “I know you feel like you’ll never belong, Nina, but believe me, soon enough you’ll have many friends in school.” I didn’t know what to say to that, and I suppose she didn’t mind my not saying anything, but if she could read my thoughts more than just that first time, she would have known how convinced I was that she was totally wrong, that I’d never be friends with any American girls because they seemed like creatures from another planet, so sure of themselves, so arrogant and grownup, and their arrogance, or what seemed to me like their arrogance, was something so totally alien to me, something I’ve never seen in anyone my own age in any of the countries I’d lived in so far. It’s not like I’d lived in so many countries – just two, the Soviet Union and Israel, not counting Italy where we spent three months waiting for our American visas and where I didn’t go to school, because those three months were the summer months – June, July, August – or perhaps there was another reason I didn’t go to school in Italy, it doesn’t matter why I’m not counting Italy as one of the countries I had actually lived in, I just don’t, that’s it, but my feeling about the arrogance of American girls had nothing to do with Italy, so why I’m even mentioning Italy, I don’t know, since I was talking about American girls my age, while boys didn’t even enter the picture, not until a little later. In the second month of my school year in Cleveland I was told by a girl whose desk was next to mine, that Tim, a boy from our class, was in love with me, but I didn’t even realize he was in my class, as I only saw him on the way to and from school, when he stood silently on the other side of the street, looking very forlorn, and I thought why is he always standing there and looking at my side of the street. I really had no idea why. He didn’t seem arrogant like the girls in our class, but there was something boring about him, the way he stood and looked. If that’s called “being in love,” I thought, then I don’t really want it, it’s boring and lifeless, and there was enough lifelessness around me everywhere, in the sky which was always overcast, in the streets where no one walked, and in the way I couldn’t speak English as well as everyone else in my school, which made me feel like an outcast, until I stopped caring about my accent and about being an outsider. I’m an outsider, and so what, I said to myself, let them deal with it, it’s their problem, not mine. After our first month in Cleveland, when we were the only “Russian” family and I was the only girl from Russia, which some of my classmates confused with Austria and Australia, as well as a couple of other names on the map of the world totally unknown to them, there was suddenly another “Russian” family in Cleveland, with a girl my age. Her name was Elina, and soon enough she started going to my school, and we sat together in all our classes, gossiping in Russian about boys and girls in our class, “Americans,” as we called them, who couldn’t understand a word we said, which is why we felt free to say whatever we wanted about them. We gave nicknames to boys and girls in our class so they wouldn’t recognize their names when we gossiped about them in Russian. There was one boy who said “oops” every time he dropped a textbook or a pen, which happened very often, and Elina and I found this new English word “oops” so funny that we nicknamed him “Oops”. “You know what Oops did today?” or “Oops came in late as usual and sat at a wrong desk and said “oops”! Ha-ha-ha!” It was so much fun talking about our classmates without anyone knowing what we were saying. I remember another boy whom we nicknamed Kozyol because his last name was Kozolsky; I can’t remember exactly – maybe it was not Kozolsky but Kozilsky, a Polish-sounding last name, and although his first name, Mark, was easier to remember as well as to pronounce, we never called him Mark, not only because we didn’t want him to know we were talking about him, but also because we decided we were both in love with him, this Mark, this Kozyol, who had no idea the two Russian girls noticed every movement he made in class, and every time he talked to another girl – one of those arrogant Americans — Elina and I made up heart-breaking stories about this Kozyol. I don’t remember the stories, I just remember we talked about him in his presence, without him knowing what was going on. When the school year was over, Elina and I spent two summer months in an Orthodox Jewish summer camp, which was recommended to our two sets of parents by the Jewish Family Service in Cleveland and which our parents envisioned as a kind of pioneer camp for Jewish kids, set in the Poconos. Neither her parents nor mine were told that the camp was Orthodox, even ultra Orthodox, and they had no idea we would be immersed, for the first time in our lives, in religion, and that we would feel even more like outsiders in that religious camp than we ever did in our school. It was in that religious summer camp that we both fell in love with another boy, whose name — and our nickname for him — I don’t remember. All I remember is that our joint falling in love with the same boy brought out an unusual rivalry, which was strange, considering we were such close friends that we often referred to ourselves as sisters and thought we would always be together. It was in the Jewish Orthodox summer camp, where we attended a synagogue for the first time and found the rituals so funny and giggled so loudly that we were told to leave the premises immediately, and where I argued with our Religion teacher telling her that everything she was teaching us about God was nonsense, and where we were not allowed to brush our teeth after sundown on Friday, and where we couldn’t wear short-sleeved shirts and shorts even in the summer heat, it was there that Elina revealed to me her terrible secret: she said she had always thought I was the ugliest girl in the world and that’s why the boy we were both in love with wasn’t paying attention to her – it’s because you’re ugly, she said, and I’m your best friend, so he thinks I’m ugly, too. It sort of spreads, from you to me, she said. Her assertion that I was the ugliest girl in the world and that this ugliness was the kind that spread from person to person, made me feel like an outsider in a new way, an outsider to my own person, therefore I had to resolve this question for myself (am I ugly or not?), which I did the traditional way albeit somewhat new to me, by looking in the mirror. There was one long mirror in the girls’ shared bathroom, and for the first time in my life I looked in the mirror with an intent totally unknown to me until that summer: I was trying to figure out something about beauty, and since what I saw in the mirror failed to convince me of my friend’s truthfulness, I started thinking that maybe Elina saw the world, with me in it, in a kind of crooked mirror, because I’m not the one who is ugly; it was she, with her long red hair and freckles all over her face, who looked like Pippi Longstocking, but there was no use telling her this, because weren’t we bffs, i.e. best friends forever, and this “forever” excluded death, of course, and neither of us could know that Elina would die of breast cancer at the early age of thirty in a small town in Massachusetts, leaving behind a small son and grieving parents, many years after the end of our friendship.

Moscow born, Nina Kossman is a bilingual writer, poet, translator of Russian poetry, painter, and playwright. Among her published works are two books of poems in Russian and English, two volumes of translations of Tsvetaeva’s poems, two books of short stories, an anthology published by Oxford University Press, and a novel. Her work has been translated into Greek, Japanese, Russian, and Spanish. She received a UNESCO/PEN Short Story Award, an NEA translation fellowship, and grants from Foundation for Hellenic Culture, the Onassis Public Benefit Foundation, and Fundacion Valparaiso. She lives in New York.

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