Viktor Yerofeyev is one of the best known Russian writers working today, the author of modern classics such as “Life with an Idiot” (which was turned into an opera by Alfred Schnittke) and “Russian Beauty”. The son of a prominent Soviet diplomat who was Stalin’s personal French translator, Yerofeyev partially spent his childhood in Paris. Throughout the conflict that ensued in the wake of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Yerofeyev has been one of the few major Russian writers to refuse to take a nationalist position toward Ukraine, and has continued to behave as a friend to Ukrainians, to continue to make visits to Ukraine and take part in Ukrainian literary festivals. This short story first appeared in his recent collection “Body” and appears here for the first time.
Translated from the Russian by Alexandra Koroleva.
My life unfolded in such a way that I had never encountered a single Jew. I will confess, this felt unfair and even somewhat hurtful: it seemed that everyone else in the world had seen a Jew, except for me.
I started trying to seek out a Jew all the way back in school. After all, they were the hot topic in those times. People told incredible stories about them, but always looking over one’s shoulder and with a polite smile — because the Jews were everywhere, above, below, behind every corner, they were sly and cunning like snakes with foxes’ faces. They changed their last names, wrote pompous poetry, gazed out from the TV screen, sat in the Kremlin disguised as normal Russians — ready to kill for the crime of an off-handed comment about them. There were rumors that in the olden times, the Russian people launched a sacred crusade against the Jews, but the Jews tricked them into drinking cursed water, and that made us all forget everything, including our names.
My grandmother told me — in Russia, the only person that could be said to be a gentile with absolute certainty was the Tzar. Everyone else was ambiguous. Even the Tzar’s children could turn out to be Jews. But the Tzar was slaughtered by those animals, and from the rubble of Imperial Russia a tower of Babylon rose up like a lump on one’s head after a heavy blow.
“Are you and I Russians, at least?” — I asked her in a trembling voice, with tears in my eyes.
“If you eat well and grow up big and strong, one day you can avenge the Russian people” — she replied sternly but reassuringly.
My grandmother’s bedtime stories painted Jews in such a way that I began to see them as fairytale strongmen, giant in stature, pyro technicians, alpinists who could take down the moon from the sky, control thunder and lightning, write a symphony for grand piano and orchestra, drink three buckets of salt water in one sitting and cut off half of their pee-pee just for fun. My grandmother would sometimes add, in a whisper, that when she was young she was close friends with a Jew who ended up drinking all her blood.
Her white, bloodless hands would tremble and I would spend the entire night fighting endless battles against steel-helmeted Jews armed with spears who would try to cut off my pee-pee and drink my blood.
I had a classmate named Borya Minkov, a skinny boy with a shaved head — like all of us in those days, who was mercilessly teased by the other kids who called him a “Jew”. I decided to befriend him, but soon realized that being called a Jew and being a Jew are two completely different things. Borya didn’t pass the Jew test — he was a boring, cowardly boy from a squalid communal apartment, and I quickly lost interest in him.
When I became a little older, I got another chance to communicate with a real Jew. My parents had a friend, Roman Lvovich Guberman, who often visited us at home and was referred to as a man with a sense of humor. He had many jokes about China, because during the period of Soviet-Chinese friendship he lived in Peking and worked in a Soviet chamber of commerce. Most of his jokes had the same punchline — that China was a country without a future: they could only demolish things, but didn’t know how to build anything. “I have never seen a lazier nation in my entire life!” — he would quip, and we would all laugh heartily, imagining the lazy Chinamen who only broke and ruined everything but never fixed or built anything. I started to get the impression that Roman Lvovich might be a Jew. One time, as we sat around the dinner table, I decided to test him by asking him the following question:
There’s an old Jewish riddle. Can God create a stone so heavy that he himself couldn’t lift it? This question seemed to make Roman Lvovich unexpectedly tense.
“I don’t know. First of all, God doesn’t exist. Second, I’m not a Jew”.
“Then who are you?” — his light-haired wife Korotkova, who had kept her maiden name, asked incredulously and looked at Roman Lvovich as if she had never seen him before. “Well, in the best case scenario, I’m a former Jew” — Roman Lvovich replied, and the entire table, including his wife, broke out in laughter again.
“So he is a Jew after all!” — I thought to myself, elated to have finally met at least some sort of a Jew. I made a mental note to set up a meeting with this former Jew, but this was not destined to happen. Two weeks after our dinner, Roman Lvovich hung himself on the handle of his apartment’s front door.
So, this is how my wandering through life began. As soon as I thought I had caught a glimpse of the elusive Jew — this ruler of the world, owner of the universe who reigned over my childhood — it inevitably turned out to be a fake, a sorry imitation, a bad copy.
I can’t describe how much I longed to meet one, to sit and talk with him, look in his eyes and perhaps even touch his sleeve, to read the Torah together. Even the most mediocre Jew would have done, I wouldn’t ask for more — but alas, it wasn’t meant to be, there were no Jews to be found.
My misfortune applied to Jewesses as well. I encountered all types of women: deathly ill ones, rosy cheeked healthy ones, old ones wrinkled like a prune, African ones and even fiery red-haired mulatto women, but not a single Jewess among them! How many times I begged my friends — please, show me a Jewess! Is it too much to ask?! They only laughed at me in return. At times, I felt overcome with despair. I would run out onto the street and scan the passersby until I thought I had found what I was seeking. I would run up to a woman, asking:
“Excuse me, are you a Jewess?”
She would hit me with her handbag, hit me, scream for help… although, one of them did react differently. It was a plump young lady in an unbuttoned coat with arched eyebrows:
“If you want me to be a Jewess, I’ll be a Jewess!” — she winked at me playfully in the Smolenskaya Square underpass.
“I’m sorry, but I’m not looking for future Jewesses” — I responded.
My obsession would not subside. I realized that the times were changing — the incident with the girl in the unbuttoned coat showed me that if before, though omnipresent, Jews had to hide their faces and change their names; now everyone wanted to be a Jew — at least a future or partial Jew. But this realization did not satisfy me. Once, I ran into a group of young people in an alley. They were smoking and bantering amongst themselves. I shyly approached them with my usual inquiry:
“Excuse me, do any of you happen to be Jewish?”
That is the last thing I remember before waking up in a hospital bed with one of my legs suspended in traction. A doctor with a hooked nose stood over me. I froze with excitement:
“Doctor!” — I exclaimed joyfully –” I can’t believe this! Please tell me, are you a Jew?” “Psycho!” — the doctor turned to the young nurse in the room with a concerned expression on his face. — “He is definitely a psycho!”
I continued my search for Jews in the mental hospital where I was sent on this doctor’s advice. Our ward had a population of 22 people. At night I would wander with a candle, limping, searching for Jewish wisdom among the beds. My thoughts grew muddled. I could see my grandmother standing in front of me, as if she were alive, demanding that I avenge the defiled Russian people. I realized that the Jews were hiding under their blankets. I started holding the candle up to their feet, which would immediately cause them to reveal their true nature. Among the screaming and chaos, I saw the light of God’s justice. I was dizzy with joy.
But my newfound happiness would be ruined by an orderly. Later that same night, he asked me:
“What if you, yourself, are the Jew?”
“Me?” — I asked incredulously, spitting up my own blood.
“Yes, you, asshole!”
He beat me up again, using both fists and feet, repeating the whole time:
“Say it! Say “I’m a Jew!” I wouldn’t say it.
He kept hitting me. Oh, my God, how he beat me! And then, suddenly, I realized. All my life, I had been searching for myself. Clawing my way through life, I had been searching for myself, and now I found myself, clawing my way through this hellish pain. I finally said it.
“I am a Jew”. — I said.