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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Filed under American Jewry, Family history, Jewish, Jewish identity, Jewish writing, Judaism, Russian Jewry

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