Yeltsin on the Tank, Part I (1991)
Rafi’s Volvo wagon knifed through the sheets of late-August deluge battering the Merritt Parkway. Since the 1988 season at Blossom Music Festival, he had become an item with an overweight Methodist soprano, right now a medical student en route to second year coursework and a nervous breakdown. The soprano’s sister and brother-in-law lived near New Haven, where both survived on the periphery of the Yale classical music scene. If Rafi’s olive hands could blanch, like the soprano’s vitiliginous skin, this would be a white-knuckle ride.
“Margie, could you find us some music, please, habibi? I can’t even make sense of what they’re saying in this fucking hurricane. “
“Clowns to the left of me, jokers to the right, here I am…” sang the soprano,
“Stuck in the middle with you!” joined Rafi in perfect two-part harmony.
It dawned on Rafi that the band that wrote this ditty, Stealers Wheel, had a name that was vaguely relevant.
“Try this one, Margie, ‘Riders on the storm, riders on the storm, into this house were born, into this world were thrown. Like a dog without a bone, and actor out on loan, riders on the storm’”
“Whoo, Rafi! The next verse,…”
“There’s a killer on the road. Hope it’s not us!”
“…Gorbachev’s whereabouts are not immediately known,” crackled the NPR announcer on WSHU. Rafi shot a quick glance at Margie while easing off even further from the gas pedal.
“It sounds like we’re not the only ones getting some inclement weather!”
Rather than going for the tuner, Rafi’s right hand hit the Soprano’s left at the volume knob. Cokey Roberts was giving an up-to-the-minute accounting of the events that accompanied the awakening of Eastern Europe to a day whose implied threat had seemed to dissipate with the coming signing of an agreement to replace the Soviet Union with a Commonwealth of Independent States, a final step on the way to perestroika-ing the Bad Old Days out of existence. Cokey Roberts was providing the connective tissue from an announcement over state TV by the Chairman of the KGB eight months earlier and the sudden collapse of communications into and out of the Kremlin. The announcement last December, said Roberts, concerned possible “perverse and negative outcomes that would present the Party with a national state of emergency.” Roberts was reporting on speculation within the CIA that the KGB and allied forces had, in fact, staged a coup designed to prevent the Commonwealth Treaty from being signed.
There’s a reason to go for a chick with brains. Just how many guys get to drive cross-country with their girlfriend, listening to history being made?
Rafi had Met the Soprano (that was not a typo) when he was auditioning for the Metropolitan Opera in the regionals. Clevelandwas the home of these auditions, which took place at Severance Hall in University Circle. On this, his fifth y’ridah from the Holy Land, Rafi was pursuing his music on a semiprofessional basis. After serving as an emergency replacement when the baritone he had hired for the premiere of his orchestral song, “Ozymandias,” fell ill, Gareth Morrell, then Music Director of the Cleveland Orchestra Chorus, sought him out to congratulate him.
“What a marvelous surprise!” exclaimed Morrell. “You have such a strong, clear tone, and even a supported falsetto. Have you ever thought about becoming a singer instead of a composer?”
“Well, not really,” replied Rafi, trying to act casual, as if the short man with the wispy golden hair standing in front of him was not an artistic executive who could put “Ozymandias” on the program, if not at Severance Hall, at least at the Blossom Music Center, the summer home of the orchestra.
“Well, listen, auditions for the fall season begin on Tuesday. Do you know any arias?”
“Not really, Mr. Morrell. I think I can give you some highlights from Elijah and Messiah.”
“I learned the tenor arias in college, and I’ve done much of Elijah’s part in synagogue.”
The maestro drew his left hand to his face, whereupon he buried his chin in his cupped palm.
“Well, are you a tenor or a baritone?”
“I’m a composer who can sing what I write, mainly, Mr. Morrell.”
“Oh, call me Gareth. Mr. Morrell is my father, and he’s back in Walton-on-Thames right now. So you’re a tenoritone? Or are you a baritenor? OK, I could still use you, and you might get solos from time to time in the midrange while your voice decides what it will become…
“When it grows up,” Rafi interjected.
“Exactly,” Morrell responded. Tell me, how old are you?”
“Good answer, and you’ll stay that way for at least the next five years. Have you ever heard of “The Devil and Daniel Webster?”
“Eh? I’m sorry. No, I never have. Is it a musical?”
“An opera, actually, an American classic. I performed the title character when I was in school. It’s at least as much of an acting role as it is a vocal role. You might have a look at it.”
Rafi and Morrell prattled on like this for some time. It was the audition that Rafi had met The Soprano.
Margie was a few years older than Rafi, and like him, things (mostly good) found a way of emanating from her mouth. The youngest of nine children from a west Ohio farm, she could stop you dead in your tracks with a sardonic comment. Or she could sight read a part for soprano with the full support of her lyric but undersized voice. The size of her voice posed a rather odd conundrum for Rafi: even at her most fit, The Soprano hefted a Wagnerian 180 lbs. She was possessed of a very pretty farm German face, and at her happiest, her extra freight was evenly distributed across her silhouette like the gearing of a farm tractor. It would take a psychic collapse, combined with the unrelenting pressure of being a medical student in her mid-thirties, to break an axle. Now there was no such crash on the horizon: the ground seemed fertile as far as the eye could see, which after the hurricane passed, would be an East Coast record. The Cleveland Orchestra Chorus audition, at which the accompanist shrewdly scheduled the two of them to follow each other and to sight read a duet, would follow on that next Tuesday evening. Of course, the voices blended well – a too-light soprano with an underpowered tenor, musical sensitivity, breathing together. Furthermore, the rehearsal with the repetiteur, also a Minister of Music who had his eye on a completely ecumenical Jesus, scheduled itself. Rafi would bring his Concerto for Orchestra and Highland Bagpipes, and they romanced over the parts. Margie had played highland bagpipes for fun in high school. Rafi hadn’t. It was obvious. Still, she had to fall for a guy who had the chutzpah to write for an impossible instrument. He had to fall for a gal who had the chutzpahto butcher the Hebrew word to an Israeli.
He was considering yet another swing of the yo-yo back to the Kibbutz, this time to teach music and math, when The Soprano happened. They had exchanged numbers a few weeks earlier at the audition, but until now, nothing had come from it. Tonight, though, she was singing in a summer concert, and she got him a ticket. They had a picnic on the concert lawn, and Rafi promised Margie that he would critique the performance afterward. They had boarded the Festival Chorus bus from Macy’s in University Heights. On the way back, Rafi had to restrain himself from joining when the baritones burst into an impromptu recitation of “Estuans interius.” Not good first date etiquette, especially as the other baritones might oversing. On a bus on I-71. Windows open. Ouch.
Well, Rafi was in it for fun. Not like him. He was the guy who almost ran to Pennsylvania when Vered dumped him. He was looking to lose himself in love, like a real Lord Byron. But Margie was too fat, he told himself. So, all the time wondering whether he was right or he was a sexist pig, Rafi let the “thing” ooze its way into every crack of his life. He joined Margie’s gym. He sang solos at Margie’s church. He joined the Cleveland Orchestra Chorus, even though she only made the summer ensemble. He even hit her up for book money so that he could register for classes so as to have a good reason to keep working part-time.
This is the way that the world ends,
this is the way that the world ends,
this is the way that the world ends,
not with a bang but a whisper.
Ok, Rafi, it’s not that bad. Besides which, she’s this and she’s that and …
Rafi was unable to silence the voice murmuring, just beyond the level of inaudibility, “But you don’t LOVE her.”
But it was August 19, 1991, and hurricanes hit Connnecticut, and the Commies were un-Revolutionizing the Soviet Disunion. The Volvo wagon (see, you are going to marry her!, wrote Semyon from the Kibbutz) rumbled safely down the Merritt Parkwayinto Gordon and Terry’s driveway. This was a conventional ranch house in a conventional neighborhood not far from the Yalies in New Haven who paid Gordon to do their lawns and teach piano to their children, even though Gordon could have written their requiems and directed their ceremonial ballets in the good old days of artistic patronage. Terry was The Soprano’s sister, and she was also quite talented, but not in Gordon’s league. But she had a practical side to her that had managed to reach the next generation, both members of which had the good sense to be taking the end of summer in the Berkshires, having caught on with a junior program at Tanglewood. Rafi honked the horn, and Gordon cranked open the garage door revealing, not a warm, dry extra parking spot, but an 1840’s Spinet that was in the netherworld between an authentic restoration and so much junk. Gordon, in a Pendleton lumberjack shirt half open over heavily worn blue jeans, opened Margie’s door, acknowledged Rafi, and dragged them into the dry. “Hey, you guys hear, the Russkies are tired of perestroika and perestriking!”
“I heard,” said Rafi. “I think they are going on the air around now telling us what the hell they think they’re doing.”
“What I want to know,” interjected The Soprano, “is how they’re gonna take that hammer and sickle off Gorby’s head.”
“Maybe they’ll keep the stigmata and leave the brains?” interjected Terry. “C’mon. CNN is going live.”
WITH A VIEW TO PROTECTING THE VITAL INTERESTS OF THE PEOPLES
AND CITIZENS OF THE USSR AND THE COUNTRY’S INDEPENDENCE AND
TERRITORIAL INTEGRITY, RESTORING LAW AND ORDER, STABILISING THE
SITUATION, OVERCO+MING THE GRAVEST CRISIS, AND PREVENTING CHAOS,
ANARCHY AND A FRATRICIDAL CIVIL WAG – WAR, THE STATE COMMITTEE FOR THE
STATE OK EMERGENCY IN THE USSRRESOLVES:
1. ALL BODIES OF AUTHORITY AND ADMINISTRATION OF THE USSR,
UNION AND AUTONOMOUS REPUBLICAN TERRITORIES, REGIONS, CITIES,
DISTRICTS, VILLAGES AND SETTLEMENTS SHOULD ENSURE UNGAILING
MOMPLIANVE WITH STATE-OF-EMERGENCY REGULATIONS IN KEEPING WITH
THE USSR LAW +ON THE LEGAL CEGCME OF A STATE OF EMERGENCY+ AND
WITH THE STATE COMMITTEE FOR THE STATE O+F EMERGENCY’S
RESOLUTIONS. IN THE EVENT OF THEIR INABILITY TO ENSURE THE
OBSERVANCE OF THESE REGULATIONS, THE POWERS OF THE RESPECTIVE
BODIES OF AUTHORITY AND ADMINISTRATION ARE TO BE SUSPENDED, WITH+
THEIR FUNCTIONS TO BE EXERCISED BY OFFICIALS SPECIALLY
APPOINTED BY THE STATE COMMITTEE FOR THE STATE OF EMERGENCY.
2. TO IMMEDIATELY DISMANTLE THE STRUCTURES OF POWER,
ADMINISTRATION AND MILITARISED UNITS ACTING CONTRARY TO THE
CONSTITUTION AND LAWS OF THE USSR.
“Emergency situation with dire consequences. My ass,” muttered Gordon.
“The only dire consequences were to the apparatchiks who stand to lose their jobs,” added Terry, attired only in loose shorts and an oversized, “Official Couch Potato T-Shirt” top. “ It’s looking like the Republics are starting to make some independent money by trading with the West. The bureaucracy must be shaking in its boots. Rafi, you grew up on a kibbutz, didn’t you? What’s your take on all this?”
Rafi felt suddenly exposed. Fortunately for him, his instinct to hold forth stood him in good stead. “People here in the States have an…illusion, that the kibbutz is …still works, you know, like in the days of Rabin and all the Fathers of the Nation. And Mothers, too. I was born there. I know, it’s no Gan Eden. We all look for ways to get by with someone else’s work. Kids who take their history lessons too seriously, you know, get made fun of by the others. And like, I work very hard in the fields, volunteering for extra work, living my own personal Aliyah PR campaign movie, they call me a freier, Yiddish word that means, kind of, a free lunch.”
The hosts leaned in, captivated. Even The Soprano had never heard this before.
“It’s just that the land is so blessed that we can grow anything, and our schools are so good that our children can do anything, build anything, even bombs, although if I were a spokesman for the government I would tell you that the facility at Dimona was a milk processing factory.”
Gordon interrupted. “So you’re telling me that the collective system in Israelisn’t the panacea we hear about?”
“No, it is not,” replied Rafi. “I can use an analogy that you will relate to, I think. The kibbutz is like thousand-dollar strings in a fifty-dollar piano. The piano is the broken spirit of human nature. We were dreamers fifty years ago, but now we are just like everyone else.
“So what do they do on the Kibbutzes?” interjected Terry.
“We still have kibbutzim. They’re mostly museum pieces. Tourist traps, I’ve heard the phrase, and I guess you call them that. Some of them have new lives as resettlement centers for Soviet refugees. I wonder how this,” Rafi gestured toward CNN on the TV, “will affect that. Maybe there will millions of newly minted Zionist Jewish pioneers – we called them ‘chalutzim,’ with big dreams.”
THE MEASURES THAT ARE BEING ADOPTED ARE TEMPORARY9THEY IN NTNLAY MEAN RENUNCIATION OF THE COURSE
TOWARDS PROFOCMD REFORMS CN ALL SPHERES OF LIFE MF THE STATE AND SOCIETY. Q THESE ARE FORCED MEASURES
, DICTAT\D BY TME VITAL NEEDTO SAVEWLTHE ECONOMY FROM RUIN AND THE COUNTRYFROM HUNGER TO PREVENT TPE
ESCALATION OF THE T TSGICBMF +A LARGE SCALE CIVIL CONFLICT WITH UNPREDICTABPE CONSEQUENCE FOR THE PEOPLES
OF THE NUSSR AND TH VENTIRE INTERNATIONAL COMMUNITY. THE MOST IMPORTANT OBJECTIVE OF THE STATE OF
EMERGENCY IS TO SECURSCONDITIONS ITHAT IWOULD GUARANTEE EACH CITIZEN PERSONAL SAFETY AND THE SAFETY OF HI
S OR HER PROPERTY. NT IS ENVISAGED TO LIQUIDATE ANTI-CONSTITUTIONAL, UNGOVERNABLE AND ESSENTIALLY CRIMINAL
MILITARY FORMATIOMS SPREADING MORAL AND NPHMFICAT EYRTR IN SEVERAL REGIONS OF THE USSR AND SERVING
AS A CATALY+ST FOR DISINTEGRATION PROCESSES. ZAIICXOL ENTIRE RANGE OF MEASURES ADOPTED IS DIRECTED AT
THE EARLIEST STABILISATION OF THE SITUATION IN THE USSR, THE NORMALISATION
OF SOCIOECONOMIC LIFE, THE +IMPLEMENTATION OF NECESSARY TRANSFORMATIONS AND THE CREATING OF CONDITIONS FOR THE COUNTRY’S ALL-ROUNDS DEVELOPMENT. TFUIUCGOY WWY WOULD LEAD TO ENHANCED CONROTATION AND VIOLENCE,
TO THE INNUMERABLE SUFFEGRING OF MOUC PEOPLES JN THE CREATION OF A DANGEROUS FOCUS OF TENSION FROM THE VIEWPOINT OF INTRNATION+AL SEMXLWIIFKL THE TEMPORARY EMERGENCY MEASURES IN NO MEAN AFFECT INTERNATIONAL COMMITMENTS ASSUME BY THE SOVIET UNION UNDER EXISTING TREATIES AND AGREEMENTS. THE USSR IS PREPARED TO DEVELOP FURTHER ITS RELATIONS WITM ALL STATES ON THE BASIS OF UNIVERSALLY RECOGNISED PRINCIPLES OF GOOD-NEIGHBOURLINESS EQUALITY MUTUAL BENEFIT AND NON-INTERFERENCE IN INTERNAL AFFAIRS OF EACH OTHER9 N WE ARE CONVINCED THAT OUR CURRENT DIFFICULTIES ARE TRANSITORY IN CHARACTER AMD THE SOVIET UNION’S CONTRIBIT+ION TO PRESERVING PEACE AND CONSOLIDATING INTERNATIONAL SECURITY WILL REMAIN SUBSTANTIAL. N THE LEADERSHIP OF THE USSR HOPES THAT THE TEMPORARY EMERGENCY MAASURES WIPL FIND PROPER UNDEGSTANDING ON THE PART OF THE PEOPLES AND GOVERNMENTS AND THE UNITAD NATIONS ORGANISATION. GENNADY YANAYEV ACTIG PREDIDENT OF THE USSR
“You’re not going to believe what’s for dinner,” laughed Terry.
“Borsch and stuffed cabbage,” Margie replied laconically.
“How did you guess?” replied Terry with a certain degree of amazement.
“You always had a sense of history,” Margie replied.
Terry padded back to the kitchen, blissfully unaware of the fact that she was wearing bedclothes to meet her possible brother-in-law, added sour cream to the borsch and checked on the stuffed cabbage, all while taking in every detail from the NPR reportage on WSHU.