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Of human children & language children
Svetlana Lavochkina
19 December 2022
published in Issue Two
Жидівський король
Олександр Авербух

Київ: Дух і літера, 2021

(Alex Averbuch, The Jewish King)

When my great-grandmother lost her eyesight, a Ukrainian woman, Frosya, was hired to nurse her through her last stage of life. It was in the mid-1950s. Frosya was kerchiefed, shapely, tidy, meticulous, foul-tongued, blunt, brutally honest and illiterate. She could read fairy tales, struggling with each syllable, and sign her name.

Twenty years after my great-grandmother’s death, I inherited Frosya as my own nanny. Our adoration was mutual. She pampered me senseless. « My little kike », she spoke of me fondly to her yard neighbours. The first word I ever wrote was « stsikukha », « pisser », this is how Nanny called me to my face. Even during my primary school years, Nanny loved feeding me borscht off the spoon, with a little blackmailing: « If you misbehave, I’ll tell everybody you still eat like a baby. » I, in response, loved to say, « I spit at God », knowing she was religious. Nanny Frosya influenced me more than anyone else did, definitely more than my Jewish intelligentsia parents would have wished. I still see her in my dreams, alive.

Some months ago, Nanny Frosya re-appeared to me in Alex Averbuch’s poetry collection The Jewish King, raised to the power of a thousand.

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What Nanny Frosya said verbatim was « moya malen’ka zhydovka ». « Zhyd » (« жид ») is an insulting pejorative of « Jew »; « zhydovka » (« жидовка ») is a feminitive. Amusingly, in Polish, « zhyd » is quite a formal word for « Jew » — no mean connotation at all. The formal register for « Jew » in Ukrainian is « yevréy » (« єврей »), « yevreyka » (« єврейка ») for a feminitive. Here, I resorted to an Americanism — « kike » — as an eternal translator’s asymptote.

My first novel, Zap, is a Jewish family saga exploiting many of my relatives’ personalities.

In Kipling’s Just So Stories, a hedgehog and a tortoise want to confuse a little tiger to avoid being eaten. The hedgehog learns to swim, the tortoise learns to curl up, so the tiger can't tell them apart anymore, and their bodies change, « meeting in the middle », finally to assume full resemblance to each other. This is « how armadillos came to be ».

Examples would look bleak and incomprehensible for a non-speaker

ШО had to close during the war in 2022, due to financial difficulties.

A fragment from the first cycle: full quoting would disqualify the poem from future magazine publications.