Versions of Judas

Barry Yourgrau and Anya von Bremzen

            “I’ve been thinking,” a man tells his girlfriend, “about the Last Supper.”

            “Huh? Why? Leave me some coconut curry!” she chides.

            They’re at a Thai restaurant in their immigrant neighborhood in Queens.

            “There’s lots of curry left, relax!” the man tells her. “And no need for the sneer, I just was reading a Borges story, about Judas. It floats the argument that Judas, in fact, was the heroic figure of the Last Supper. That his betrayal was God’s instrument for the crucifixion and resurrection. So he took on infamy everlasting courageously. Fascinating, huh?” The man grins.

            “Huh?” says his girlfriend.

            “So then,” the man presses on, ignoring her willful bewilderment, “on YouTube I checked out quickly the Last Supper scene from Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ. Guess what: the actor who played Judas, an Italian, was a hardcore atheist, but from making Mel’s movie, he became a devout Catholic again. How’s that?”

            “How’s what?” she says. “I thought you had work to do, revising your book proposal. Why are you watching videos?”

            “Geez, just quick excerpt,” the man lies. “So then, you see, I thought of that goodbye family dinner in Moscow you had with your relatives, when you and your mom were emigrating as Jews in 1974. That was a sort of version of the Last Supper, no? You and your mom were considered the betrayers of course, there’s that little Borgesian inversion. But emigrating was a crossing into a land of no return—you’d be as dead to everyone in Soviet Russia.”

            “Whatever,” says his girlfriend. “I’m tired, let’s get the check.”

            The man sighs. Patience, in all things domestic. On the way home, passing the Mexican taco trucks and the Tibetan momo dumpling trucks, his girlfriend all at once says (as he knew she would, she loves to chew on her Soviet childhood): “Actually, the term for Last Supper in Russian is Taynaya Vecherya, Secret Supper. The farewell open houses that Soviet Jews held before emigrating were like Secret Suppers, because being a Jew was suspect enough, but if you were emigrating—to Israel, supposedly, but many like us switched destinations once we crossed the border—you were essentially viewed as a traitor. So they were clandestine affairs, those open houses. My mom and I went to endless ones for departing friends. Their flats stripped down bare, everything given away. People sat on suitcases or on the floor. Crying, smoking, drinking vodka from borrowed cups. Eating Salat Olivier right out of the bowl.”

            “Interesting,” I break in.” That was more like how they ate in Jesus’s time, lounging by low tables, not seated at a long table like in Renaissance iconographies, da Vinci and the rest. So you held a Secret Supper, then?”

            “No, my mother didn’t want a lot of people,” says my girlfriend. “We just had a small goodbye dinner at her parents’ flat, with a few Moscow relatives. Plus a visiting cousin. But really it was like a Last Supper, we thought we would never ever see them again.”

            “But ten years later, you amazingly came back on a visit. Thanks to glasnost you were resurrected!” I smile. “And it was at that wrenching farewell dinner that your mom’s dad, the old Bolshevik and Naval Intelligence officer, called her a traitor, no? Your sweet mom as Judas. Charming way with goodbyes, the Russians.”

            Russians, I’ve come to realize, are as melodramatically buffa as stereotype Italians. But with an even more existential, brutal edge. Russian Jews, perhaps in particular.    

            “No,” my girlfriend says, “what my grandfather said was that mom would be tormented by nostalgia and come crawling back. The person who called her a traitor—I feel like something sweet, they have Pakistani yoghurt here, it’s amazingly like dulce de leche—”

            She veers into a Pakistani grocery. She remerges, tub of sweet in hand.

            “It was Inna,” she resumes, “a 16- year-old distant cousin, with pimples and long braids, who was visiting from the sticks. We hardly knew her. Her dream was to be a KGB agent! She suddenly burst out with a long, passionate denunciation of my mother as a traitor, and then ran out the door.” My girlfriend laughs. “And then we saw her being groped by some guy on the stairs.”

            “Geez, what twists Russians have a taste for,” I reply. “Not only the good guys get labeled traitors, but the kiss in the scenario gets delivered to the morally tainted one.”

            “I guess,” my girlfriend shrugs.” Whatever. Here, taste this yoghurt! Inna was from Chernovtsy, by the way, in Ukraine, near where your father’s family was from.”

            “She was?

            “Inna, who called me a traitor?” My girlfriend’s elderly, elfin, indefatigable mother shrugs.

            I’m in her cozy, sociable apartment near our place next morning. Pursuing inquiries over tea.

            “She was just a silly girl,” my girlfriend’s mother says, “super-patriotic. She was from Chernovtsy, you know, near where—”

            “Yes, I know.”

            “—your father’s family was from. Why’re you interested in her?”

            “Partly because she’s such a marvelously ludicrous and annoying figure,” I reply. “And also, because her being from Chernovtsy connects me, in a way, to your goodbye family dinner. It also touches on my own father’s deceit, treachery you might say, about his family’s history—always proclaiming that his father’s side was Belgian Catholic! The shtetl Ukraine truth I only found out years after his death.”

            I ask how my girlfriend had reacted to Inna’s harangue.

            “Oh, she and her cousin Masha just giggled at her.”

            “Cruel,” I sigh. “Know whatever happened to Inna? Did she join the KGB?”

            “I have no idea,” says my girlfriend’s mother. “I never saw her again. Have something to eat.”             “Thanks, just had a big breakfast.”

            “Piece of Russian cake? Bread, I just baked it?”

            “No thanks.”

            “Fruit? Some lovely strawberries? A delicious tangerine?”

            For a day or two, I become a little obsessed with poor, patriotic Inna from Chernovsty, with her pimples and her braids and her cries of Judas. She didn’t seem the instrument of anything except her own obnoxious absurdity. I even try Googling her, using Google Translate Cyrillic. Nothing. Passed into oblivion, you might say…

            Then I shudder at how much time I’m wasting, and forbear Googling “Borges” and “KGB,” and go back to the drudgery awaiting me there at my desk.

Moscow-born Anya von Bremzen is a food writer based in New York and Istanbul. She is the recipient of three James Beard Awards, and the author of five acclaimed cookbooks, as well as a memoir, Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking (Crown, 2013)which has been translated into fourteen languages. She is currently working on a book called The World in Seven Meals (Penguin Press).

South Africa-born Barry Yourgrau is a writer based in New York and Istanbul. His books of short fiction include A Man Jumps Out of An Airplane and Wearing Dad’s Head (both Arcade, 1999/2016). He has also written a memoir about objects and memories, Mess (W.W. Norton, 2016).