August 20, 2019

Couple stands under the chuppah — 60 years on

“What is this chuppah? We didn’t order it.”

Maria Shvarts, 80, spotting the wedding canopy standing on the dance floor at West Hollywood’s Cafe Troyka, asked the restaurant staff to remove it. She and her husband Boris, 84, were hosting a 60th anniversary party. Guests were arriving, and the chuppah — obviously from a previous celebration, she thought — was an obstruction.

Then she saw Cantor Alexander Berkovich and Rabbi Liat Yardeni-Funk arrive, and suddenly she understood.

“This is what we were not allowed in Russia,” she said, stunned by the surprise that her son and daughter-in-law, Vladimir and Felina, had orchestrated.

Sixty years earlier, in a wedding veil her mother fashioned from a white curtain and a dress sewn from inexpensive floral-patterned silk, Maria Zaltsman celebrated her marriage to Boris Shvarts. They had exchanged vows in a perfunctory civil ceremony five days earlier and on that day gathered with 30 friends and family members in the living room of her parents’ tiny house in Kishinev, Moldavia, and ate cherry strudel and Napoleon cake and drank red wine.

That was Feb. 1, 1948. About 53,000 of Kishinev’s pre-World War II population of 65,000 Jews had been annihilated by the Nazis, and the town itself was almost completely reduced to rubble. Food and money were scarce, and in a country under the domain of the Soviet Union, a Jewish ceremony was out of the question for the young couple, 20 and 25 respectively.

“But the whole time we knew we were Jewish,” said Boris, who, like Maria, had been raised in an observant family.

Now, Maria, elegantly attired in a long beige lace dress with a turquoise corsage, and Boris, distinguished looking in a black suit and black-and-white tie, a kippah atop his head, were given the opportunity to reconsecrate those wedding vows.

Only this time, they stood together under a chuppah as Berkovich began singing “Dodi li v’ani lo” (my beloved is mine and I am his) and Yardeni-Funk welcomed more than 100 close friends and relatives.

The guests surrounded them, sitting at white-clothed tables, adorned with balloons and towering floral displays and covered with sumptuous platters of black and red caviar, Russian dumplings and beef stroganoff, as well as open bottles of vodka and wine. Many people blinked back tears.

“You’ve both experienced difficult times in your life, and today we’re all witnessing a miraculous and magical moment,” Yardeni-Funk said.

The difficult times began on June 28, 1940, when Soviet troops entered Kishinev, then part of Romania, making it no longer safe to be Jewish.

Maria’s immediate family managed to escape, riding a horse-drawn wagon to the railway station, where they boarded a cattle car for a two-month trip to Kazahkstan. There they lived in a mud hut and worked in the beetroot fields, given only a little bread and sugar to eat. “But we survived because of that,” Maria said.

Boris, whose family led a comfortable middle-class life, was 17 when the war broke out. He and his older brother, Gersh, were conscripted into the Soviet army, traveling east with the Russian front and digging trenches almost the entire time. Toward the end, they were sent to the Ural Mountains to work in a military factory.

After the war in 1945, Boris and his brother returned to a Kishinev lacking the most basic necessities. With the aqueducts destroyed, even water was scarce.

But life brightened when Boris’ mother sent him across the road to a water pump, instructing him to get the key from the Jewish family living next to the pump.

Boris knocked on the door and, in his words, “There appeared this magic girl.” That was Maria, then 17. From that time on, Boris willingly fetched all the family’s water “when we needed it, and when we didn’t need it,” he said.

Three years later they were married.

As they rose in their careers, unusual for Jews and especially non-Communist Party members, Maria and Boris found it difficult to practice any kind of Judaism. Yet, while their parents were still living, there were improvised seders with matzah bought on the black market and hamantaschen that Maria and Boris’ mothers baked for Purim. And when their son, Vladimir, was born in 1950, they even managed a bris. But these celebrations were always small and carried out clandestinely behind drawn drapes.

“Everything was more than good,” Maria said, despite the restrictions. Vladimir became a mechanical engineer and his wife, Felina, worked at a day care center. Their grandson, Roman, was born in 1972.

But Vladimir and Felina earned so little they couldn’t make a living, and in 1980, they immigrated to the United States. At the time, Maria was ill with thyroid cancer, her vocal cords paralyzed. And complicating things, the Moldavian borders closed, preventing Maria and Boris from following them after her recovery.

“For five years my eyes didn’t become dry,” Maria said, thinking that she would never see them again.

In January 1985, however, the border suddenly opened, and a few months later, on April 30, Maria and Boris landed at Los Angeles International Airport.

Their Judaism was rekindled. On Aug. 25 of that year, they celebrated their grandson Roman’s bar mitzvah at Stephen S. Wise Temple. They themselves began attending Shabbat and holiday services at Temple Israel of Hollywood.

But in addition to attending shul, both Maria and Boris wanted to give back to the community. Maria, who missed the engagement of full-time work, began volunteering at the Russian Senior Center in West Hollywood’s Plummer Park. She also taught holiday workshops to Russian �(c)migr�(c)s at Temple Israel and volunteered for 11 years as a case aide at Jewish Family Service.

Maria also joined the only Russian chapter of Na’amat in the United States in 1987. There were 16 members. After she took over as president in 1992, membership increased to 270. Meetings continue to be held twice a month, often at Cafe Troyka, with no less than 100 women attending each event.

“Whatever we do, it has to include fundraising,” Maria said, even though most of the members are living on SSI (Supplemental Security Income).