There’s an old story I heard as a child, and I don’t mind if I tell it. A man returns to Odessa after many years of being away. He bursts into his childhood friend’s home, and finds the friend alone, in the dark, silent, eating. “Misha!” he yells. “My dearest! Where’s everyone, where’re your mama and papa?”
“Dead,” says Misha, blankly.
“Oh, Misha … And your sisters, where are they?”
“Oy, oy! But our friend and neighbor, little Borya, he still lives here, right?”
“Dead,” says Misha, again, at which point our repatriate, a reasonable person — exactly as reasonable as you, reader — exclaims: “Was it the war? The plague? A pogrom?”
“I’m eating borscht.”
“When I eat borscht, everyone might as well be dead.”
Reader, in Odessa, humor was always entangled with survival. Odessa’s language was a fusion of Russian, Ukrainian, Yiddish, Moldovan, and French, of criminal slang from the port and the shtetl, so inevitably poetic. And when dark humor and poetry dissolve into each other, your mouth sometimes tastes like prophecy.
Reader, listen, not only is the Author dead, but the so-called Narrator got lost forever in the unreliable threads of this entangled dialect. The Protagonist is long gone too, interred in the Plot, and even the Foil is now just regular household aluminum. History itself is but snakeskin on a bare-ass rock staring at the Black Sea.
Is there anyone left out there? Anyone?
Reader, are you ready for some of this borscht?
On Skaz, Eikhenbaum, and Our Kind of Hybrid
Sometimes nostalgia is not directed toward
the past […] but rather sideways.
— Svetlana Boym, “The Future of Nostalgia”
I was born in a province’s province, landlocked amid cornfields and steppes, in a country that no longer exists, in a town that changed its name a few times before I was born and continued to change it after I left. And I, too, throughout my life, morphed through different names and different personas. And you could maybe even say that the town of my birth and I both named ourselves away from each other and from each other’s story — but that, somehow, put us on the same frequency, you know? And that’s the frequency you just tuned into: stay with me, reader, and I swear I will tell you everything, will bare the landlocked essence of my own doubly provincial soul to you.
But first things first. “When was Kyivan Rus founded?” my history teacher called on me on the first day of middle school. I rose from my desk — you had to stand up when responding to a teacher — slowly, and shame-faced because I hadn’t done my reading. “It was founded … a loooong time ago,” I said in the slow, shaky drawl of my Talmudic ancestors. The class burst out laughing, either at my awkwardness or chutzpah, but through the laughter I saw my friend Dima, one of the twins, mouthing: “Ninth.” Ninth century was the right answer.
Jews and Slavs have lived together for at least a thousand years straight, or maybe more. Though “together” feels like the wrong word here — something too literal about it. The word “neighbor” feels too literal too, and too cozy. What’s the right word then? Where is Dima to mouth it to me now, from the trilingual blankness of this page?
Growing up in our province, I used to walk daily by squat and broad Scythian statues — about 2,500 years old — casually plopped right on a balding patch of grass by the museum’s rear, not too far from where we lived. These statues were called “babas,” which, in both Ukrainian and Russian, referred, as a dictionary might put it, to “married peasant women.” But a closer look at the anatomical makeup of these “babas” pointed in another direction. And everything always pointed sideways like that, somewhere diagonally.
I lived surrounded by such diagonals of heavy ancient images of heavy ancient people, and, at all times, there was a sense of a big and mythic other life beyond the language given to me, a life that I could touch, sit on, whose fossil I could point to, digging right inside the pile of the self! Could catch that fossil’s shape, inside the story floating inside the fish soup in which I also found myself floating! I now know I am a mess of ancient people squatting in the bald museum of History, people who hated each other’s guts but also, undoubtedly, loved each other — loved each other so much that they crossed over towards each other, and I am the proof of that.
Boris Mikhaylovich Eikhenbaum was born to a Jewish father (who converted to Christianity) and a mother from a minor branch of a noble family (which rejected her for having married a Jew). Eikhenbaum sought out and named a literary genre that belonged to two disparate worlds: skaz — a hybrid between written and oral literature. No, more than that: an evolution of the written word back to its ancient oral past. No, an evolution, but rolling sideways, diagonally and into the recesses of the storytelling back-alleys which are neither past nor present, but decidedly off-road, belonging to a separate order of time.
Skaz is the page that is still warm from the original press of the old heel — a palimpsest of calluses — against the thick, black Slavic soil. It is poetry’s hoary ancestor, not historically speaking but psychologically: as you read, you might become your own inner great-grand, twisted gnarly hand-roots reaching, through nothingness, in the direction where all grand-grands are.
I am not here to say that skaz holds the mystery of my identity, and yours, or that skaz can somehow undo our estrangement from the real, in all of its unhygienic glory. I will not claim that skaz is the only way to finally, and festively, stuff the bathtub trout with its own flesh, mixed with flour and onions and carrots. No, I say, we can all sometimes get hypnotized in some self-aggrandizing ancestral tale or another, some glorifying map as shivery as my strings. This is why I turn to skaz: it is a way off that map.
Skaz is not a literary trick or a tool available for use. It is I who am the tool. “Muscular twitches of history,” as Eikhenbaum wrote, describing himself, and his friends, at the cusp of a self-renaming world, noting: “My life is filled with madness and stubbornness … I’m a representative of a nation, that can neither be found in China nor in Europe. I’m a Russian youth of the early 20th century, occupied with the question of для чего построен человек [the purpose of man’s existence/assemblage/construction], and I seek my calling. I’m a stranger, blown in by the winds of the pre-Revolutionary epoch, the epoch of Russian Symbolism, from the southern steppes and into the attics of Petersburg.”
Eikhenbaum — or as he signed some of his letters, BorEikh — chose a new religion and ethnicity for himself: that of a literary critic. An imaginative and scrupulous thinker with a native’s claims and an outsider’s instincts, he co-founded a group known as OPOIAZ (Society for the Study of Poetic Language), or the Formalists, together with a few others, many of whom also belonged to the entangled Jew-Slav heritage. Their early breakthrough idea was to liberate literature from mere details of the author’s biography. As they said in the old country: let us finally separate the flies from the watermelon! Not that the author doesn’t matter — no, it’s that in the way a story is told, in its stylings and voices, there lingers a shape, a peculiar living shape, which, in and of itself, is more intimate, more naked than any biographical fact.
Eikhenbaum pored over the sacred texts of his new religion, reading Tolstoy, Akhmatova, Lermontov, and, most memorably, Gogol, who grew up breathing the pungent air of a Ukrainian province not unlike my own. Gogol’s was a peculiar kind of writing, said Eikhenbaum, that shed narrative, plot, civilization, and coherence for the sake of the presence of his religion’s shaman, the page-bound oral storyteller, the one whose skaz-face is not etched upon, but is itched with, these very pages.
You might say: so? What’s new about storytelling? Let me put it another way. One of Eikhenbaum’s grandfathers was a legendary Talmud scholar and mathematician, head of a rabbinic academy. He wrote a long-form Hebrew poem about chess pieces going to war with each other, which his grandson unearthed and re-published in his own Chronicles, a strange and rare book I will come back to, if I don’t forget. Eikhenbaum’s other grandpa was a nobleman, physician, and is remembered as a descendant of a family that helped Peter the Great build St. Petersburg, where Eikhenbaum came to live as a young man. There’s this hypothesis about the third-generation instinct: that one desires to return to the life of one’s grandparents, to the roots that one’s parents rejected. So, if you’re returning, but your grandparents live in such different dimensions of human experience — even if, geographically, you’re still on the same map — do you become two people? The power of unharmonized ancestral voices make the storyteller audible in the world of a silenced page, and to hear the chorus, you’ve got to summon your own ancestral disharmony. How can anything be heard otherwise?
And now you understand, I think, how skaz — which bears a Slavic name, as BorEikh did, and as I once did — also alludes to the other, absent skaz, the untold and hidden skaz of its Jewish ancestors, and their storytelling, which I knew nothing about for many, many years of my life.
Lydia Ginzburg — Eikhenbaum’s student, more about her later — remembered in her journals the evening when Eikhebaum, Shklovsky and two others held a public debate on Formalism with their Marxist critics. “You have the navy and the army on your side, and we are just four people in the room,” said Shklovsky. “What are you so afraid of?”
Slavs and Jews, a union of fear and loss: Jews lost their lives, stories, and dignity, and Slavs lost generations of enthusiastic cultural allies, intellectuals, philosophers, and literary scholars, who were enamored of the mystery of the undeniably latitudinous Slavic soul. This isn’t the story of a tiny minority swallowed by an imperious majority. I know this because, somehow, without understanding the minority’s visions, you can’t understand Russia, or Ukraine, or the Soviet Union — even if Eikhenbaum’s circle of luminaries was fractured and worn down by the time Stalin died, and it wasn’t Stalin’s doing alone. In Eastern Europe there was a long line of large and small Stalins who could not handle the weight of Jewish difference, could not envision a functional “togetherness.” Jews and Slavs, no David and Goliath story here, just shards piercing each other. The shards can become an invocation, they can summon a presence. They have a voice.
Brodsky’s Big American Car
The music is too loud because it has to be to drown out the dust moaning in these hallways. Not to be dramatic! In the mornings I drop off my kids at school, and before I start working, I sometimes have a bit of time to write, in one of these shared workspaces, which, in the pandemic glow is still mostly empty, especially in the low-budget open areas, and it is insufficiently lit, which is good because no one needs to worry about the dust. There’s a permanently broken elevator, which takes me exactly where I need to go: straight into the memory of another dysfunctional elevator, the one that vanished in a shaft of red and gray building No. 8 on Kropyvnytskyi Street, where I grew up.
An elevator like that was a fixture of every large non-descript Soviet high-rise, but it was also the locus of my father’s nerves, and stood in for the world’s very brokenness. Every day he’d perform his hopeful ritual of meaningfully and firmly holding his finger on the button, pressing his ear to the shaft (“I hear something!”), pacing, cursing, and eventually giving up and walking. The elevator would rumble as if not entirely unsympathetic to his attempts, but it would never arrive, sometimes stopping and opening at random empty floors. It was undoubtedly possessed — possessed with the soul of the dying Soviet Union itself.
Who’s possessing the permanently unavailable elevator here, in this dim and too-cold and slowly disintegrating Los Angeles workspace? That is a question I’d like you to answer for me, reader — maybe in this very piece? All I say for now — and we still have time — is that this workspace is at the intersection of six big streets and avenues and, without the corny deracinated music, it would feel, in contrast to the roil of life outside, like a howling Slavic folktale of unending hallways.
I put my feet up and watch mountains through the windows, and I know I could never buy any of the houses that stare back at me. I see the big white Hollywood sign, and it makes me grin, not in displeasure. This is where much of my writing happens these days, reader, and I tell you all of this not as a kind of a minor-key demolition of the fourth wall, but in response to Boris Eikhenbaum’s query, which has been haunting me for months. “The question,” writes Eikhenbaum, “is not how to write, but how to be a writer.”
He wasn’t asking for a step-by-step manual, of course. Or even claiming that if you were to know how to be a writer, you surely would be one. It’s about knowing what it costs you and those around you, and whom you’re fooling, and what you’re stealing, to salvage the tiny slits of time needed to write.
The white Hollywood sign is partly obscured by palms. As my grandmother used to say, this should be the worst of our problems.
We live in the shadow of great literature, reader, and great literature’s proximity to wealth. The prerequisite to reading, a lot and with leisure, has always been money — lots of money, especially during your childhood and teenage years. If you’re already conjuring counter-examples in your head, I’ll just tell you this: when I was 17, in college, I worked three part-time jobs, and though I tried to read through it all, the quantity and quality and reach of my reading and writing forays were in direct inverse proportion to the swaths of time and energy taken up by matters of survival. To spend a day lolling over your sentence, you need a servant to pick up your children from school and refill your mug and inkwell, or whatever it is you’ve got there. You need a quiet space where you can remain uninterrupted. You need to have traveled around and seen something other than your own hands and feet.
Even skaz, which is the subject (and symptom) of our encounter, as a style, took shape in the works of Gogol and Nikolai Leskov, who both belonged to the petty gentry, which is to say, their people were estate owners with a small bevy of servants, and a cook or two, and a gardener, and likely some peasants. Skaz may sound like folklore, but it is folklore overheard: a rune rather than the thing itself. And Eikhenbaum, who explained this genre to us all, who coined the word in relation to Gogol and Leskov, woke up, some years after his discovery, to the question of what it takes to be a writer — and from whom the taking is done. He did this not out of a Marxist obligation that was closing in on him in the 1920s, but because of his conviction that if you’re going to say something worthwhile, even if it is fantastic and mythic and otherworldly, you need to hold on to the tablecloth of some painful and definable truth, and there’s nothing more plainly true and nasty and right on the table than your financial circumstances, and their reality in relation to those of other people, especially the people reading you — as in, right now, you, reader.
Some years ago, I met and befriended Samuel Menashe, a great New York poet, who, in the last decade of his long life, received the Neglected Master’s Award, which came with money, as well as a measure of fame. Well, fame … My grandmother had a saying: “If a chicken is a bird, then Poland is a foreign country.” It rhymes in Russian, and makes more sense if you live in Ukraine, in proximity to chickens and to Poland, but you get it — with the kind of a fame poets have, who needs eternal oblivion?
Menashe carried the wound of neglect with pride and derision. He was particularly angry with poet Joseph Brodsky, ostensibly because of Brodsky’s open flirtations with Christianity, but I think it was, if I may just say it, simpler than that.
He had many stories about schooling Brodsky in public. Once, he told me, he saw Brodsky, who’d just received his Nobel prize, hopelessly trying to parallel park his car on Bleecker Street in Manhattan, squeezing into a spot that was just too tight. Standing on the sidewalk, arms crossed, Menashe imperiously called out: “Miiiister Brodsky … Isn’t it nice to live here in New York? With a nice, BIG American car?” To which Brodsky responded with a single word: “Idiyot!” What is it with Russians, Menashe asked me, and that word, “idiyot”?
He knew the answer, of course, because he’d read about Prince Myshkin, but mock curiosity and gloating go together well. We still have plenty of time, reader, but let me just say this: Menashe’s badge of idiotic honor, which Brodsky pinned on his lapel in that one moment, has something to do with our questions —the question of how to live as a writer, and also, in no small way, the earlier question about the haunted, unavailable elevator. Hang on.
True fact: Menashe’s building had no elevator whatsoever.
As a very old man, he schlepped up and down the many steps of the walk-up into his hole of an apartment, dusty-dim and littered with piles of books and loved the way a muse is loved. The apartment was the perfect container for Menashe’s existential predicament:
In this kitchen
Where I do not eat
Where the bathtub stands
Upon cat feet —
I did not advance
I cannot retreat
It took me a few visits to understand that the bathtub, which was indeed in the kitchen/dining/living room area, was not there for the show, but because there was no shower in the apartment. His once-orange couch was ripped in places. Fruits ripened, and molded, on the windowsill.
There was an air of mystery about Menashe. I knew he was born on the Lower East Side, had fought in the Battle of the Bulge, had studied in Paris, and briefly, in the 1960s, had taught at Bard College. What he did from there onward, for decades, I had no idea. The only record was the rather small collection of his self-enclosed, enfolding poems. Did he sit at home, by the windowsill and the bathtub, with no big American car to park, just waiting inside his walk-up for the absent elevator — which eventually arrived, in the last few years of his life?
One time, trying to impress my girlfriend and wife-to-be, I invited her to Menashe’s reading. (I need to mention here that Menashe always called me “Jacob,” even though it is not my name, but he hated being called “Sam” and hated calling anyone anything less than their fullest possible name, and that’s relevant to this particular vignette, as you will soon see.) As we walked in, late, he stopped mid-poem and said, “Jacob! I have a terrific idea to discuss with you. Please speak to me after the reading.”
He stopped mid-poem a lot, and often went on tangents, in part because his poems were short, and there weren’t all that many of them. His art was in chiseling down, condensing, and so when all you have left is slivers, you can’t have multiple readings with the same material and expect people to come again and again, see? And, as I’m sure you have already surmised, all of his maneuvers and flavors of lingering are another answer to Eikhenbaum’s question. At the end of his reading, when nearly half of the audience had filtered out, Menashe finally said: “Here’s the terrific idea I had. It is about your doctorate, Jacob. Why don’t you write it … about me?”
One of the very last times I heard Samuel read was at a gig I put together, at a downtown synagogue, where both he and another poetry elder, Stanley Moss, took turns reading. (“We’ve been friends for a long time,” said Moss, smiling at Samuel, graciously. “Yes, we’ve known each other for a long time, though I don’t know about friends,” retorted Samuel.) Though older, Moss was far more put together, expensively dressed, well groomed, and all around smoother. Samuel, as I realized then, watching him, had already passed a threshold from which there was no return. As usual, he interrupted himself with stories, and, as was his way, re-read the same poems twice, accentuating different line breaks and bits of music inside them. Suddenly, he went into a story — but it was the same one he’d already told earlier in the reading. At first, nobody flinched. Nobody, except for him, as he struggled to remember if the story had already been told, just minutes earlier. Yet he continued, and as we watched him, we understood what was going on, and we still didn’t flinch, but, as I scanned the room, I saw that we all had that non-flinch-slightly-frozen expression on our faces, our discomfort and awkwardness slowly turning into awe. Before long, there was light, reader — light radiating from everyone in that room, as we watched him finish the story, in almost exactly the same way as in the previous iteration, a story I don’t even remember anymore, but I do remember the light: it is called “honor” or “suffering” or “quintessence.” Anyway, it was a kind of light, which, I swear, I’ve never seen at any poetry reading or in any house of worship, or anywhere, ever, really.
I remember so many stories about Samuel, so many. Far more than of any other writer I’ve met. More than anyone I know, other than my family members. Why? And why do my Menashe stories feel so skaz-like, so reminiscent of those tales and anecdotes I grew up with or read in Gogol’s and Leskov’s works?
Skaz, reader, has downward mobility written all over it, even though its aspiration is nothing other than transcendence itself. This is what puzzled Eikhenbaum. This multi-directionality can sure mix things up in your shaft, can’t it?
Yes, that was Menashe for you. How does one live as a writer? I’ve come to show you. I’m already standing on this here floor, somewhere in the low 40s, and pressing the button, meaningfully and firmly, and the button lights up, promisingly, and I think that the voice that I’m hearing behind the metal doors might be yours, reader. I’ve been waiting for a long, long time.
Stories about smuggling are so plentiful among Ukrainian Jews, their lore so thick and enduring, told and re-told with so much gusto and pure poetry of hilarity and heartbreak, across new languages and cultures, that it’s as if they’re all singing to each other, melding in a single serenade to all that is most delectable, most forbidden, most impossible to sneak across the guarded lines of our world. As the old Ukrainian saying goes: koze ponyatno — even a goat understands. Understands what, reader? That a smuggling story is the wing of the immigrant dream of sneaking out the most delectable, most forbidden, most impossible parts of — the self, shivering at the border.
I understood this when my friend Daniel, who lives and sings across the borders of space and time, told me an old joke about a Jewish smuggler with an empty wheelbarrow who used to get patted down every time he tried to cross. Guards came up empty for years! Turned out that he was smuggling out wheelbarrows. So much depends on smugglers like us.
True, not every one of my compatriots appeared on the other shore hauling a well-preserved cart of self-reference. There was, for instance, a famous story, immortalized by Eduard Topol, about a Soviet Jew named Iosif Rubinchik, who, when he was finally allowed to immigrate to Israel, poured all of his savings into a large diamond, which, to evade the KGB, he swallowed before his flight’s departure. The strategy for the diamond’s retrieval was obvious enough, but something went awry — the diamond never emerged from Rubinchik’s bowels. For years, he continued searching for it, but no MRI scans were able to locate the rock inside. Did it dissipate? Was it a hallucination to begin with? Or is it still hiding somewhere within, like an indigestible diasporic foil to the shining ideal of the homeland Rubinchik reluctantly ventured towards?
The old Russian-Jewish saying goes: the thing we fought for is the thing that fucked us over. Which is to say, Rubinchik returned to the Soviet Union, as he put it, from the “historical” homeland back to the “prehistorical.” On the flight to Moscow, chatting and openly confiding in the stranger beside him, Rubinchik found himself, as one does, with a hand in the stranger’s pocket, in which he discovered a running state-issued tape recorder and a microphone. I think you know who greeted him at the Soviet border.
My father often left our Ukrainian province for work, traveling to Riga, which was a remote and cosmopolitan Baltic city, far enough from Moscow but close enough to Europe to be distinctly less Soviet than Ukraine. He’d bring back suitcases crammed with black-market goods, forbidden or simply unavailable. It was after one of his trips to Riga that I tasted my first banana. There were smoked meats and fishes of every conceivable variety, exotic fruits, chocolates, and liquors. There were also tapes of Yiddish songs by The Barry Sisters, stories of my father’s visit to a synagogue on the holiday of Purim, and, most importantly, there were volumes of Isaac Babel’s stories, then still frowned upon by the Soviet government.
I mention this because Isaac Babel’s Odessa, at the turn of the 20th century, was the Mount Olympus of all contraband mythology, a city whose very character was shaped by its underground milieu. No one described smuggling with more sensuousness and pleasure than Babel, who, envisioning the wedding of Benya Krik, King of Odessa’s bandits, painted the following picture:
the noblest of our contraband, everything for which our region is celebrated across the land, did its destructive, seductive work. Wine from abroad warmed stomachs, broke legs in the gentlest way possible, numbed brains and brought up a belching as sonorous as the call of a battle horn. The black cook from the Plutarch, which had come in from Port Said three days earlier, smuggled in round-bellied bottles of Jamaican rum, oily Madeira, cigars from Pierpont Morgan’s plantations and oranges from the environs of Jerusalem. That’s what the foamy surf of Odessa’s sea washes ashore; that’s what Odessa’s paupers can hope to get their hands on at Jewish weddings.
Once more, koze ponyatno: even the goat gets it. Gets what, reader? Any Soviet-born Jew, reading Babel in the original will know that Babel, writing this story in the early decades of the Soviet rule, was smuggling out the rich and intoxicating mixture of Ukrainian, Russian, and Yiddish, with infusions from Bessarabia, Western Europe, and the Mediterranean. He was smuggling out the Ashkenazi skaz itself. To celebrate it, as Babel did, required as much brashness and gumption as any of Benya’s feats did. Babel’s world may have vanished, and Babel himself may have been murdered in Stalin’s Terror, but when, as a teenager, I read his work, smuggled out of Latvian markets by my father, the writer’s foamy waves brought to me something far more intoxicating than forbidden entertainment, or even a glimpse into a colorful ancestral past.
What was it? In my early teens, still knowing nearly nothing of my Jewishness, as I read Babel, I found a language that finally alluded to the inaccessible self, an otherness laced with pleasure, the pleasure of a Jewish language unfolding as if from a concealed soul-compartment.
Here’s what it means to be a Jew from Ukraine, reader: When you grow up, you get handed over a vanishing world of your own, and the language to go with it.
So, you ask, what did I smuggle out of Ukraine? I came here alone and with nothing but my accent and a half-dozen dorky Eastern European shirts, which I shed, as I also tried to shed Ukraine itself, from my tongue, from my mind, from my unwritten memoir. I did not teach my children Russian and Ukrainian, and so, at home, I sit solitary on these languages as if on top of some dinosaur egg I can’t get off of, and none of my family members can climb on. There were many days when I felt I wanted these languages to die inside of me, when I wanted the Slavic-Jewish story to end with me. I left the smuggler’s wheelbarrow behind: in the rain, near the chickens, near the Goat of Understanding, which shakes its head at us, reader, all through this piece, as if saying, Maybe you didn’t come up empty. The dream of skaz, the dream of a Slavic story alive with Jewish words, a story of many languages, is with you. The taste of this dream will never leave your mouth, and everything you will ever say, everything you exhale is tinged with it.
One time, my Belarus-born relatives from Brooklyn traveled to Israel. It was their first time. Of all things, they obsessed over local oranges (the same ones Babel’s beggars adored!), and vowed to bring them home to Canarsie, filling half a suitcase, and asserting on the travel forms that they brought no food of any kind back to the United States. “No food?” asked the guard, meaningfully, pausing to give them a chance to fess up. “No food,” answered my great-aunt, smoothest English-speaker of the bunch. “Then what are these?” the guard asked with menace, pointing to the stash of oranges. “Food?” my great-aunt replied indignantly. “No, eetz just deezyurt.”
Jake Marmer is a poet, performer, and educator. He is the author of three poetry collections: Cosmic Diaspora (Station Hill Press, 2020), as well as The Neighbor Out of Sound (2018) and Jazz Talmud (2012), both from The Sheep Meadow Press. He also released two klez-jazz-poetry records: Purple Tentacles of Thought and Desire (2020, with Cosmic Diaspora Trio), and Hermeneutic Stomp (Blue Fringe Music, 2013). Jake is the poetry critic for Tablet Magazine. Born in the provincial steppes of Ukraine, in a city that was renamed four times in the past 100 years, Marmer lives in the Los Angeles.