Agamemnon had angered the goddess, Artemis, by bragging that he was a better hunter. To punish him, she becalmed his fleet as he attempted to reach Troy and defeat that city in battle. Desperate for victory Agamemnon promised he would do what ever Artemis desired if his fleet could move on to Troy. Artemis agreed to send the wind to fill the sails of his fleet if Agamemnon killed his daughter, Iphigenia. Agamemnon sent a message to Clytemnestra, telling her to bring Iphigenia to him so that she could be wed to Achilles. When mother and daughter arrive, Iphigenia dies and Agamemnon sails to Troy. Upon his return, Clytemnestra kills him for the loss of Iphigenia.
IPHIGENIA IN FOREST HILLS is a simpler story. In this case, Iphigenia is Michelle Malakov, a four year-old caught in a divorce and custody battle, that could not end well. Michelle was the daughter of Daniel Malakov, a very successful orthodontist in Queens, New York and Mazoltov Borukhova, a very successful internist. Until the birth of Michelle, family members described the couple as very much in love. Daniel was a romantic and he adored his wife, a woman of formidable intelligence and will. Daniel and Mazoltov, known as Marina, were Bukharan Jews, having emigrated from an area of the Soviet Union that disappeared after the break-up of the USSR. Instead of enriching the family, Michelle’s birth ended it because Marina would not share her daughter with anyone.
A divorce was inevitable and it was one of the worst the judge or the lawyers on both sides had had to deal with. Marina was her own worst enemy; her arrogance when questioned in court led, for a reason not explained, to Daniel being given custody of Michelle with Marina allowed visitation. Neither parent had asked for custody; both had assumed Michelle would live with Marina and Daniel would have a degree of shared custody. But when the judge gave Daniel custody, the death of the father became an inevitability.
Daniel and Marina came from a religious culture in which men and women did not choose their marital partners. Arranged marriages were the responsibility of matchmakers who would present potential partners to the parents of the intended couple and then to the two people most involved. Both the Malakov and Borukhova families did not want Daniel and Marina to marry, although the specifics of that are not given in the book. But Daniel and Marina, marrying within months of meeting, flouted that convention, two people in a modern world without the tools necessary to navigate it.
On the morning of October 28, 2007, Daniel Malakov left his office to bring Michelle to the playground at the local elementary school in order for her to spend time with her mother. As Daniel stood next to Michelle, a man stepped forward, took a gun out of the pocket of his jacket, and shot Daniel in the chest. Within moments, Daniel was dead. Marina took her daughter and ran, an instinctive reaction, to get the child away from the murder scene and the body of her father. The man with the gun was Mikhail Mallayev, Marina’s cousin by marriage, who had come from Georgia after agreeing to kill Daniel for $20,000.00.
The subtitle of the book by New Yorker author Janet Malcolm is “Anatomy Of A Murder Trial”. The book is only 155 pages and its focus is the trial so there isn’t any information about the police investigation. Even a person without any legal background can see significant mistakes made by both sides and some rulings by the judge that should have led to a mistrial or a successful appeal. But both of the accused were found guilty and even Alan Dershowitz could not prevail at the appeal. The book is worth reading because of its candid snapshots of how the system does, and doesn’t, work. As the author puts it, “She couldn’t have done it and she must have done it.”
To some degree, Malcolm gives a glimpse of life in the very closed community of the Bukharan Jews. The trial brought a great deal of publicity to a group who keeps carefully to themselves. Daniel and Marina were well-educated and were apparently aware of society outside their community. This is not true for many other groups of the most conservative branches of Orthodox Jews. For two years, I taught secular studies at a private school for Orthodox girls who would attend “seminary” for one year after graduation from high school and who then would be married to young men chosen by their parents. They had no knowledge of the outside world. Newspapers and television were not allowed in their homes and secular studies teachers were very restricted in the topics which could be discussed in class. The girls did not know about the attacks on 9/11. Marina Bukharov was allowed a much wider world and she used the information from the wider world to have her husband killed.
The Iphigenia in Forest Hills did not lose her life, but her mother killed her father, albeit a step removed, in order to get what she wanted. Whether in mythology or in Queens, both girls were pawns.