By Marcia Caller Jaffe
Atlantans were buzzing in May about Pace Academy, a private school on West Paces Ferry Road in Buckhead, for two reasons: Robert Downey Jr. surprised the student body as the commencement speaker, and the Grenaders, local Jewish twins with Russian parents, graduated with major recognition.
Maria Grenader, heading to Northwestern University as a premed student, was elected the class clown by the student body. Mark Grenader, a rising freshman at the University of Pennsylvania in the Jerome Fisher Program (dual degrees in business management and technology), was the valedictorian.
Both are bright, well-spoken, well-adjusted and, of course, multilingual. Maria is a vibrant brunette with a radiant smile. Mark has rock-star good looks that would put Justin Bieber to shame.
Proud father Iakov, a native of Moscow who immigrated here at age 37 in 1992 with not much cash but with savvy technological and business ideas, sat in on our interview. He has doctorates in metallurgy and computer science.
Jaffe: What was it like being Jewish in Russia?
Iakov: Not easy. Being Jewish in the former Soviet Union was treated as an ethnic origin, not a religion. I recall hiding in the alleys getting to the hidden synagogue to kasher a chicken for my grandparents. I had to be very careful not to be seen because I could have been expelled from school. I would indeed fight for my Judaism if it became necessary. Here we belong to Temple Sinai, where the twins were b’nai mitzvahed.
Jaffe: Did you notice that your children as infants were particularly bright?
Iakov: I recall when they were infants that they had a good understanding of instructions and were obedient when told not to get into anything, for example.
Jaffe: So Maria, what was it like being at Pace? Did you fit into the debutante society crowd?
Maria: We started in pre-first and found very cordial, accepting groups. Pace has a large Jewish population, so we fit right in.
Jaffe: As fraternal twins, do you feel any exceptional telepathy? Or are you competitive?
Maria: We can understand and predict each other’s jokes. Being competitive is exhausting. No room for that.
Iakov: Maria is adept in languages: Spanish and English. Also math and science. Mark, especially math and science.
Jaffe: Was being valedictorian a goal or surprise for you?
Mark: It was not a conscious goal, but I put a lot of effort into it and knew I was in a good position to finish at the top. I got the call from the head of Upper School seven days prior to graduation. Thus, I had a week to create the speech.
Jaffe: What was the topic? Did any book influence you?
Mark: Change! That is the nature of the world in which we live. Do not underestimate how much things change, make your own change, and savor every moment because things will change. My favorite book was “Brave New World,” but it didn’t really influence my speech.
Jaffe: What about you?
Maria: My favorite books were “One Hundred Years of Solitude” and “White Oleander.” I am entering Northwestern in liberal arts/premed, so I plan to land as a physician. But I also LOVE to write and hope to create a screenplay one day.
Jaffe: Why do you think you were voted class clown by your peers?
Maria: I am very lighthearted and love to joke around. I feel like I have a pretty unique perspective on many things. My college essay reflected this topic: “I’m a Turducken,” a humorous term for a Thanksgiving hybrid turkey-duck-chicken.”
Jaffe: What was it like to have Robert Downey Jr., the highest-paid actor in America, as your commencement speaker?
Mark: His journey from addiction, prison and move forward is inspiring. The talk, however, was all over the place. He spoke extemporaneously but made it local by referring to a recent Atlanta Business Chronicle article about Pace.
Maria: He was funny but hard to focus. He was in a fancy suit along with studded sneakers and graciously took a picture with every graduate.
Jaffe: What do you do for fun?
Maria: We like to stay active and hang out with friends, though this summer we are working at different pizza restaurants.
Mark: I’m a foodie and love the Food and Travel channels. I’m enjoying seeing the kitchen from behind the scenes.
Jaffe: What’s your fav in Atlanta?
Mark: Co’m on Buford Highway.
Maria: Yakitori Jinbei on Cobb Parkway.
Jaffe: You are indeed international.