Welcome Back, Shteyngart

By Gabriel Sanders

Published January 19, 2007, issue of January 19, 2007.
  • Print
  • Share Share

In the opening pages of his first novel, “The Russian Debutante’s Handbook,” Gary Shteyngart has his ne’er-do-well protagonist slaving away at the dreary headquarters of a New York immigrant aid society where the “yellow water-stained walls and dying hydrangeas” offer all the charm of “a sad Third World government office.”

Shteyngart, whose second novel, “Absurdistan,” was named one of the top 10 books of 2006 by The New York Times, has proved himself to be a writer of great verve and skill, but a quick glance at his employment history — which has included stints at the New York Association for New Americans and at the Lower East Side’s Educational Alliance — will show that in describing the offices of grim not-for-profit organizations, he hasn’t had to tax his imagination all that much.

Shteyngart’s early days in the work force were among the topics of discussion last week when, for the first time since making it big, the writer made his way back to the Educational Alliance’s flagship community center — just a few doors down from the Forward’s onetime home — for a reading and reception.

The Educational Alliance, which has been serving the cultural and recreational needs of the Lower East Side’s immigrant community since 1891, did its best to make Shteyngart, himself an immigrant from St. Petersburg, feel at home. Along with enough vodka to drown a small city’s sorrows, the pre-reading reception included beet and egg canapés, which stained both napkins and fingertips a deep Soviet red.

When it came time for him to speak, Shteyngart was gracious. The Educational Alliance, he said, had helped instill in him a love for the Lower East Side — “one of the few real neighborhoods left in Manhattan” — and was also kind enough never to have fired him.

After his preliminary remarks were through, the guest of honor launched into a rollicking passage from “Absurdistan” about a back-alley adult bris carried out by an overzealous band of Hasidic circumcisers.

The crowd loved it.

After a particularly ribald turn of phrase and a correspondingly big laugh, the conquering hero looked up from his text and, with a charming mix of modesty and wonder, said, “I can’t believe I actually wrote this.”






Find us on Facebook!
  • “I don’t want to say, ‘Oh oh, I’m not Jewish,’ because when you say that, you sound like someone trying to get into a 1950s country club, “and I love the idea of being Jewish." Are you a fan of Seth Meyers?
  • "If you want my advice: more Palestinians, more checkpoints, just more reality." What do you think?
  • Happy birthday Barbra Streisand! Our favorite Funny Girl turns 72 today.
  • Clueless parenting advice from the star of "Clueless."
  • Why won't the city give an answer?
  • BREAKING NEWS: Israel has officially suspended peace talks with the Palestinians.
  • Can you guess what the most boring job in the army is?
  • What the foolish rabbi of Chelm teaches us about Israel and the Palestinian unity deal:
  • Mazel tov to Idina Menzel on making Variety "Power of Women" cover! http://jd.fo/f3Mms
  • "How much should I expect him and/or ask him to participate? Is it enough to have one parent reciting the prayers and observing the holidays?" What do you think?
  • New York and Montreal have been at odds for far too long. Stop the bagel wars, sign our bagel peace treaty!
  • Really, can you blame them?
  • “How I Stopped Hating Women of the Wall and Started Talking to My Mother.” Will you see it?
  • Taglit-Birthright Israel is redefining who they consider "Jewish" after a 17% drop in registration from 2011-2013. Is the "propaganda tag" keeping young people away?
  • Happy birthday William Shakespeare! Turns out, the Bard knew quite a bit about Jews.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.