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!
  • British Jews are having their 'Open Hillel' moment. Do you think Israel advocacy on campus runs the risk of excluding some Jewish students?
  • "What I didn’t realize before my trip was that I would leave Uganda with a powerful mandate on my shoulders — almost as if I had personally left Egypt."
  • Is it better to have a young, fresh rabbi, or a rabbi who stays with the same congregation for a long time? What do you think?
  • Why does the leader of Israel's social protest movement now work in a beauty parlor instead of the Knesset?
  • What's it like to be Chagall's granddaughter?
  • Is pot kosher for Passover. The rabbis say no, especially for Ashkenazi Jews. And it doesn't matter if its the unofficial Pot Day of April 20.
  • A Ukrainian rabbi says he thinks the leaflets ordering Jews in restive Donetsk to 'register' were a hoax. But the disturbing story still won't die.
  • Some snacks to help you get through the second half of Passover.
  • You wouldn't think that a Soviet-Jewish immigrant would find much in common with Gabriel Garcia Marquez. But the famed novelist once helped one man find his first love. http://jd.fo/f3JiS
  • Can you relate?
  • The Forverts' "Bintel Brief" advice column ran for more than 65 years. Now it's getting a second life — as a cartoon.
  • Half of this Hillel's members believe Jesus was the Messiah.
  • Vinyl isn't just for hipsters and hippies. Israeli photographer Eilan Paz documents the most astonishing record collections from around the world:http://jd.fo/g3IyM
  • Could Spider-Man be Jewish? Andrew Garfield thinks so.
  • Most tasteless video ever? A new video shows Jesus Christ dying at Auschwitz.
  • 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.