For novelist Gary Shteyngart, whose family fled Soviet antisemitism for the United States in 1979, the problem with American Judaism came down to one thing: salami.
“One of my most moving memories from childhood is going to Hebrew school in Queens, where they wouldn’t allow meat products, and sneaking in this pork salami,” Shteyngart said recently in an interview with the Forward. “And it wasn’t just me, it was other Russians, going to the bathroom, away from the prying eyes of the mullahs, and eating this wonderful salami. Everyone had to eat dairy lunches, like challah with cream cheese, and as a young child I thought: How the hell could people live like this?”
The Soviet Jews who immigrated to the United States in the last several decades frequently failed to identify with American Judaism, as its emphasis on religious doctrine, communal affiliation and activism alienated a group that, in the Soviet Union, risked imprisonment for excessive displays of piety. Many of these émigrés, however, possessed a profound sense of Jewish identity, albeit a devoutly secular one. In the last few years, several have channeled that sensibility in a series of novels and short-story collections that have resonated far beyond the Jewish community and established literature as a natural home for the conflicted emotions of Soviet Jewry.
“They carry a burden, but the burden allows them to see through the brand-new identity [that] it’s too easy to acquire in the New World, and also through false nostalgia,” said Donald
Weber, who runs the English department at Mount Holyoke College and has written widely on the new Soviet-Jewish fiction. “The experience requires expression. The last generation of Jewish American immigrants went into entertainment. This generation had to write.”
For these émigrés, as fiction about their experiences insists, observance is hardly a requirement of Jewish identity. “The most important thing to convey about the Russian Jewish experience is that Russian Jews are Jews, too,” Lara Vapnyar, the Moscow-born author of the short-story collection “There Are Jews in My House” (Pantheon, 2003) and a mainstay of The New Yorker’s fiction pages, wrote in an e-mail. “Even though they know nothing or next to nothing about Jewish religion or culture, even though they can’t answer the question what it is that makes them Jewish; they are Jewish, they have suffered for being Jewish; they are proud to be Jewish.”
“If you come from Russia, you’re not like an American Jew. You don’t have to think twice, you know who you are,” said Shteyngart, whose debut novel, “The Russian Debutante’s Handbook” (Riverhead Books, 2002), chronicled a Russian-Jewish immigrant’s misadventures in assimilation and garnered numerous awards. “In Russia, it’s Jew, Jew, Jew. Having Jewish characters was second nature to me…. But Judaism is not a mission and not a religion. It’s an identity.”
The Soviet Union, by denying integration to its Jewish citizens — Soviet Jews endured discrimination in every conceivable setting, from courts to grocery stores, and passports required disclosure of “nationality” — also denied many Jews the opportunity to fall away from their religion. Soviet Jews, many of whom idolized Russian culture and felt the dimmest of obligations to their “nationalities,” found themselves forced to retain an acute consciousness of their Jewishness.
“When we came here, the American Jews were like, ‘We saved you! Now you’re free to be Jewish!’” said Keith Gessen, who emigrated from Moscow in 1981 and now runs n + 1, a literary and political journal. “And we were like, ‘Well, we’ve been Jewish.’”
And so is the émigré fiction, even though its sensibility is as distinct from the American Jewish tradition as Gessen’s family was. There are few soul-searching rabbis or disquisitions on female modesty in these novels and stories, but rather characters battling with a sense of Jewishness as the guarantor of perpetual victimhood (Shteyngart), or as the cause of baseless prejudice (Vapnyar) — cultural and ethnic accoutrements of Jewish identity that steer clear of synagogue and Scripture.
In “Minyan,” a short story by Toronto-based émigré David Bezmozgis — whose collection, “Natasha and Other Stories,” was the lead title for the venerable publishing house Farrar, Straus and Giroux this summer — Jewishness is primarily understood as the impulse to humanitarianism, even if the story concerns a makeshift synagogue.
“The beauty of the Russian-Jewish experience is its sense of narrative,” Shteyngart said. “These are ready-made stories, much better than the way Americans tell theirs. There’s a punch line, there’s revenge, someone always gets hurt. And that’s also where my attachment to writing comes from: I am them, too.”
However, the compulsion to channel a distinctly Russian-Jewish sensibility — and the license to do so in a land that finally permits it — is a burden as much as a liberation. “If I breed,” Shteyngart continued, “I’d want to make sure that the anger and anxiety — like for my parents, that constant feeling of being under attack, by the government, by non-Jewish co-workers, by people on the tram — has been written out of me. I wouldn’t want this to continue for another generation. It’s in the blood, but it requires dialysis.”
Bezmozgis experienced similar dissonance, though in straining to keep from erring in the opposite direction. “I wanted to write a book that respects the experience that our parents’ generation went through,” he said. “What they had to overcome, it’s incredible, and the extent to which they’ve succeeded is remarkable…. That’s not to say they’re idealized. The totality of it is people are good and bad at the same time. Rather than doing hagiography, which I wouldn’t want to do with this community, my challenge was how do you express affection for these people without being simplistic.”
Some believe that the nonlinearity and open-endedness of literature — unlike more results-oriented enterprises, such as activism — make it an ideal venue for the ambivalence peculiar to the Soviet-Jewish experience.
“I think Shteyngart, Bezmozgis and Vapnyar write because it allows them a distance,” said Jim Rutman, a literary agent who emigrated from Kiev when he was 6. “Activism would be an admission that you’ve reconciled your experience — or, alternately, stopped trying to do so altogether.”
The traditional Russian notion of literature as the repository of truth and conscience maintains as much of a claim on these writers as the predicaments of Soviet Jews. “That was the heroic thing to do for our parents’ generation,” Gessen said. “To be a dissident, to be a political person, meant you spoke the truth. It didn’t mean you went to knock on doors and that sort of political activism. You wrote the truth, and that was enough.”