A Backpack, a Bear, and Eight Crates of Vodka: A Memoir. By Lev Golinkin (Doubleday).
Panic in a Suitcase. By Yelena Akhtiorskaya (Riverhead Books).
Lena Finkle’s Magic Barrel: A Graphic Novel. By Anya Ulinich (Penguin).
How do you sum up the difference between America and the former Soviet Union? Think parades: “Macy’s has balloons. We had intercontinental ballistic missiles rolling through Red Square,” Lev Golinkin writes in his funny and harrowing memoir of leaving Russia for America, “A Backpack, a Bear, and Eight Crates of Vodka.”
Golinkin, who was born in 1980 in Kharkov, Ukraine, provides a spot-on chronicle of the hazards of growing up Jewish at the end of the Communist era. His older sister Lina is barred from applying to medical school because, he writes, “too many zhidi were getting straight A’s.” Zhid, he explains was the anti-Semitic slur of choice, and defines it as “more than a nasty Jew; it was the term of an epidemic, a sinister cancer that many Russians felt was raving their country.” His parents lobby to enroll him in the city’s least anti-Semitic elementary school, which he sarcastically describes as meaning that he will be subjected only to “the gentlest, most understanding beatings that a Jew could get.” Even his one-time best friend drops him because he’s a Jew. And yet because religion and religious teaching have been banned as anti-Communist, Golinkin knows almost nothing about being Jewish, save for the ethnic hatred he encounters and the few sheets of matzah his father manages to smuggle into the household each Passover. Before long, just looking in the mirror — and seeing what he judges to be his Jewish face — inspires in the youthful Golinkin a deep self-hatred. By second grade he is plaintively asking his mother, “if it was possible to stop being a Jew.”
That is when his parents decide to risk everything by applying for an exit visa, as part of the growing wave of Soviet Jews seeking to emigrate. For anyone who has forgotten (or is not familiar with) this chapter of Soviet Jewry, Golinkin details the hardships in full. Branded with the double stigma of being Jews and “Refuseniks” (the term for applicants refused permission to emigrate), the family confronts obstacles at every stage of the journey, starting with threats to veto Lina’s application and on up to traumatic, humiliating searches at the Soviet border.
Yet despite the fact that their Jewish heritage is what allows them to leave, they reject Israel in favor of the United States, and when they do arrive they distance themselves from the American Jewish community. Indeed, when he applies to college, Golinkin has a single, over-riding criterion: that they not have a Jewish studies major.
Having experienced it himself, Golinkin is particularly insightful about the inbred ambivalence towards Judaism evinced by so many Jews from the former Soviet Union: “The vast majority of ex-Soviet Jews did not, to put it bluntly, want to be Jewish,” Golinkin writes. The reason, he continues, is that Judaism “had for so long been nothing but a dangerous liability. Overcoming our ethnicity was a matter of preservation; it had been branded onto our souls.”
And yet Golinkin himself does ultimately come to accept his Judaism, realizing that he must learn to face himself in the mirror with pride, not shame. Unfortunately, this last part of Golinkin’s journey is less detailed, more elusive than the rest of his narrative. Even so, his compelling account does more than bear witness to the traumas encountered by so many other former citizens of the Soviet Union who now live — and write — here. By taking us inside his and his family’s mindset, he also helps bridge the gap in understanding between distinct cultures that are nonetheless connected in so many ways.
In her debut novel, “Panic in a Suitcase,” 25-year-old Yelena Akhtrioskaya introduces us to a dysfunctional family that originated in Odessa but whose sardonic exchanges put me in mind of a zany Jewish-Soviet-American send-up of Chekhov. Indeed, the fast-and-furious dialogue is so swift and biting, and Akhtrioskaya’s characters so idiosyncratically oddball, I have no doubt she would succeed as well on the stage as she does on the page.
The action opens on a hot summer day in the early 1990s with the arrival of the neurotic Russian poet Pasha Nasmertov (who has, on a whim, converted from a Judaism he knows little about in favor of the Russian Orthodox religion which he probably knows even less about) for a month-long visit to the Brighton Beach home of his parents Esther and Robert, sister and brother-in-law Marina and Levik and niece Frida. It’s a try-out of sorts, to persuade Pasha to join them in their émigré existence in a new land that has yet to free them from their old country ways. As Akhtrioskaya writes, “Pasha’s first impression had been horror. Filth, dreariness … didn’t bother him, but five gastronoms in a row called Odessa did.” The visit is a comic disaster, including one of the worst family vacations imaginable, a jaunt to Lake George where family members manage to sink the oars rather than row with them.
The visit a debacle, Pasha decides to remain in place in Odessa. Meanwhile, the new Americans strive to improve their financial status — that is, when they’re not playing pranks that are, depending on your point of view, either a former Soviet citizen’s working class revenge or just mean spirited. Unhappily working as a maid for chasidic families in Borough Park, Marina gets herself fired when she treats her boss’s little boy to a slice of pepperoni pizza. Subsequently, Frida double-crosses her parents when she quits medical school to make a reverse journey to visit — and possibly stay in — Odessa.
The novel’s title is an apt metaphor for this family in flux across continents. For them, a suitcase of any size can’t help but inspire panic. Whether one decides to stay or to go, anxiety and uncertainty abound about the destination ahead, regret about what remains behind; a melancholy outlook equates the émigré experience with the disconnects of modern life.
Constructed as a series of linked sketches, the novel by its end seems to run out of gas rather than reach a destination. But the stops along the way provide an amusingly off-kilter glimpse of a family lost in transition, with jokes aplenty tinged with an authentic Russian Borscht Belt attitude.
In her highly entertaining graphic novel, “Lena Finkle’s Magic Barrel,” Anya Ulinich pays an obvious tribute to Bernard Malamud’s classic short story, “The Magic Barrel,” but she owes equally large debts to TV’s “Sex in the City” and Erica Jong’s “Fear of Flying.” Like Malamud’s Depression-era rabbinical student Leon Finkle, Ulinich’s Russian émigré single mother Lena Finkle becomes a fool for love, aching after a romantically idealized partner who can only exist in imagination. The update has a clever twist: Malamud’s Finkle falls prey to the machinations of a cagey old-fashioned matchmaker from the Lower East Side; Ulinich’s Finkle, living in hipster Brooklyn, has her life turned upside down when she discovers the online dating and modern-day matchmaking website OK Cupid.
It’s a witty conceit, smartly executed with equal parts racy humor and bittersweet melancholy. Ulinich invests her soulful protagonist with a backstory of two unhappy marriages and a romanticized memory of the high school boy friend she left behind in Moscow when she and her parents departed for America.
Similar to the characters in “Panic in a Suitcase,” Lena and her family identify themselves as Jews but have little more than a residual feeling for or knowledge of Judaism. For Lena, the main connection appears to be the writings of Bernard Malamud and Philip Roth, and Ulinich uses those allusions to great effect. Lena’s quest to leave behind her self-confessed immigrant baggage of sexual timidity leads to down-and-dirty escapades that are at once laugh-out-loud funny and unbearably sad. As an artist, Ulinich gives Brooklyn a gritty look and sketches the scenes in Russia with a melancholic touch of noir. Her most imaginative visual effect is the creation of a Tinkerbelle size mini-Lena who chimes in regularly as a questioning conscience and moral compass.
Malamud’s story concludes with Leon Finkle caught in romantic limbo, with the suggestion of more heartache ahead. By contrast, Leon and Lena’s shared yearning for love suggests that even though they live in different eras, their plights and goals are perhaps not so dissimilar, after all.
Diane Cole is the author of the memoir “After Great Pain: A New Life Emerges” and writes regularly for The Wall Street Journal among other publications.