Guest post by Joanna Rothenberg
I began working at Spertus Institute in March, which marks this fall as my first foray into One Book | One Community, Chicago’s celebration of Jewish Book Month. Lev Golinkin’s A Backpack, a Bear, and Eight Crates of Vodka was the 2015 selection, and for me, there could not have been a better choice.
Unlike many of my coworkers at Spertus, I was born in the 1990s, making Soviet Russia feel about as real to me as the Civil War -- important history, certainly, but not something that I personally connect with. Most of what I knew about the Soviet Union and United States relations could be traced to the “Miracle on Ice.”
But Lev’s book opened a different door, one not about hockey, but about the exodus of Soviet Jews, an issue I knew very little about and I thirsted to learn more, asking my parents and grandmother about their memories.
He made it relatable. He wrote from the perspective of a child, a child who – in spite of leaving everything he knew behind -- was excited to avoid school for a few months, excited for the next step in this grand adventure with his teddy bear at his side.
When I was given the opportunity to interview Golinkin, I jumped at the chance. I can honestly say the spirit in his book reflects the kind of person Lev is -- sarcastic, smart, and passionate about political issues both then and now. (You can read his opinion on Syrian refugees in Salon.) I can’t wait to meet him here in December.
Below is an excerpt of our discussion.
Spertus: How does it feel to have the book selected for Chicago's One Book project?
Lev Golinkin: Before I started to write, I put together a proposal that included a marketing analysis, addressing who is this book for?
My dream audiences were college students, American Jews and book clubs. Through “One Book,” I'm reaching my target audiences. It's humbling, especially considering that this is a very personal book for me. I'm reaching out not just as a writer but as someone whose life has been heavily shaped by the American Jewish community and the Midwest.
I'm sure this has been a pretty hectic year for you. What has it been like since the book was published?
It's been interesting. The book came out last November. It feels like my publicist put me in a chair one day and started to slowly spin it, spinning me a little faster every day. For me, looking at the book on the shelf -- after working on it for eight years -- is still strange. It's even stranger talking to people who read the book.
There have been cool little moments where I realize I'm a writer -- like contacting a newspaper or a magazine and have them actually email me back.
Your family members are key characters in the book. Do your parents agree with the way you portrayed their experiences?
I was very careful to make sure that was the case. Because my family members are not just characters, they're people with my cellphone number, who know how to guilt me into things.
Overall, my parents really liked the book. There were places where they requested I make minor changes, such as the name of my teacher from the Soviet school. I portrayed my teacher as I remembered her, including the use of her real name, but my mom said I had to change it because "She was the good one. We lobbied to get you into her class because she was known for being nice towards Jews." I shuddered and immediately called my editor saying we had to change the name to protect her.
Even my sister, whom I'd bet wouldn't read the book, liked it. I did agree to change her name, but refused the name she suggested. She said, "I want my name to be Abigail." Can you imagine Lev, Svetlana, Samuel, and ... Abigail? That wasn't going to happen.
Do you see parallels between your story and refugees today?
I see what these people [those coming from Syria and North Africa] are going through and it's surreal. Twenty-five years ago, that was my family. In comparison, our circumstances were easy. We had people who took responsibility for us, like those from HIAS and the Joint [the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee]. And behind those organizations was the political will, money, and passion of the American Jews.
I'm terrified that the refugees today are coming with nothing and no one is taking responsibility for them.
Do you still have Comrade Bear?
Yes. But he doesn't travel with me anymore.
Want to meet Lev Golinkin in person? Visit spertus.edu/OneBook for tickets to one of his two Dec. 6 appearances, the first in Highland Park and the second at Spertus.