For the fifth year in a row, Chicago's Jewish community will mark Jewish Book Month with One Book, One Community , in which a single book is selected as the focus of discussions and activities throughout the city and suburbs.
This year's book is A Backpack, a Bear, and Eight Crates of Vodka , a darkly comic memoir with two intertwined journeys, written by debut author Lev Golinkin.
Golinkin, a graduate of Boston College who now lives in New Jersey, was born in Kharkov, Ukraine, in 1980. At the time — during the final decade of the Soviet Union — antisemitism pervaded Soviet life. When immigration was made briefly possible due to international pressure, his family risked everything to make a new life for Lev and his sister. Thus the book's first journey is a tale of escape, told from the droll perspective of a nine-year-old caught in the last gasp of the Soviet Empire.
Years later, Lev, now an adult just out of college and poised to attend medical school, finds himself uncertain about his future. At the suggestion of his advisor, he sets out on a second journey, this time to retrace his family's odyssey as refugees. To offer his thanks, he locates the strangers who fought for his family's freedom and helped them begin a new chapter in a new land.
Although A Backpack, a Bear, and Eight Crates of Vodka is Golinkin's first book, reviewers have praised his ability to find biting humor and emotional truth in the trying episodes of his childhood. The New York Times called the book, "a hilarious and heartbreaking story of a Jewish family's escape from oppression... whose drama, hope and heartache Mr. Golinkin captures brilliantly." The Wall Street Journal said Golinkin "manages to capture at a visceral level the feelings of many of the million Soviet Jews who left their homeland at the Cold War's end."
In conjunction with One Book | One Community, Spertus Institute for Jewish Learning and Leadership will again spearhead community events, with a series of programs beginning in October about Jewish life in the former Soviet Union. (Mark your calendar for Sunday, December 6. Capping the program series, author Lev Golinkin will make two area appearances, one at North Suburban Synagogue Beth El in Highland Park and the second, a celebration tied to the start of Hanukkah, at Spertus Institute.) You can sign up at spertus.edu/OneBook to receive program information and be eligible for book giveaways.
When the Golinkin family left the former USSR, they did so as part of a wave of more than a million Jewish emigrants. Of those, it is estimated that 325,000 came to America. Like the Golinkins, many families were assisted by HIAS(the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society), both during stopovers in Europe (often in Austria and Italy, some lasting months) and as they settled into new lives. HIAS runs a fascinating website—which you can find at mystory.hias.org—with videos of Soviet Jewish immigrants recounting their own stories.
Two authors are among those featured on the HIAS site, Gary Shteyngart and David Bezmozgis. Like Lev Golinkin and an impressive contingent of other writers, their experiences as Jewish immigrants from Soviet Russia has found its way into (and in some cases, inspired) their writing.
These authors' memoirs and novels are personal and often unflinching remembrances from the time of Perestroika and Glasnost. They are also are part of a long and important tradition of Jewish immigrant writing. Here are some to explore.
If the team of young Soviet Jewish writers had a captain, it would be Gary Shteyngart, the most well-known of the bunch. He has written several novels that mine his Russian background for characters, side-splitting humor, and wicked story twists. But in his fourth book, Little Failure: A Memoir, he lays out the truth (as he sees it) of his own American immigrant experience. The book was named a best book of the year by publications including the New York Times, Washington Post, and The New Yorker.
In his debut novel The Free World, David Bezmozgis uses his own family's emigration from Latvia as a foundation for a complex intergenerational tale. Named a New York Times Notable Book and one of the Globe and Mail's Best Books of the Year for 2011.
Formerly a teacher and assistant principal, Nadia Kalman now works as a writer-in-the-schools with Teachers and Writers Collaborative in New York City. In The Cosmopolitans, she mischievously conjures the Molochniks, a Jewish family who fled the Soviet Union and landed in Stamford, Connecticut (just like her own family did).
In 2014, the National Book Foundation named Yelena Akhtiorskaya a "5 Under 35" honoree. Her debut novel, Panic in a Suitcase, tells the story of the Nasmertovs, who left Odessa for Brighton Beach, Brooklyn. NPR called it a "uniquely American work of fiction... a testament to Akhtiorskaya's wit, generosity, and immense talent as a young American author."