One of the most exciting chapters in modern Jewish history was the emigration of Jews from the former Soviet Union, a chapter in which Chicago's Jewish United Fund played a significant role. JUF was not alone in this, but its extraordinary advocacy, fundraising, and resettlement efforts were exemplary and a source of pride for our community.
Looking back, it was truly a remarkable, if not miraculous time. Indeed, after Mikhail Gorbachev's rise to power in 1985, an unprecedented number of Jews were allowed to leave the Soviet Union. For example, in 1990, nearly 200,000 Jews departed, representing one of the largest waves of emigration since the turn of the century. As a result, today there are more than a million Soviet Jews living in Israel, while the number in the Chicago area is approximately 40,000, according to JUF.
This large-scale emigration has spawned a growing body of high quality Soviet Jewish émigré literature. Of particular note are three recent highly acclaimed books: David Beznozgis, 'The Betrayers; Boris Fishman's A Replacement Life; and Gary Shteyngart's Little Failure. In 2014, Beznozgis received the National Jewish Book Award in fiction, while Fishman was a finalist in the same category, and Shteyngart a finalist in the autobiography, biography, and memoir category.
The Betrayers is a captivating and elegantly written story involving Baruch Kotler, a Soviet dissident, who emigrates to Israel and becomes a prominent government official. After Kotler uncompromisingly opposes the Prime Minister's plan to withdraw from a settlement bloc, his erstwhile allies publicly expose his affair with a young woman staffer. On an individual level, this thrilling tale is about betrayal: those who betrayed him, like his former roommate who turns out was a KGB informant, and those he betrayed, such as his family. The book tells the story of his struggle to both provide and seek forgiveness. On another level, it's about the harshness and dreadfulness of life under Soviet rule for ordinary people-but especially for Jews. It also compellingly touches on the painful moral dilemmas that newcomers like Kotler and his family, along with veteran Israelis face, given the nasty neighborhood that Israel inhabits.
A brilliant, funny but heartbreaking debut novel, A Replacement Life, revolves around Yevgeny Gelman, a Soviet émigré whose wife, Sonia, a Holocaust survivor, died, and his grandson, Slava, who aspires to be a serious writer. When a notification arrives from the Claims Conference ironically just days before Sonia's funeral, indicating that she is eligible for restitution payments from Germany, Yevgeny asks Slava to submit a letter on his behalf, even though he spent the war years in Uzbekistan.
At first, Slava demurs, but then agrees to send a forged letter-not only for his grandfather but also for many other Soviet émigrés who live in his grandfather's South Brooklyn neighborhood. In Fishman's hands, these fraudulent letters are a creative literary device to evoke the horrors of the Holocaust and Soviet life. At the same time, the novel raises larger philosophical questions about the true meaning-not the Nazi or Soviet inversions-of truth and justice.
Little Failure is Gary Shteyngart's humorous and poignant memoir about his journey to the United States. In telling his story, he offers penetrating and heartfelt insights on living in the Soviet Union and on adjusting to his new life in America. Especially touching and funny is Shteyngart's self-deprecating reflections on his time at the Solomon Schechter School of Queens, where his classmates terrorized him. In the end, after much mental anguish and turmoil, he overcomes his travails-psychological and otherwise-and finally feels at home in the States-and is comfortable with his identity as an American. This extraordinarily well-written book is a thoughtful, moving, and entertaining look at the triumphs and challenges of an immigrant's passage to freedom.
The large influx of Jews from the former Soviet Union since the 1980s has had a profound impact on Israeli life. It also has enriched our own community, as well as the broader United States. Among the benefits has been, as these deeply affecting books amply attest, the development of a wonderful body of outstanding literature, a must read for anyone interested in gaining a deeper understanding and appreciation of the Soviet émigré experience.
Richard D. Zelin, Ph.D. was Associate Director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of the Jewish United Fund and Director of the Chicago Conference on Soviet Jewry.