Book Review: Russian American Jews in fact and fiction

By: Rabbi Rachel Esserman

Some immigrants who came to the United States as children feel torn between two cultures. This seems to be especially true for Russian Jews. Are they American or Russian? Defining their own identity seems extremely difficult, at least according to works they publish. Two recent explorations of this problem can be found in Boris Fishman’s nonfiction “Savage Feast: Three Generations, Two Continents, and a Dinner Table (A Memoir with Recipes)” (Harper) and Maria Kuznetsova’s novel “Oksana, Behave!” (Spiegel and Grau).
Fishman, the author of two novels*, wants to better understand his Russian inheritance, particularly his inability to withstand being hungry. He knows why his grandparents feel that way: they suffered through World War II and the Soviet years when food was scarce. Yet, why does he feel the same? He notes that even before they emigrated, his family always made certain he had enough to eat – giving him food before they would themselves eat. At age 9, he arrived in the United States where there was always enough food. Although this question is never completely answered, Fishman does come to understand more about how his grandparents – particularly his grandfather – influenced his life.
Fishman’s family may have left the Soviet Union because of their religion, but they had little to no connection to Judaism before or after their emigration: “We, like most Soviet people, genuinely regarded religion as a mindless cult. The activists on both sides of the Iron Curtain who fought so hard for our release were impelled by the injustice of the discrimination people like us endured no matter how much we tried to blend in. But we weren’t emigrating for the freedom to worship. Ours was a ‘salami immigration,’ as people called it – all we wanted was the freedom to make money.” That means Fishman’s parents don’t understand why he wants to be a writer, rather than a doctor, lawyer or some other financially secure profession. The arts are not something to which most of this population aspires.
After writing about his family’s move to the U.S., the memoir ignores most of Fishman’s early life – jumping from 1988 to 2005 and beyond. This section mostly focuses on Fishman’s relationship to his grandfather, which is not an easy one. The author is torn between spending time with him and staying as far from his influence as possible. However, Fishman does increase his visits after his grandfather has a new non-Jewish, Ukrainian home aid, Oksana. Oksana’s cooking sends Fishman on a search to feel more comfortable in his own skin – particularly after he falls into a severe depression. He even travels with Oksana to her home in Ukraine, in addition to working in a restaurant kitchen and on a farm. All this leads him to a better understanding of himself, which includes his learning to cook some of the Russian/Ukranian recipes for himself. What Fishman finally discovers is that “you don’t have to go all Russian or all American. You can pick and choose.”
It’s not always easy to follow Fishman’s thoughts and decisions, although that may be because he doesn’t always seem to completely understand exactly what occurred himself. Or, perhaps, real life is more difficult to write about than fiction. His memoir also includes recipes mentioned in the course of the memoir. (Readers should note that many of them are not kosher.) While enjoyable on the whole, “Savage Feast” left me hungry to know more.
While Fishman came to the U.S. in 1988, Oksana, the narrator of Kuznetsova’s novel, arrived in America in 1992 when she was 7. Oksana’s behavior is problematic throughout her life: she always seems to be misbehaving, even when she’s trying not to do anything wrong. Her family’s move to the U.S. is difficult. Her non-Jewish father is always thinking about the good parts of his life in Kiev while her Jewish mother ignores him because, as Oksana notes, “everything had been easier for him in Kiev than it was for her.” Her father’s mother lives with them and rooms with Oksana, a situation that creates its own problems.
Oksana is not particularly fond of her parents: she believes they keep trying to have more children because they want to replace her. In the end, she has only one sibling: a younger brother of whom she is fond. Readers won’t blame her parents for some of their exasperation, for example, when she calls 911 and claims her grandmother is trying to kill her. Her mother’s expressions after moments like this are quite funny: “‘Dearest God that I don’t believe in,” she said. ‘Tell me what I have done to deserve this child? Did I commit murder in a past life I don’t believe in? Genocide? Was I Stalin? Did I smother a litter of puppies?’”
The chapters skip over large periods of Oksana’s life, which means that sometimes important events are mentioned only after they occurred. What is clear is that Oksana never feels completely comfortable in her own skin. Whether this is caused completely by her move to the U.S. is questionable since it also seems part of her basic nature. Even as she matures, Oksana makes unwise decisions. At one point, her grandmother tells her why she has so many problems in life: “You expect life to be this incredible romp, and then you get crushed when the slightest thing goes wrong. Life will throw you things harder than you imagined, and how will you deal with them when you are afraid of a jellyfish or a dumb bird?” Yet, Oksana comes to understand she is more like her grandmother than she thought.
Oksana is not always a particularly likeable character, although she is an interesting one. The question becomes whether she can find peace and connection without making decisions she will come to regret. Since her desire to write mirrors that of the author, readers can only hope Oksana has the same success.
* To see The Reporter’s reviews of Fishman’s novels, visit www.thereportergroup.org/Article.aspx?aID=3650 and http://thereportergroup.org/Article.aspx?aID=4429.)