This collection of short stories by David Bezmozgis, an immigrant to Canada from the USSR left me wanting to read his novel, The Free World. They are sharp, witty, poignant, and sometimes very disturbing, all focusing on the experience of Russian Jewish transplants to the New World of Toronto.
All the stories are from the viewpoint of Mark Berman, starting when he is about six years old, and in a typical childhood lapse of responsibility, he brings not-quite-mock tragedy to a neighbor by letting her dog run loose, from which a serious injury follows. A little later in life, Mark is a discipline problem in the Hebrew school he attends, a place from which he would gladly get expelled so he could go to the regular public school, but for the trauma it would bring his parents, or his mother, at least. Unlike many Russian immigrant Jews I have met, these seem more concerned with maintaining themselves within the religious community. He receives a harrowing lesson in the meaning of being a Jew, at least as his rabbi conceives it, when he must repent for a disturbance to which he is party on Holocaust Memorial Day.
These stories are not solemn or pious: Mark has quite a bit of distance between himself and his religious and ethnic heritage. There is much he may reject, but he is not so foolish as to try to deny it. He finds comfort in the familiar.
I too find much in his descriptions familiar, while alien at the same time. For many years, I lived in a section of Brooklyn that was awash with Russian immigrant Jews from the Soviet Union, the last great exodus before the fall of communism. My ancestors were similar immigrants a hundred years ago or so, and I grew up hearing Yiddish spoken by the older generation, although their English was mostly regular urban American. But the experience of leaving the USSR, not the WWI era shtetl is something else again.
I recall seeing a trio of immigrants in the hallway of my apartment building in Brooklyn: the pretty young girl, skinny and trying, with some success, to be sexy with her outrageous clothing, and a pair of electric blue eyes; the mother, middle-aged, sturdy, a pretty woman, clearly enjoying the easier life in the USA, and a pair of electric blue eyes; the grand mother, a real Soviet specimen, built like a barrel, wrapped in a dull frock, her face worn and weathered, all her teeth capped in silver, her legs and ankles thick with standing in endless queues for commodities…but those same electric blue eyes! Three generations’ progress on display!
The title story of the collection finds Mark grown up to high school age, getting high constantly, and obsessed, of course, with sex and girls. His uncle marries a new immigrant, clearly a woman looking for a ticket out of the USSR and not much more, and the young cousin, Natasha, enters the family. She and her mother are a real piece of work each, two females who have been ground up into something horrifying and spit out. Though she is fourteen, she and Mark begin a regular sexual affair, one that seems to lack everything except sex. It ends abruptly as Natasha’s place in the family is thrown into doubt, just as Mark’s place in the dope-dealing and smoking social circle he has fallen into is suddenly closed to him. It would be terribly sad, except he seems to come through it okay. Natasha seems hard as iron, and will survive, but that seems the most that can be said for her.
The final story involves Mark helping his grandfather get a new apartment in a subsidized home for old immigrant Jews. Two who live there are suspected of being gay. One dies: the other, Herschel, doesn’t have title to the apartment. They weren’t married, of course – the apartment should go to someone else, a good Jew. The building is run by a rabbi, and it is his job to ensure that the tiny synagogue there has a minyan (the required ten male Jews) for services. The two gay guys always showed up, which is more than he can count on from the new seekers for the living space. What should he do? He’s besieged with requests. Mark asks what will happen to Herschel and is told:
…my job is to have ten Jewish men. Good, bad, it doesn’t matter. Ten Jewish men. Only God can judge good from bad. Here the only question is Jew or not. And now I am asked by people here who never stepped into a synagogue to do them a favor. They all have friends, relatives who need an apartment. Each and everyone a good Jew. Promises left and right about how they will come to synagogue. I’ve heard these promising before. And they say: With so many good Jews who need apartments, why should Herschel be allowed to stay? This is not my concern. My concern is ten Jewish men. if you want ten Jewish saints, good luck. You want to know what will happen to Herschel? This. They should know I don’t put a Jew who comes to synagogue in the street. Homosexuals, murderers, liars, thieves – I take them all. Without them we would never have a minyan.
Without them we would never have a minyan. Could be a slogan for life in general.