Off the Shelf: Soviet Jews in Russia and the US

By Rabbi Rachel Esserman

Post-Soviet Union Jewish identity: is there such a thing? It’s difficult to come up with a specific name for those who once lived in what is now the former U.S.S.R.: Soviet Jews, Russian Jews, or Jews-whose-identity-card-may-have-said-they-were-Jewish-but-who-don’t-accept-that-designation. Different people fit each possibility, and sometimes a person’s identity fits into more than one category. Two new works of fiction don’t answer this question, but rather give readers even more ways to think about the problem. Mikhail Iossel’s “Love Like Water, Love Like Fire” (Bellevue Literary Press) offers short stories, many of which take place in the former Soviet Union, while the characters in Zhanna Slor’s novel “At the End of the World” (Agora Books/Polis Books) live in the United States and Israel. 

In his short stories, Iossel plays with form: while some stories are straight narrative, others use different means to portray the characters/events. For example, the six pages of “Some of the World Transactions My Father Has Missed Due to His Death on September 14, 1999” combine simple sentences noting political and cultural events and family milestones. Interspersed with these sentences are quotes about death, including different writers’ final words or their thoughts about death. While each individual element doesn’t have much impact on its own, together they make a powerful statement about the author’s sense of loss.

In “Necessary Evil,” the author makes clear the problem of being Jewish in the former Soviet Union. The narrator of the story is not yet 10 years old, but his family has decided it’s time to reveal a bitter truth: he is Jewish. The narrator is shocked because Soviet culture has taught him that Jews are evil, greedy traitors who harm their fellow Russians. How can he be Jewish and, if he is, does that mean he’s evil? The debate between him and his parents about his identity only seems to complicate matters. Although the end of the story felt a bit odd on first read, it made more sense in retrospect.

Casual antisemitism appears in “Flying Crane.” The narrator and his family have moved into a new apartment. Most of the story tells of life in their previous cramped housing and the narrator’s introduction to those who live in the new building. However, the first words he hears from two old women sitting in the courtyard concern whether he is Jewish, along with the suggestion that if Hitler and Stalin were alive, they would have gotten rid of any troublesome Jews. 

The author also writes about family: In “April 1st, Sunset Hour,” the narrator talks about walking through Leningrad with his grandmother, a story which takes a surprisingly moving turn at its end. During “Moscow Windows,” the narrator talks about the difference between his hometown Leningrad and the Moscow in which his grandparents live. Underlying this story and others is the precarious balance of personal life and politics that any Soviet Jew must walk to stay alive.

All 20 stories in “Love Like Water, Love Like Fire” were well written, although readers might sometimes lose patience with the author’s run-on sentences. The temptation to tell the narrator “to stop and take a breath” is offset by the fact that these sentences fit the nature of the story. Even when readers will be tempted to roll their eyes at the characters’ beliefs (particularly that of the grandfather who never loses his fervent faith in communism), the author’s sense of humor – and his knowledge of the absurdities found in Soviet life – make these stories worth reading. 

While the majority of Iossel’s stories take place in the former Soviet Union, Slor’s novel is located in the United States during the first decade of the 21st century. Masha, who is in her mid-20s, emigrated with her family to Milwaukee from the former Soviet Union when she was 9. Feeling uncomfortable in a city with so few Jews, Misha hid her religious identity – that is until she took a Birthright trip to Israel. There she finally felt at home – part of a real community – and has since become more observant since making aliyah. However, her balance is threatened when her father calls her home, saying that her younger sister Anna has gone missing. When Masha returns to Milwaukee, she learns there is far more to the story than she originally suspected.

The narration rotates between the two sisters, but Anna’s story begins a year earlier when she is contacted online by a woman from Russia who claims to be her half-sister. Anna is in college – she’s the good daughter who does what her parents want – but she is unhappy because she gave up painting in order to take classes her parents feel will lead to a real job. Anna, who doesn’t remember as much of their life in Russia, also wants to know more about the past and the Russian heritage that her parents have turned their backs on.

When searching for Anna, Masha has to revisit her own past, her life in Milwaukee that she hoped to leave permanently behind. She also learns of the mysterious possible half-sister, a person her father refuses to discuss. In addition, Masha discovers that Anna may have been involved with someone whose actions could get her in serious trouble. 

The author of “At the End of the World” does an excellent job portraying the difference between Masha and Anna’s experiences in the U.S. and those of their parents. Masha’s love of language added depth to her character and will please those with a love of language. The plot is absorbing and intriguing, leaving readers curious to discover how the sisters’ dilemmas will be resolved.