Off the Shelf: The spirit of Russia by Rabbi Rachel Esserman

Russian or Jewish, or a combination of both? That’s the question often raised in works about Russian Jews, whether they live in the former Soviet Union, the United States or Israel. In two recent novels, the emphasis often falls on the Russian aspect of their identities, even after they’ve left Mother Russia. Their Russian ethnicity is an indispensable part of their psyche – many times more important than their Jewish heritage. In the “The Nesting Dolls” (Harper), Alina Adams writes about three generations of Russian women; the characters travel from Odessa to Siberia, and back to Odessa before moving to Brighton Beach. Rochelle Distelheim looks at a Russian family’s adjustment to life in Israel when two of its three members mourn having had to leave their motherland in “Jerusalem As a Second Language” (Aubade Publishing). 

“The Nesting Dolls” actually covers five generations of women in the same family, although the main focus is on three of them: Daria; her granddaughter Natasha; and Natasha’s granddaughter Zoe. The U.S.S.R. under Stalin is not a safe place to live, especially if you are Jewish, as Daria discovers. The family – Daria, her husband, Edward, and their two daughters – are sent to Siberia for offenses against the regime. Life is hard and dangerous, especially for those who are unable to adjust to the austere and difficult life. Daria is forced to make several difficult decisions in order to protect her family – ones that have a profound effect on the next generation.

In Odessa in the 1970s, Daria’s granddaughter Natasha learns that the Soviet promise of equal opportunity based on ability is a lie, especially for Jews who are systematically discriminated against. Her close friend, Boris, finds a way to live with the unfairness of the system, while Natasha can’t adjust to what she sees as a denial of all she’s been taught. That leaves her vulnerable to a charismatic young man who tempts her to take dangerous action – action that would not only affect her life, but that of her parents and friends. Zoe, Natasha’s granddaughter, has a different kind of problem. Although she was born in the United States, she doesn’t feel truly American. Unfortunately, she is also uncomfortable with the Russian community of Brighton Beach where her parents live. Then she meets someone who might help her fit into both worlds, but is that really what her heart wants?

“The Nesting Dolls” is an accurate title for this novel, although each doll (generation) revealed offers a surprise: these women are as different as they are similar. Each section builds on what has occurred before, and Zoe’s chapters – in which no one faces a life-and-death decision – were a complete delight. The choices made in the other two sections, though, showed the depth of character of not only the women in this family, but the men who love them. Their combined decisions make this novel well worth reading.

While the family in “The Nesting Dolls” emigrated to the United States, in “Jerusalem As a Second Language,” the Zalinikovs moved to Israel in 1998, partly due to discrimination against Jews and partly due to unsafe conditions in a Russia corrupted by black marketeers and mafioso. The three members of the family – Manya and Yuir, and their daughter, Galina – have very different reactions to their new country. The previously non-religious Yuir finds himself fascinated by talmudic study, which appeals to his mathematical mind. He wants to share his new love of religion and religious life with Manya, who finds it and Reb Turrowtaub, the man with whom her husband studies, of no interest. Manya misses Russian life and looks for ways to give her life meaning in a country that doesn’t feel like home. Her biggest worry, though, is Galina. Even though Galina has been given a two-year deferment from the Israeli army, Manya makes it her mission to prevent her from ever being inducted. Galina also misses Russia; classes at the Hebrew University don’t offer enough distraction. Going to dance clubs, however, seems to offer some relief.

The Zalinikov family’s life gets more complicated when Yuri’s teacher tries to broaden the reach of his teachings by hosting a television show, the source of whose funding is questionable. Although Manya does not like Reb Turrowtaub, she discovers in his wife a kindred spirit. But religion is driving Manya and Yuir apart, rather than bringing them together, and Manya worries the man she married may be lost to her.

“Jerusalem As a Second Language” offers an interesting look at the way some Russian Jews feel more Russian than Jewish, making it difficult for them to adjust to life in another country. The author also explores how riches can tempt even the most religious, in addition to painting a portrait of Israeli life by those who have not yet adjusted to their new world.

“The Nesting Dolls” and “Jerusalem As a Second Language” are both excellent choices for book clubs because they offer a great many questions for discussion. The novels also show how, unlike some cultures and countries, Mother Russia’s influence has passed through the generations and affects even those born far from her shores. Works about this Russian Jewish subculture – whether its members live in Russia, the U.S. or Israel – continue to fascinate.