Always An Immigrant

By Robin Jacobson. 

As Moses might have said, “You can take the Jews out of Egypt, but you can’t take Egypt out of the Jews.” It is hard to shed a past life and homeland, even one of misery and persecution. This is the theme of two outstanding new books by Jewish émigrés from the former Soviet Union: Savage Feast: Three Generations, Two Continents, and a Dinner Table, a memoir by Boris Fishman, and Immigrant City, a short story collection by David Bezmozgis. Both books are in our library – come check them out this summer!

Savage Feast      

Boris Fishman is the author of two novels (A Replacement Life, Don’t Let My Baby Do Rodeo). In his engrossing new memoir, Savage Feast, Fishman writes about hunger – his hunger for the mouthwatering epic meals conjured by family “kitchen magicians” (recipes included), hunger for understanding and approval, hunger to find a life partner.

These hungers have roots in a darker hunger bred in the Soviet Union. During World War II, Fishman’s maternal grandmother, Sofia, fled the Minsk ghetto to hide for two years in the Belarus swamps, subsisting on potato peels. When she first saw a loaf of bread after the war, she devoured it like an animal, making herself sick. Not surprisingly, Sofia married Arkady, a resourceful black marketeer able to obtain plentiful food and consumer goods even in a Soviet society of scarcity. Nonetheless, the family lived with the constant fear of not having enough, as well as with pervasive anti-Semitism.

In 1988, the family (Fishman, age nine, and his parents and maternal grandparents) left Minsk for the United States. Even safe and well-nourished, Fishman’s family retained their Soviet mindset; they remained risk averse and apprehensive, always expecting the worst. Planning a family trip, Fishman fielded anxious questions from his father: “What if it snowed the night before we were supposed to go? What if the weather was bad? What if the hotel was no good?” When Fishman wanted to study abroad or accept a Fulbright fellowship in Turkey or relocate to Mexico, his family was so alarmed that he, nervous himself, turned down these opportunities. Yet Fishman insisted on becoming a writer, despite the family’s concern over his financial prospects. Savage Feast portrays Fishman as driven in two, loving his family, but resenting their pessimistic Soviet world view, which he couldn’t help but absorb. Years after immigrating, Fishman says he still feels “foreign in America.”

Immigrant City

David Bezmozgis immigrated to Toronto with his family from Riga, Latvia, forty years ago when he was only six years old. Nonetheless, Bezmozgis, sounding like Fishman, says he doesn’t feel fully Canadian. Bezmozgis has written extensively on what it means to come from one country but live in another (Natasha and Other Stories, The Free World, The Betrayers).  Much of this work focused on newly arrived Soviet Jewish immigrants. In contrast, Immigrant City, Bezmozgis says, is largely about immigrants “who have been here long enough to adapt,” but don’t adapt.

Immigrant City opens with a story about a Latvian émigré and his young daughter journeying to a seedy neighborhood in Toronto to buy a replacement car door from a Somali refugee. The émigré’s American wife, “raised in mindless California abundance,” fails to see the necessity for this bargain-hunting trek. But the émigré, who grew up eating spotted, less-than-perfect fruit, persists. The Somali’s neighborhood reminds him of the Toronto immigrant neighborhood where he once lived, and his suspicion of the Somali is leavened by a sense of solidarity. This story and others in the collection depict immigrants who feel disoriented and displaced long after leaving their homelands.