I subjected you to quite a bit of fire and brimstone the other day, so let’s end the week on a lighter note. That’s right, a pop quiz. Don’t worry, it’s only five questions and they’re all True or False. And there’s a carrot: The first reader to answer all five accurately in an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org will receive a free autographed copy of my novel A Replacement Life, out this week.
The subject of the quiz: Grandfather’s Shenanigans. A Replacement Life tells the story of a young man who starts forging Holocaust-restitution claims for old Russian Jews in Brooklyn on the instigation of his grandfather. My real-life grandfather didn’t ask me to do that, but he shares quite a bit temperamentally with his avatar in the novel. What kind of men are they? Men who get things done, in the old-fashioned sense: Resourceful, swashbuckling, unbothered by niceties. But I am no schlub—I know how to lie, too; I am my grandfather’s grandson, after all. So: Below find five stories about things that supposedly happened to my real-life grandfather. Did they happen? Or did I make them up? You be the judge.
1. State-sponsored anti-Semitism decreased during World War II; all Soviets had a common enemy in the Germans. But it was revived after the war; in the 1960s, all Minsk Jews with Russified names —say, Mikhail in place of Mordukh—were ordered to appear at police precincts to have their passports “restored” for easier “identification.” Grandfather went around the homes of family and close friends, collecting passports in a sack. Then he went to the police precinct. There he found a Captain Grishelev. “I brought you a sack of passports, Captain Grishelev,” Grandfather said. Only that on the way, Grandfather had added to the sack three bottles of vodka. Captain Grishelev decided to leave the passport-altering until the vodka was done. He and Grandfather went through the first bottle, the second, the third. By then, Captain Grishelev would have kissed my grandfather sooner than touch one of those passports. He sent Grandfather home and all the Mikhails stayed Mikhails.
2. While we’re on the subject of drinking: Grandmother needed her gallbladder removed. Grandfather didn’t like leaving things to chance. He found the best surgeon in Minsk and showed up on his doorstep the night before the operation with three bottles of Armenian cognac. There was no way the surgeon would work cavalierly on someone whose husband had made him such a gift. They drank and drank, into the wee hours, becoming friends and easing Grandfather’s heart. The next morning, however, Grandfather saw what all this new camaraderie cost: The surgeon was still drunk. In which condition he operated on my grandmother. And they doubt the miracles of Soviet medicine.
3. Grandfather was part of a gold-smuggling ring. (Possession of gold, as a foreign currency, was illegal in the USSR.) There were five members; the four others were caught. They were not especially close with Grandfather; the five were associates of convenience. When the four were asked who else was part of the ring, they said: No one. If they didn’t pony up their confederates, they were told, they would be executed. No one, they repeated. They were executed. Grandfather lived.
4. Grandfather was on a business trip to Moscow when he heard they were offering bras at the department store. You might find nothing odd in this, American reader – that is, after all, what department stores are supposed to do. Not Soviet department stores, which offered great variety in Shortages and Empty Shelves, but not as much in actual products. By the time Grandfather got to the department store, the line was out the door and down the block. He didn’t have that kind of time. With a friend, he climbed to the second-floor gallery, right above the spot on the ground floor where the bras were being dispensed. “Now you take me by the ankles and hang me over the banister,” he instructed his friend. His friend complied. This put Grandfather, upside down, at eye level with the bra saleswoman. “A bra for my wife, quick!” he yelled. “But what size?!” the poor saleswoman demanded. What size! A man is hanging off the second-floor landing by his ankles and still it isn’t enough! “I don’t know what size!” he yelled. “Like this!” He fit his hand around an imaginary grapefruit. That told the saleswoman what she needed to know. She gave him two bras and a compliment for being a devoted husband.
5. Grandfather was on his way home from the market with a fresh chicken. On the way home, he saw an old friend of the family standing in her doorway. “Avremele!” she called out to him. “How much did you get that chicken for?” Avremele liked to brag once in a while so he said half of what he had actually paid. “Avremele…” the old lady drawled. “I’m an old lady, weak… Sell it to me. And then run on back to the market with your young legs and get yourself another.” How can an upstanding boy say no to a plea of that kind? Only that on that day, Avremele paid price and a half for his chicken.
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Donna Tartt, the author of this year’s Pulitzer Prize winner The Goldfinch, was once told by Ken Kesey, the author of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, never to read her press: “I’ll tell you why, kid. The good things don’t help and the bad things still hurt.” A modified version of this guidance appears in virtually every testimonial by a fabled writer: You can’t worry about your audience; you must write for yourself.
Read without nuance, sentiments like these surely encourage the view that writers are elitist, self-serving navel-gazers. The truth feels more complex. As a writer, I am deeply engaged with my imaginary audience. I write because I have things I want to say, and a way I want to say them, but I want them to be heard. I write to connect. I write to have a conversation. At the same time, bad things happen on the page when you start writing with an overly concrete audience in mind. Instead of looking for new expression, you start saying things you think your audience will like. Entertainment is a perfectly honorable reason to write and read. But I believe writers have an obligation to push their readers—and themselves—to think about things they may not be overly eager to think about. It’s how literature, and, in some ways, the world moves forward.
I bring all this up because my debut novel, A Replacement Life, out this week, is on a subject that gets readers going: A young man starts forging Holocaust-restitution claims for old Russian Jews in Brooklyn. I began writing the novel in the fall of 2009, inspired by my experience filling out my grandmother’s restitution paperwork in the 1990s (she was an inmate of the Minsk ghetto). My family had emigrated from the former Soviet Union only a decade before; I was just a teenager, but had the best English, so the paperwork was handed to me. Continue reading
I’ve daydreamt for more than a decade about what a day like tomorrow—publication date for my debut novel A Replacement Life—might feel like. But there’s a sorrowful undertow to this week’s joy—it marks a decade since the passing of my maternal grandmother, a version of whom plays a central role in the novel. That’s no accident. In the novel—the story of a young man who starts forging Holocaust-restitution claims for old Russian Jews in Brooklyn—the narrator, Slava Gelman, agrees to break the law in part because it’s an opportunity to recreate on the page a grandmother he never got to know in real life. Wanting to “dialyze” Soviet Brooklyn out of himself, Slava runs off to Manhattan (thinking that’ll do it), and misses the last year of her life (she has a slow-moving, terminal illness). Filled with regret, he begins inventing her personal history in the false claim letters—now his only way to ask her the things he didn’t get to ask her when she was alive.
I’m often asked how much my apparently autobiographical novel—like Slava, I emigrated from the former Soviet Union as a kid; I also grew up in south Brooklyn—shares with real life, and the story of Slava’s relationship with his grandmother, as compared to my with mine, is a good illustration of the way fact and invention blend in this kind of story. Like Slava’s grandmother, mine was a survivor of the Minsk ghetto. Like his, she wasn’t eager to recall the details of that experience when I pressed her. Unlike Slava, however, I declined to respect my grandmother’s reticence. (Why did I press her? I’m not sure. Could I, as a teenager, understand that it was valuable to know, for one reason or another? I didn’t begin to articulate the answer until I came up with one for Slava in the novel: “Already, by then, he was visited by the American understanding that it was better to know than not to know.” In this way, fiction proposes answers that life fails to find.)
The official reason my grandmother didn’t want to talk was that she “didn’t want to upset [me].” But in a Soviet-Jewish family, where forthrightness is often taken as rudeness and asking for what you need as a kind of selfishness, this kind of “considerateness” is often cover for personal motive. I never asked, but hers must have been: She didn’t want to remember. So I tricked her into it. I told her I had an assignment to create a family-history narrative for history class. Grandmother wouldn’t dare cost me a good grade, and the stories came—imagination-boggling stories that profoundly deepened our connection, my conscience, and also my consciousness.
In transmuted form, her stories—her history—are now enshrined in a novel that will live longer than she could. But when I interviewed her, the novel was less than a glimmer in my eye. I pressed her because she had gone through something extraordinary, and her descendants, this one included, deserved to know what, even if it meant subjecting her to duress. Selfishly, I had decided that price worth it. Sixty years later, I wanted to be able to hand my own grandson a stack of interview notes and say: “Here. This is who your great-great-grandmother was.” And why is that valuable? Again, the novel answered: “Tell me because I’d like to tell my grandchildren one day. Tell me because it happened to you, and so I should know. Tell me because it will bring me closer to you, and I want to be close to you.”
I believe there is a dignity to being able to trace yourself back through history—via genes, via stories, via whatever you’ve got. That mandate has special meaning for Jews—because there is so much suffering for us to remember, so many calamities that remembrance must forestall from occurring ever again. For immigrants also—in emigrating to the United States, my family traded generations of life in Eastern Europe to start from zero in America. We gave up the soil, and many other, less tangible, things. Until my great-great-great-great grandchildren, born Americans six times over, read my interviews with my grandmother 150 years from now, all we’ve got is stories.
So, sit down your elders. Better yet, make your children do it. Ask your old ones to talk. And—gently, lovingly, apologetically—ignore them when they try to demure. Your children’s descendants are counting on you for their patrimony.
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