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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