Maxim D. Shrayer: Papa, I want to ask you about varieties of crypto-Jews—those who conceal their Judaism in order to preserve it (as in your story “White Sheep on a Green Mountain Slope” set in the Caucasus), and also, perhaps, those who conceal their Jewishness to preserve themselves (as the Holocaust survivor, the Polish Jew in “Mimicry”). Why do so many crypto-Jews populate the pages of your stories, and why are there fewer traditional Jews in them?
David Shrayer-Petrov: I think that many Jews used to want to play down their Jewishness, at least in their public conduct… and I myself was sometimes guilty of that in pre-refusenik Soviet life. Continue reading
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