The USSR Is Back


Alex Halberstadt left Moscow behind at age 9. But for the promising Russian-Jewish writer — who was reared in Queens on baseball and lowbrow American television — the old Soviet Union is back, with a vengeance.And the 37-year-old’s “return of the repressed” journey is reflective of one being taken by thousands of those in his generation as they increasingly grapple with where the old country fits in their complex tangle of identities — American, Russian, Jewish.

Halberstadt’s first published book was “Lonely Avenue,” a biography of a largely forgotten American Jewish musician and songwriter of the 1950s and ‘60s named Doc Pomus. Only after a life-altering trip to the FSU three years ago, during which he met his grandfather — a onetime bodyguard to Stalin — and came to reflect that the tragic history of the Soviet Union had a direct impact on his own life, did Halberstadt resolve to write a book focused squarely on his long-neglected “Russian” side.

Yet he acknowledged having plenty of insecurities. “I grew up with the Human League [an English new wave band of the 1980s] and ‘Charlie’s Angels,’” he told a gathering at Makor earlier this month. “In deciding to take on this book, I resolved to tell the story of what we went through in the Soviet Union. Still, I am a North American and write for North Americans.” Halberstadt’s comments came during a recent literary evening at the Jewish cultural center on the Upper West Side, where he shared the stage with David Bezmozgis, who along with Gary Shteyngart and Lara Vapnyar make up a cascade of talented young Russian-Jewish fiction writers. For both Halberstadt and Bezmozgis, and for the several hundred Russian-speaking Jews in their 20s and 30s hanging on their every word, the occasion took on the flavor of a soul-searching quest for identity that was often more evocative of group therapy than erudite literary analysis.

Take, for example, the moment when Bezmozgis, a 34-year-old Toronto-based writer who emigrated from Riga, Latvia, at the age of 7, was asked how he manages to write convincingly about life in Soviet Russia when he mainly grew up in North America and writes in English.Bezmozgis, who won renown for his 2004 collection “Natasha and Other Stories” focusing on Russian Jewish emigre life in Canada, responded that the book he is presently working on — which will focus in part on the lives of Jewish families like his own before they left the Soviet Union — represents a “big leap for me, since it requires me to know Soviet life, which, of course, I know only indirectly. I am constantly aware that I lack cultural fluency. What was on the radio in Riga or Moscow in 1978? I don’t know, and feel very exposed because of that lack of knowledge.” Asked the same question, Halberstadt told the audience that as a youngster growing up in the hard-knocks Ravenswood housing project in Long Island City, Queens, he tried to become “as American as possible as quickly as possible, speaking without an accent and loving baseball.”While agreeing with Bezmozgis that he, too, lacks the cultural fluency to write for Russian audiences, Halberstadt nevertheless sees young Russian-Jewish audiences like the one he was speaking to at Makor as his core constituency. “I feel that I can write for Russian Jews in New York but [at the same time], it feels scary to put it across to the people in this room. You are the people with the best bulls–t detectors.” ‘Generation 1.5’The evening with Bezmozgis and Halberstadt was sponsored by RJeneration, a self-styled “community” of young Russian-born Jews in New York. Most immigrated to the U.S. as children, and many, after initially following a course of intensive assimilation a la Halberstadt, attending top American universities and starting solid professional careers, have more recently sought avenues to reconnect with Russian Jewish life.

Sam Kliger, a sociologist who serves as director of Russian Jewish affairs at the American Jewish Committee, said he has been gratified over the past several years to witness the advent of what he calls “Generation 1.5.”

“A few years ago, I, like other observers of our community assumed that the whole phenomenon of Russian Jews in America would be just a one generation thing and that in 20 years it would be gone,” Kliger said. “Now, we have data suggesting there are at least two groups that will carry it forward: members of Generation 1.5, who arrived here as children up to the age of 15 and who are now in their 20s and 30s, and members of the second generation, who were born in the U.S. of recently arrived Russian Jewish parents, and are themselves already college students or graduates.”According to Kliger, 60, “It is clear that many people from both groups have found something special in Russian-Jewish identity — something we haven’t thoroughly defined — that causes them to identify as Russian Jews, distinct from Americans and American Jews. It is clear they are drawn to the richness of the culture, whether ballet, music, literature or the richness of the language itself.

“They also feel a sense of connection based on the success of the community; whether in business, academia, culture, and now even in politics, they can see someone with experience similar to their own. Whatever it is, people of my generation are gratified to have our kids becoming interested in their own history, coming to us and asking, ‘So what was it really like for you back in the Soviet Union?’”Regina Shoyket, a 33-year-old educational program management specialist who arrived in Brooklyn with her parents at the age of 5, said, “People come to RJeneration with different priorities. Some are more into exploring the Russian aspect of their identity and others, the Jewish part. For me, being part of this group has been a rediscovery of the diversity in my heritage and a chance to connect with people who have a similar background and understanding.”

Emblematic of the trend is Lenny Gusel, a 35-year-old information technology consultant, who founded the first such network of young Russian-speaking professionals in the San Francisco Bay area four years ago under the name 79ers (a reference to the 1979 roots of the Russian-Jewish community in the Bay Area). He duplicated that achievement after moving to New York in 2005 by co-founding RJeneration together with Yael Kalcheim, a onetime Jewish Agency emissary in the former Soviet Union.Asked what lead him to create the 79ers, Gusel responded: “I had been having these conversations in my own head that I didn’t want to go through life feeling weird about different aspects of my identity. After initially trying to be all-American, I realized I didn’t want to lose the rich linguistic and cultural background my parents had given me and at the same time, I knew I wanted my kids to be Jewish, but I had no idea what to teach them.

“So I decided to connect with others whom I perceived were likely having similar conversations with themselves, and to come together to create a community-wide dialogue among members of the in-between generation.”Gusel said that the event with Bezmozgis and Halberstadt was “the best event I have done since creating the 79ers and RJeneration in terms of giving form to communication and grappling among our members about where we are from, where we are now as a community and where we are going. Creating that kind of space for people to have such a high-quality conversation about these issues is a very powerful thing.” ‘What Does BeingRussian Mean?’The evening at Makor opened with readings by the authors of their yet-to-be-completed next works. While the themes of the two books contrasted as vividly as the visual contrast between the tall, austere Bezmozgis and the stocky and seemingly more accessible Halberstadt, the writing style of the two men had much in common: a pared-down, “just the facts but with a gentle twist of irony” style that evoked The New Yorker, a magazine where several of Bezmozgis’ stories have already been published. Halberstadt’s book, to be published in 2009, will flesh out an article he published in GQ about his first encounter with his long-lost grandfather, Vassily, an aged man living with his second wife, Sonia, in a run-down apartment building in the Ukrainian city of Vinnitsa.

During their encounter, the old man sought to keep the discussion focused on the inconsequential until Sonia, suddenly banged her fist on the table and growled at her husband: “Tell him the truth.”Vassily then narrated a horrifyingly vivid account of how as a member of the security detail of Stalin’s murderous KGB chief, Lavrenty Beria, he witnessed the abduction of a teenage Moscow schoolgirl, who was brought to the KGB chief’s headquarters. There, after feasting on Georgian delicacies with his entourage, Beria raped the girl and then had her killed. Vassily explained to Alex that watching that horror unfold and feeling unable to do anything to prevent it was an excruciating experience that has haunted him throughout the ensuing 60 years. Yet as Halberstadt listened to Vassily’s account of that long-ago event, he realized, “My grandfather is the only one remaining [of Stalin’s contingent of secret police] who took away [novelist Osip] Mandelstam and thousands of others.”

Then Sonia took him aside and said, “Your grandfather and I lived through terrible times. All that is left for us now is to be kind to each other.”

Halberstadt left the audience with the impression that his book, when published in 2009, will be relatively gentle on Vassily as an individual, but will grapple with the larger question of how such a murderous political order could have won acceptance from a cowed population of some 200 million Vassilys. The section of Bezmozgis’ book he read to the audience was a gently humorous account about how an extended family very much like his own was convinced, during their stay on Rome in 1978 in transit from Riga to Chicago, to opt instead for a new life in Toronto.Bezmozgis wonderfully evokes the furious debate within the family about where to go. Some are pulling for Israel, only to be undercut by scary news headlines about the possibility of war; others insist the U.S. is the place of greatest opportunities. But Canada finally wins out as the family’s destination for a seemingly ridiculous reason: Several male family members had warm and fuzzy memories of having watched the 1972 World Hockey Championship between the USSR and Canada on television. On such absurdities, Bezmozgis said, do human destinies often turn. Halberstadt closed the discussion by contemplating the difference in perspective between his own generation and that of their parents.“There is a sense of loss that our parents feel for having been uprooted,” he said. “But it’s not our loss. We were uprooted too, but it happened to us as children and that’s easier to handle. Still we ask ourselves: ‘What does our glimmer of being Russian really mean?’ Many of us are not at all sure, beyond that it’s supposed to mean something terribly important.”

Halberstadt and Bezmozgis left the impression they will expend their best efforts as writers for many years to come seeking to articulate what that “something” really is. After the event, members of the audience crowded around Bezmozgis and Halberstadt for follow-up conversation and kibbitzed among themselves.Jane Zamostina, 29, a litigation support expert, who came to New York at 13 from Minsk, remarked, “This event triggered powerful emotions in me and brought back a flood of memories. The things Bezmozgis and Halberstadt were talking about closely paralleled my own experiences and what I heard from my parents and grandparents. A lot of it made me feel sad, but sad in an uplifting way.” Kostya Kraz, 31, who came to the U.S. at 7 from Leningrad and was later one of the founders of the 49ers with Gusel, remarked, “I’m a computer geek not a writer, but, whatever we do in life, people of my generation relate closely and personally to this subject matter. It is the foundation of what brings us together.”