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Young Jewish Author Talks About Influence of Immigrant Life in Canada

June 12, 2006
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David Bezmozgis, the young writer described recently as a “one-man shock-and-awe invasion of North American literature” sits on a plaza on the edge of Bar-Ilan University’s leafy campus and in his calm, steady voice talks about identity. “I feel the opposite of wherever I am,” says the author. In Canada, where he immigrated with his family from Latvia in 1980, he often feels like an outsider. When he returned to Latvia for a visit recently he “felt more like a stranger than anywhere else.”

Bezmozgis writes about the Jewish immigrants from the former Soviet Union he grew up among in Toronto.

“I felt something was happening with the last wave of Soviet Jewish immigration,” he said, explaining it had been his ambition since he was a teenager to write about the community.

After a brief stint as a filmmaker, his literary star has risen quickly.

His publications have included The New Yorker, Harper’s, Zoetrope and The New York Times Magazine and his collection of short stories, “Natasha and Other Stories” has been translated into 12 languages. In 2005, he won a Guggenheim Fellowship.

He was in Israel late last month as one of the featured writers lecturing and reading from his work at a conference at Bar-Ilan University’s master’s program in creative writing.

Bezmozgis spoke there of the alienation felt by the Jewish immigrants from the former Soviet Union, including his own family, when they arrived in Canada. He described how they struggled to stay afloat financially and to find their way in a very foreign culture.

He said that what the community went through in Toronto, including an initially awkward relationship with the city’s established Jewish community, was not unlike the experience of Russian-speaking Jewish immigrants elsewhere in North America.

“There was a very active Jewish community who really fought for these Soviet Jews, to get them out,” he said. “They had certain expectations of how the Soviet Jews would be when they arrived” and “the Soviet Jews had certain expectations.

“These expectations did not entirely mesh; if there is anything we can rely on, it is that people misunderstand each other.”

In his book, he tracks the adjustment of the fictional Berman family to a new life in Canada. Bezmozgis says the stories’ environment is drawn from experience, but that the work is fiction, not autobiography.

In the short story “Topka” that he read to the conference, he tells the tale of the family’s son Mark, whose recent arrival in Toronto is softened by his relationship with a small dog who becomes in turns his greatest joy and then his tragedy. The story conveys the overwhelming loneliness that can creep into immigrant life.

The book has found acclaim among readers and critics.

“The collection’s strength lies in how Bezmozgis layers the specifics of Russian-Jewish experience with universal childhood and adolescent dilemmas,” said a review from Publisher’s Weekly, adding, “These complex, evocative stories herald the arrival of a significant new voice.”

Influenced by the works of Philip Roth and Mordechai Richler, Bezmozgis turned to writing after beginning a career making films.

He said that as the son of immigrants who had come to North America both for freedom and for a better financial future, he at first decided not to pursue writing as a full-time career.

He studied filmmaking at UCLA and his first documentary, “L.A. Mohel,” about three ritual circumcisers in Los Angeles, was screened at film festivals around the world.

To pursue a career that was not well-paid “when there is all this plenty around was difficult for my parents to comprehend,” he said. “I tried to find a middle ground.”

Pausing, he added, “All along, all I wanted to do is write.”

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