(Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

To read Laura Nathan’s interview with David Bezmozgis about Natasha and Other Stories, please click here.

What does it mean to be a Jew? What defines a “good” Jew? Is one’s Judaism something that is performed through active participation in certain rituals and religious services? Or can Jewish identity be proven simply by referring to oneself as a Jew?

In a sense, the debate over Jewish identity is as old as the Torah. One could say debating Jewishness is part of being Jewish. But the increasing cosmopolitanism, refugee flows, and globalization that have characterized the last half-century have left Jewish communities around the globe grappling with these questions in a new context. As David Bezmozgis demonstrates in his debut short-story collection Natasha and Other Stories, the answers, when they are reached, are hardly final — or universal.

For the 320,000 Soviet Jews who fled the U.S.S.R between 1960 and 1989 to escape persecution, the debate over what constitutes Jewish identity is especially pronounced as refugees like Bezmozgis and his family cautiously — and somewhat naively — navigate the newfound ability to practice their religion freely. Only seven years old when his family left Riga, Latvia, for Toronto in 1980, Bezmozgis offers an intoxicating exploration of the poignant arguments about Jewishness among émigré communities, using his own experiences as a guide. Having just emigrated from Riga to Toronto at the age of seven, when the book begins, Mark Berman, the narrator in each of the seven stories, has stolen part of his author’s biography.

In Natasha, Mark tells the story of his family: himself, his mother Bella, and his father Roman, as the Bermans — like those making the transition from closeting their queerness to “coming out” — learn how to live the once persecuted identity publicly, openly, and as part of a community. In the Soviet Union, saying “I am a Jew” affirmed one’s Judaism. But in Toronto, the Bermans’ relationships to Judaism — and the Jewish community — are complicated by the tendency of some North American Jews to expect — even require — more than a moniker to substantiate Jewish identity. The family discovers that they must reconcile conflicting desires in order to remember the past, practice Judaism on their own terms, and assimilate into the North American Jewry.

Bezmozgis depicts North American Jews, meanwhile, as needing to balance the freedoms they’ve taken for granted with those previously denied to their brethren. What they’re all left with is a community that simultaneously demands definition and refuses certain definitions — and the people who embody them.

The metamorphosis

The death of a neighbor’s dog. The labor of establishing a clientele for an émigré’s new massage business. The visit of a Soviet weightlifter. A fight on Holocaust Remembrance Day. Sexual encounters with a cousin. The quest for knowledge about a great Jewish American boxer. A controversy at a Jewish old folk’s home when one man’s death leaves his male partner to fend for himself in a community of opportunists.

In the course of a full novel, these events might seem pedestrian. But without intervening chapters to denote the passage of time and make the process of change seem less acute, Bezmozgis’ seven stories demonstrate that identity is a work-in-progress. Or as L.A. Weekly columnist Brendan Bernhard puts it, “mysterious and seemingly random.” Although Mark participates in and narrates each story, one might not know that these stories bear connection to one another if not for the recurring Berman name. A mere first-grader when the book begins, Mark is in middle school by the fourth story — “An Animal to the Memory” — and is a sexually active 16-year-old just one story later in “Natasha.” Although Bezmozgis leaves us in the dark about Mark’s exact age at the book’s conclusion, he assures us that the narrator has matured considerably, exhibiting a thirst for knowledge and embracing the responsibilities of work, family, history, and Judaism.

Given Mark’s evolution over the course of Bezmozgis’ stories, one can’t help but read Natasha as a coming-of-age narrative — one at times reminiscent of J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye, Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint, and Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita.

But Bezmozgis sets his coming-of-age narrative apart by complicating the common experiences of adolescence with the struggles of migration, loss, and Jewish identity. As we come to realize, Mark isn’t the only one to come of age in Natasha. In many ways, immigration is a form of rebirth, an event that puts adults back at square one and forces them to unlearn every cultural custom and norm that they internalized in their homeland over the years.

Children, however, tend to be more malleable, making the changes they undergo seem less drastic. Or perhaps their metamorphosis just seems inevitable, given the usual pitfalls of adolescence. This, of course, could lead one to expect that an émigré child would assimilate more easily than an adult. But as Natasha surmises, it isn’t that simple.

For Bezmozgis, an émigré’s life cannot be divided into two simple categories of pre- and post-Soviet life, religious persecution and religious freedom. Rather, the author shows destruction stalking each individual stage of change as each story ends with a form of death: The death of the neighbor’s dog. The disposing of an unwanted, non-kosher apple cake that denotes a bond between the Soviet Jews and the Canadian Jews. The death of dreams and the defeat of the “strongest man in the world.” The death of millions of Jews and the death of one individual’s understanding of what it means to be a Jew. The death of an identity associated with drugs, sex, and incestuous relationships. The death of a grandparent and the death of a stranger whose only relationship to Mark is a shared enthusiasm for a legendary Jewish boxer. The death of an ostensibly gay elderly man, the death of uncertainty over what it means to be a Jew. Occurring so frequently in Natasha, death and drastic change become predictable rites of passage.

With death ever-present as Mark comes of age, Judaism plays a more defining role in his identity, demonstrating that it is possible to keep vestiges of his past alive in his present. From his parents and their contemporaries — people who fear assimilation after living the majority of their lives in the Soviet Union — Mark learns that he can’t simply discard history. Or rather, he can’t discard the history his parents want for him, the religious freedom that became the cause for sacrificing everything in moving to a new land. Meanwhile, those who seek to erase the Bermans’ history and redefine Judaism for them reinforce the past the family fled. The feelings of inadequacy and invisibility that their critics inspire remind the Bermans that the past — their past — will always be with them.

Are you a good Jew or a bad Jew?

Coming to Canada with nothing but their history and their religion, as documented on their emigration papers, the Bermans initially milk their Jewish identity for all it’s worth. Judaism, after all, seems to be their only currency of any value, their only connection to others who don’t speak their language or understand their cultural idiosyncrasies.

As Mark explains: “This was 1983, and as Russian Jews, recent immigrants, and political refugees, we were still a cause. We had good PR. We could trade on our history … My mother … believed that [my father’s] strongest selling point [as a massage therapist] was his status as a Soviet refugee. The most important appeal, she said, was to guilt and empathy. That would get them in the door.”

Heeding this advice rather than appealing to the poor Soviet émigré community, Roman looks to Canadian Jews to help build his clientele. After all, Canadian Jews are privileged. They know people. And they know what it means to be Jewish.

Unfortunately, they don’t fully grasp what it means to be persecuted for being Jewish.

“The rabbi,” for instance, “was supposed to be particularly sympathetic to the plight of the Russian Jews,” Mark suggests. “To improve his chances [of getting the rabbi to help him establish a clientele], my father brought me along.”

Roman could of course prove his Jewishness simply by pointing to his emigration papers. But because Mark also attends Hebrew school and can speak very rudimentary Hebrew, Roman has living, breathing proof that the Bermans are not just Jews, but good Jews — Jews who make their religion a priority and consequently, are deserving of help.

But the rabbi doesn’t accept the “Jew card.” As Mark says upon leaving the synagogue: “Fifteen minutes after going in, we were back out on the street … and on our way home. For our trouble we had five dollars and the business card of a man who would print my father’s flyers at a cost.”

Given Mark’s tone, the Bermans seem to have naively believed that the sympathy of Canadian Jews would improve their lot and help them fit right in. But a combination of sympathy and guilt cannot lay the groundwork for an equal relationship between two peoples, particularly of such contrasting backgrounds.

In the story “Roman Berman, Massage Therapist,” this becomes increasingly evident through the Bermans’ interaction with the Kornblums, a Jewish couple that invites them to Shabbat dinner. One might assume that the Kornblums are simply making a kind gesture, but their intentions seem slightly selfish, more imbued with sympathy than empathy, as they try to play the part of model Jews.

This is evident when Rhonda Kornblum returns the entire apple cake that the Bermans bring to dinner. Explaining to the Bermans that “although they sometimes took the kids to McDonald’s, they [keep] kosher at home,” Rhonda makes Bella feel inadequate. The reader, meanwhile, can’t help but question this qualification. Why do the Kornblums make exceptions for McDonald’s and for their own kosher-raised children while refusing to make exceptions for Soviet Jews who never had the privilege of keeping kosher? Why don’t the Kornblums just keep the cake and throw it away rather than making their guests feel inferior?

The Kornblums, it seems, are a reminder that established Jews may manipulate newcomers’ pleas for pity to make themselves feel that they are “good Jews.” In other words, marketing one’s Jewishness may gain one access into the Jewish community; it may even earn a dinner invitation or a few minutes of the rabbi’s time. But it can never guarantee genuine, unmotivated inclusion. Perhaps at best, it can ensure a place on the margins, as the disparity between the Jewish émigré experience and the Canadian (read: privileged, un-persecuted) experience undermines the inclusiveness that the community prides itself on.

All for one and one for all: Memories of suffering

Telling the couples “what an honor it was to have them at his house,” Dr. Kornblum reveals that he and his wife have been trying to help Soviet Jews “for years” and “If it wasn’t too personal, he wanted to know how bad it really was.” After hearing their stories, Kornblum takes out a family photo album and makes a point of identifying each person killed by the Nazis.

We see this concerted effort to remember the Holocaust not just at the Kornblums’ but also when Mark fights with another student on Holocaust Remembrance Day in “An Animal to the Memory.” Ironically, Mark’s parents have sent him to a Jewish school to “learn what it means to be a Jew.” But when the rabbi — the son of a Holocaust survivor — tells Mark that even the Nazis wouldn’t do what he did, he implies that Mark hasn’t fulfilled his parents’ objective. Making Mark repeatedly yell, “I’m a Jew,” the rabbi replies nonchalantly, “Now maybe you understand what it is to be a Jew.”

But does he? Do we? Perhaps more than any other story in Natasha, this one concludes with more questions than answers. That is, we know there’s some connection between being a Jew and remembering the Holocaust. But the inability to pinpoint this connection is something with which Bezmozgis takes issue.

You can’t help but wonder why the Holocaust is treated as the end-all-be-all of Jewish identity throughout a book that is predominately about the Bermans, who never discuss their connection to the Holocaust. Pointedly, whenever Bezmozgis puts Soviet Jews in the same room with non-Soviet Jews, the Holocaust — rather than the countless Jews who died under Stalin or subsequent Soviet regimes — becomes the rallying point for Jewish identity. Those whose connection to persecuted Judaism derives from some other epoch tend to be treated as outsiders.

In fact, Natasha questions whether North American Jews are capable of articulating a shared history based on anything other than the Holocaust and its assault on their collective identity. The reader — at least this reader — can’t help but wonder: As North American Jews belabor this epoch more than the rest, do they disregard their own individuality and the potential of the Jewish community to forge a collective identity that is more true to the diverse experiences and memories of its members? And by focusing their energy on remembering a specific past, might they end up forgetting, overlooking, or trivializing something occurring in the near-present?

The problem, as we learn through the Bermans, is that the Holocaust isn’t the only thing Jews must remember in order to retain a sense of who they were and who they are becoming. Looking backward to a specific epoch — one that some members of a given community might not identify with — does not necessarily hold the answers for defining shared identity. For as Mark learns in “Minyan,” only empathy — genuinely and unselfishly connecting with and relating to other people for an extended period of time — can begin to ensure membership in the Jewish community. Easier said than done.

Death becomes them

Mark comes to realize this through the death of Itzik, a man who has been living in a Jewish old folk’s home. When Itzik’s death leaves Herschel — the man believed to have been his lover — alone in their apartment, hordes of people vie to move in and displace the bereft partner. Suddenly, Zalman (the man who runs the building and organizes weekly religious services) finds people he never met before, people who have never attended religious services, appealing to him for help. They go out of their way to convince him that they are “good Jews,” better than Herschel. In fact, whereas Zalman typically struggles to find ten Jewish men to form a minyan at religious services, more than 20 men attend services the Saturday following Itzik’s funeral. “Everyone [making] an effort at making an effort …” Mark recalls. “Voices battled for distinction.”

Here history is simultaneously relevant and irrelevant in defining Judaism. That is, the opportunists believe they’re Jews because their ancestors were. But they want Zalman to disregard who they personally have been in the past — Jews who have never bothered to attend religious services — and embrace them for who they promise to be in their moment of desperation.

One might expect Zalman, who was never a fan of Herschel, Itzik, or their queer bond, to accept the “good Jew” card, to privilege imagined history over active, selfless participation in the Jewish community. But Zalman’s explanation as to why he will allow Herschel to stay is telling about the myth of the “good Jew” and the futility of bartering Judaism:

Here the only question is Jew or not. And now I am asked by people who never stepped into a synagogue to do them a favor. They all have friends, relatives who need an apartment. Each and every one a good Jew. Promises left and right about how they will come to the synagogue. I’ve heard these promises before. And they say, “With so many good Jews who need apartments, why should Herschel be allowed to stay?” This is not my concern. My concern is ten Jewish men. If you want 10 Jewish saints, good luck … They should know I don’t put a Jew who comes to synagogue in the street. Homosexuals, murderers, liars, and thieves — I take them all. Without them we would never have a minyan.

Ironically, in casting himself as non-judgmental, Zalman, by equating gays with criminals and other immoral types, implies that some forms of morality — and sexual preferences — are inferior to others, even within the Jewish community.

At best, then, Bezmozgis leaves us with an open-ended final answer in the final pages of Natasha. That is, attempting to articulate a more coherent, more universal definition of Jewish identity — or any identity category, for that matter — only raises more questions. Sure, we can conclude that being a “good Jew” is less productive for the community than simply being a Jew on one’s own terms and showing up to ensure that the community lives on. But inevitably it’s impossible to call oneself a Jew and avoid being scrutinized by others who consider themselves more Jewish as they fall back on their own understanding of what it means to be a Jew.

Maybe the question we should be asking, then, isn’t what it means to be a Jew. Perhaps it’s time instead to ask why we as individuals and sub-communities define our shared identity in particular ways. For instance, why does being a Jew mean you have to remember the Holocaust above all other instances of anti-Semitism and all other manifestations of community and tradition? And how does the way that we identify ourselves in comparison to others impact the constitution of the Jewish community by creating divides within?

Maybe it’s time to acknowledge that, on some level, we’re all strangers living in a strange land — even if our passports suggest otherwise.

To read Laura Nathan’s interview with David Bezmozgis about Natasha, click here.

STORY INDEX

BOOKS >
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Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger
URL: http://www.powells.com/cgi-bin/partner?partner_id=28164&cgi=product&isbn=0316769177

Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov
URL: http://www.powells.com/cgi-bin/partner?partner_id=28164&cgi=product&isbn=0679723161

Natasha and Other Stories by David Bezmozgis
URL: http://www.powells.com/cgi-bin/partner?partner_id=28164&cgi=product&isbn=0374281416

Portnoy’s Complaint by Philip Roth
URL: http://www.powells.com/cgi-bin/partner?partner_id=28164&cgi=product&isbn=0679756450

HISTORY >

Operation Exodus
URL: http://www.jewishgates.com/file.asp?File_ID

World Jewry: Ethiopian Jewry and Soviet Jewry
URL: http://www.rac.org/issues/issuewj.html

REVIEWS >

“One man shock-and-awe” by Chris Nutall-Smith
URL: http://www.quillandquire.com/authors/profile.cfm?article_id=5795

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