Recently, InTheFray Editor Laura Nathan interviewed David Bezmozgis about his debut collection of short stories, Natasha and Other Stories. Their conversation — and Bezmozgis’ thoughts on “home,” what it means to be a Jew, and writing — follows:

The interviewer: Laura Nathan, InTheFray Editor
The interviewee: David Bezmozgis, author, Natasha and Other Stories

Though the stories in Natasha are fictional, the similarities between the Bermans’ life and your own suggest that writing this must have been a very personal experience — one that you seem to be somewhat critical of. Tell me a little bit about what inspired you to write Natasha.

I wrote Natasha because I had wanted for a very long time to write about my community. As far as I knew there had been nothing written about the Soviet Jewish immigration in English – though there had been books in Russian and, I believe, Hebrew. As a reader of American Jewish fiction, I had seen previous generations of Jewish immigrants treated and, inspired by that, wished to do the same for my own community.

As for being “somewhat critical,” I am “somewhat critical” about everything. But the distinction, perhaps unintended on your part, between “somewhat critical” and “critical” is an important one. In the totality of the immigrant experience there are things to both criticize and admire. As with any experience — if observed honestly.

Natasha repeatedly comes back to the centrality of the Holocaust in defining what it means to be a Jew. Why do you think this is the case, and what are the dangers (if any) of this tendency? Also, as an emigrant, is this a phenomenon that you’ve found to be unique to North America?

The Holocaust is an undeniable part of Jewish identity. To think otherwise is naïve and to suggest that it could or should be otherwise is offensive. However, the Holocaust is hardly the only thing that defines Jewish experience. There is, obviously, much more. We are talking here of a people who have a history of several millenia and who have in many ways influenced Western thought and culture.

Now as for why the Holocaust and the Second World War feature in Natasha I think you need to understand the Russian (Latvian) Jewish experience. Latvian Jews (and Western Russian Jews) suffered, like most Eastern European Jews, from the Nazis. Those who did not evacuate or join the Red Army were exterminated. And those who evacuated lived in the eastern depths of Russia, sent their sons and husbands to the front, and — at the war’s conclusion — returned home to find that home no longer existed. This happened only 60 years ago. These people are still alive. The experience is central to who they are. How could is be otherwise? The experience (if only of the Great Patriotic War) was made central to the education of their children. To this day, speaking to my grandfather or his friends, talk of the war is common. It has marked them permanently.

As for dangers of this tendency to invoke the war and the Holocaust — I think any gratuitous invocation is dangerous. But I think just as dangerous is any reactionary tendency to begrudge these people the right to speak about their past.

Twenty-four years after emigrating from the Soviet Union, do you find that you have fully assimilated into the North American Jewish community, or do you still feel like an outsider at times?

Your word “fully” presupposes a lot. As much as possible, the local Jewish communities invited the Russian Jews to assimilate. I think “full” assimilation is not possible. I don’t think most Russians wanted to assimilate “fully” because that would entail abandoning their Russian past — a past which incorporates culture, language, history. So, as far as I know, most Russian immigrants of my parents’ generation keep as their intimate friends other Russian immigrants. But they have, to various degrees embraced the North American lifestyle. They now eat more salads and use less butter.

As for my “embrace” of Judaism and Jewishness, I have no doubt that by living in North America my identity as a Jew is much stronger and more informed. But as for “full assimilation” I don’t think I have the temperament to assimilate fully into anything. I would argue that this is common to most writers and artists. Some amount of objectivity is probably genetically programmed.

Fighting, violence, and aggression play an important role in Natasha. Tell me a little bit about what inspired your interest in this sort of sadism and why it plays such an import role in your stories.

Sadism?

As a Russian-turn-Canadian who has now resettled in California, do you find that there are differences between Jewish communities in Canada and those in the United States? If so, what are those differences?

Well, I no longer live in California, though I did live there for five years. I now live in Toronto where I find no discernible difference between American and Canadian Jews. I am told that the Canadian version is slightly more conservative in religion and politics. This may be true. But on the whole, communities of middle class Jews are the same. And communities of lower class Jews are probably also the same. The distinction that interests me is one of class, not nationality.

The émigré experience — that sense of loss of home and the quest for a new identity — in Natasha is, of course, centered around the Jewish Soviet émigré experience, but many of Mark’s experiences seem to extend beyond the struggles with religious identity. How, if at all, might your stories be read by other (non-Soviet/non-Jewish) émigrés, by other people who are struggling to discover a sense of belonging in a place that, at times, feels nothing like home?

With only two exceptions — “An Animal to the Memory” and “Minyan” — I think all of the stories are secular. Meaning, in order to understand them you require no background in Judaism as a religion. I live a secular life. My concerns, almost exclusively, are secular concerns. I think the stories reflect this. Though set in the Russian community, the stories are mostly about basic struggles – get work, learn a language, find and survive love. I think these are things common to all immigrants and, really, most people. These are not stories of existential conflict; they deal instead with a pursuit of concrete things. Generally, I am not interested in existential conflict (although I just finished reading a book called Rituals by Cees Nooteboom which was exceptional.)

Throughout Natasha you allude to the question of what it means to a Jew. With all of your experience as an émigré and a writer, what do you think it means to be a Jew? How do you define Jewish identity? And do you think that definition can ever be generalized or applied to the Jewish community as a whole? Why or why not?

… Some of the stories certainly deal with is the question of what it means to be a Jew. As for what a Jew is, I always think of the answer Rabbi Hillel gave in response to a similar question. The question was posed by gentile and I believe he asked if Rabbi Hillel could teach him the whole Torah while standing on one foot. (Already a good story, and even Jewish in its comic irony.) Hillel said: That which is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor. That is the whole Torah; the rest is commentary. Go learn.”

To my understanding, then, to be a Jew involves not hurting others and learning perpetually.

Throughout Natasha you allude to the way in which people barter Judaism, the way in which they say things like “I’m a Jew,” or “I’m a good Jew,” to get ahead or to get what they need. When you allude to this tendency, you seem to do so with both an emphasis on the necessity of doing so for the new immigrant and with a critical eye toward opportunists. Would you mind elaborating a little on how you think this sort of behavior implicates the formation of a community, Jewish or otherwise, and what it says about the question of what it means to be a Jew?

People barter all the time. Life is a series of power transactions. This is not limited to Jews. If people were patient with one another and understood one another it would be different. (See above for Rabbi Hillel.) But this will never happen. The only compensation for the pain is if one can look at all of this with some level of objectivity and accept that the misunderstandings are often what make life interesting. That these misunderstandings are indeed the conflict which writers term “conflict.”

What are you working on now? Do you think that you’ll continue to write about the émigré experience, or do you see yourself moving onto other matters?

I am working on a novel. Though I am reticent to say to much, the subject matter is related to Natasha. I think I will continue to write about my particular émigré experience. Or, at least, this particular community. I will probably write about other things as well — though perhaps more in film than prose.

STORY INDEX

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The interviewer
Laura Nathan, InTheFray Editor

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Natasha and Other Stories by David Bezmozgis
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