Always remember. Never forget. These seem to be the unwritten tenets of Judaism, not just when it comes to the Holocaust, but when it comes to embracing one’s Jewish identity. (How can one forget her Judaism when she smells gefilte fish or watches a Woody Allen flick?). Thanks to a series of coincidences — the reviewer who vanished, along with the review copy of Nick Ryan’s Into a World of Hate that I had sent her, the last minute collaboration with the Asian American Writers’ Workshop that resulted in a special issue of ITF concerning “home” — that left me frantically searching for a topical book to review for OFF THE SHELF for our July 2004 issue, these maxims are also what drew me to David Bezmozgis’ recently published Natasha and Other Stories.

There were plenty of other newly published books, both fiction and non-fiction, concerning migration and citizenship that I could have reviewed instead. Perhaps I would have chosen the one concerning immigration along the U.S./Mexico border had I felt a deeper personal connection to Mexico or the Texas valley, or had the book’s synopsis not sounded so trite. But instead, I chose a collection of short stories about Latvian Jews struggling to fit into the North American Jewish Diaspora. At first, it was just the emigration tale of the Soviet Jewry that attracted me; when I became a Bat Mitzvah more than a decade earlier, in the midst of the Jewish exodus from the U.S.S.R., I was paired with a Soviet “twin,” a thirteen-year-old Jewish girl living in the Soviet Union whose government prohibited her from becoming a Bat Mitzvah. Though she and I exchanged numerous letters about our families and schools, we barely discussed Judaism, much less her experience with it in the Soviet Union, for rather obvious reasons. Peculiarly, at that moment when I was directly encountering another’s religious persecution and becoming an adult in the eyes of my religion, I don’t think I grasped, not even remotely, the direness of my twin’s circumstances, the importance of free expression, or the disparate experiences of Jews in other parts of the world.

My naïveté didn’t stem from too much focus on the social aspects of becoming a Bat Mitzvah or a failure of my elders to educate me about the Jewish experience in other parts of the globe. The mere existence of the twinning program and my participation in it were, of course, steps in the right direction. But simple statistics and even the occasional, dry letter from a young Soviet girl couldn’t really put a human face on these alternative realities. Even now, years after the collapse of the Communist bloc, persecution of Jews under the Soviet regime is still unimaginable in ways that the Holocaust never can or will be — this despite the fact that countless survivors of the former persecution still wander the earth while the number of Holocaust survivors is rapidly dwindling. So as clichéd as it sounds, I selected the autobiographically informed Natasha and Other Stories to better understand the predicament faced by Soviet Jewry, to understand what it was like to be prohibited from choosing, much less practicing, your religion and carrying it on to the next generation, to relate to those who were not entirely unlike myself.

But as I read Natasha, with its focus on the struggles of recent Soviet immigrants trying to assimilate into North American Jewish society, I didn’t feel like I was gaining a better understanding of the persecution of Jews in the Soviet Union. That was, I realized, exactly Bezmozgis’ point: assimilated Western Jews can’t relate, we have forgotten some of our own, we have failed to always remember. For me, the most poignant aspect of this realization lies in the fact that I have always been a bit disconcerted about my own relationship to the Holocaust. During two class trips to concentration camps — Dachau when I was 13, another on the outskirts of Berlin at 21 — I felt more isolated than ever as my classmates became deliberately more solemn around me, the sole Jew in each group, from the time that we arrived at the camp until hours later. When they did speak to me, it was to offer an, “I’m sorry,” with the understanding that I knew what they were apologizing for. Or to ask if I’d lost anyone in the Holocaust. (I hadn’t, aside from some distant relatives of my long-deceased maternal grandfather.)

Each time, I couldn’t help wondering: Why did they apologize to me? I wasn’t looking for them to be hostile or indifferent, but another six million non-Jews died as well. Were they also going to apologize to the closeted queer in the bunch who would soon make his sexual preferences known? Did they not feel sad for their loss as humans as well?

And why was I perhaps the least visibly moved by the camp? Certainly not because I’m indifferent to human suffering or because I’m an anti-Semite or a Holocaust-denier. When you attend Hebrew School three times a week for a decade and live in a culture where politics and the media refer every atrocity back to the Holocaust, you are reminded to remember at every turn.

But somewhere in the process you do forget — people who have been persecuted for other reasons, at other times, in other places, people like Bezmozgis and his family. And that’s where the problem lies, in focusing so much on remembering one atrocity at the cost of obscuring others.

Reading about characters like the Kornblums, Holocaust-centric Jews who so readily conflate Judaism and the Holocaust, feels like something of a teenager’s homecoming, somewhat uncomfortable, perhaps even annoying. In other words, the perfect environment to rile us up and make us get to know those not much different than ourselves.

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