You are here
Interview with author Lev Golinkin
Interview with author Lev Golinkin
Spertus Institute Assistant Editor Joanna Rothenberg recently spoke over the phone with Lev Golinkin, author of A Backpack, a Bear, and Eight Crates of Vodka, this year’s One Book | One Community selection. This is an edited version of their conversation.
I’m sure this has been a pretty hectic year for you. What has it been like since the book was published?
It’s been interesting. The book came out last November. It feels like my publicist put me in a chair one day and started to slowly spin it, spinning me a little faster every day. For me, looking at the book on the shelf — after working on it for eight years — is still strange. It’s even stranger to talk to people who actually read the book.
There have been cool little moments where I realize I’m a writer — like being able to contact a newspaper or a magazine and have them actually email me back. [Editor’s note: You can find Lev’s essays and opinion pieces— on topics ranging from baseball to the current situation in Ukraine — in publications including The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, and The Boston Globe.]
And while I don’t speak for all Soviet Jews, I’m glad I can share my family’s perspective with the American Jews who fought so hard for us.
How does it feel to be reviewed in highly respected papers like the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal?
With the New York Times, I didn’t know if or when it was going to run — only the New York Times knows. One day my friend Jeff texted me a message: “Hey, sweet review in the New York Times.” With Jeff that could mean anything from “sweet review in the New York Times” to “you were just berated by the New York Times” to “there is no review and I’m just messing with you.”
I knew if I called he would mess with me even more. And I didn’t have Internet reception right then, so I started running around holding my phone up, trying to get a signal. When I finally downloaded the review, I read it in a panic trying to find the part where the reviewer mutilated my book.
Really, it felt incredible.
Your family members are key characters in the book. Do your parents agree with the way you portrayed their experiences?
I was very careful to make sure that was the case. Because my family members are not just characters, they’re people — people with my cellphone number, who know how to guilt me into things.
Overall, my parents really like the book. There were places where they requested that I make minor changes, with the name of my teacher from the Soviet school for example. I portrayed my teacher as I remembered her, including the use of her real name, but my mom said I had to change it. My mom said “listen, she was the good one. We lobbied to get you into her class because she was known for being nice towards Jews.” After thinking about that being the “nice” option, I immediately called my editor saying we had to change the name to protect her.
Even my sister, whom I'd bet wouldn’t read the book, liked it. I did have to agree to not use her real name, although I didn’t use the name she suggested. She said “I want my name to be Abigail.” Can you imagine Lev, Svetlana, Samuel, and... Abigail? That wasn’t going to happen.
In addition to my sister and parents, people in Austria liked the book. Peter [a key character] liked it. One of my favorite compliments is when people who know the people in the book say I describe them well.
Did you study the USSR in school after immigrating to the US?
Aside from a few political science courses I took in college for fun, I didn’t. But it didn’t bother me that we never covered it in high school. At that time, I was still distancing myself from my past.
When your book was selected, a number of us on staff were reading and discussing it. Some remembered the movement to free Soviet Jewry, others were too young. What would you recommend for those seeking to learn about that time?
- Gary Shteyngart’s Little Failure. A memoir by the godfather of this generation of Soviet Jewish lit.
- Boris Fishman’s A Replacement Life. Great novel based on author's experiences — he talks about life as a 1.5 generation Soviet immigrant. And funny as hell.
- David Remnick’s Lenin's Tomb. He won a Pulitzer about the collapse of the Soviet Union.
- Jack Matlock’s Autopsy of an Empire. Matlock was Reagan and Bush 41's ambassador to the Soviet Union. He was right there when everything went down.
- Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch. This book shook the Soviet Union. Solzhenitsyn spent 10 years in the Gulag [labor camps]. He then wrote a story about it. In the 1950s, the Soviet Union made the mistake of allowing it to be published, and it stirred the USSR so much they quickly banned it. My father had an illegal copy, and my mom and grandma burned it when the KGB searched our house. My sister tells me about that in the book, in the The Black Witch Comes to Kharkov chapter.
- Gal Beckerman’s When They Come for Us, We'll Be Gone. This is a recent book about the American Jewish struggle to save Soviet Jewry. It won the National Jewish Book award.
Do you see parallels between your story and refugees today?
I see it in a very horrifying way. I see what these people [those coming from Syria and North Africa] are going through and it’s surreal. Twenty-five years ago, that was my family. In comparison, our circumstances were easy. We had people who took responsibility for us, like those from HIAS and the Joint [the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee]. And behind those organizations was the political will, the money, and the passion of the American Jews.
The year we came out [of the Soviet Union] there were a lot more refugees then had been expected, but the Jewish community responded with flying colors. They stepped it up. People in Indiana adopted us. People in countless other communities adopted other Soviet Jews. American Jews and Jewish organizations took responsibility for us. We had nothing, and they went to work.
I’m terrified that the refugees today are coming with nothing and no one is taking responsibility for them. I hope the United States will do as much as it can to help these people out.
It’s hard to imagine now, but for 50 years, the Soviet Union was Al-Qaeda. My family was the enemy. We were seen as communist spies. We were the ones Americans were terrified about. Even in the 1980s, we were seen as coming from the evil empire. But in reality, my family, like many others, were stuck behind enemy lines. It’s the same for many of these families coming from Syria.
Is there anything you miss about Soviet Russia?
No. Next question.
Seriously, I have no fond memories. But people like my parents, they had lifetimes of moments spent with friends, weddings, and personal memories even a dictatorship can’t take away.
On a lighter note, I’m a huge baseball fan, so I have to ask about the reactions from the guests at the wedding in Austria you recount, about you in your Boston Red Sox gear.
They were just shocked. Peter [who guides Lev and his friends through a wedding in progress to show them a basilica] has this air of being in charge. The guests froze, then tried to continue on with the wedding as though we weren’t there. There really was nothing to do but keep on going.
I actually wanted to put in a little footnote in the book saying “If you were at that wedding, I would love to have some photos.” I’m hoping someone from the wedding reads my book and gets in touch with me.
How does it feel to have the book selected for Chicago’s One Book project, knowing a large portion of Jewish Chicago will be reading it?
Before I started to write, I put together a proposal that included a marketing analysis, addressing the question: Who is this book for?
I had three dream audiences: college students, American Jews, and book clubs. Through One Book, I’m reaching my target audiences. It’s humbling; especially considering that this is a very personal book for me. I’m reaching out not just as a writer but as someone whose life has been heavily shaped by the American Jewish community, in the Midwest, in Indiana only two hours away.
You work so hard for something like writing this book. In my case, eight years of writing and picturing those readers. Knowing that the book resonates, is a hell of an honor. It feels like more than that too. It’s magic.
What do you have piled up on your reading list?
Currently? A lot. I actually stayed away from reading memoirs while I was writing so I have a few of them I want to read now. Unfortunately, when I stared writing I became less of a reader.
I'm currently reading Gerard Russell’s Heirs to Forgotten Kingdoms.
What projects are you currently working on?
Writing-wise, I've concentrated on Ukraine recently because I think the narrative in American media is very narrow and I think Ukraine is going to come back in the news in a very dangerous way.
And I'm hoping to do some magazine pieces before working on the next book. One of the best parts of writing A Backpack was getting to interview people who helped my family, and setting their stories down. That's why I'd love to try my hand at some magazine features.
Do you still have Comrade Bear?
Yes. In fact my dad actually said I should bring him with me as I tour about the book. But I said, “No, he’s not for the world to see. He doesn’t travel with me anymore. “