The Hollowing of Gary Shteyngart
In the middle of his much discussed memoir Little Failure, the novelist Gary Shteyngart describes attending the 25th reunion at the Solomon Schechter School of Queens—a Jewish day school where he was enrolled as a child in the 1980s after his family had emigrated from the Soviet Union. He writes:
And as I glance around at my former classmates, a thought occurs to me. This is a community. These people know one another, understand one another, came of age with one another. They were tied by kin and outlook, as were their parents. As were their parents before them. Moms making rugelach in advanced baking ovens, dads talking mileage on their new Lincolns, the drowsy, hypnotic hum of cantors and rabbis on Saturday mornings. What happened here, this was nobody’s fault. We Soviet Jews were simply invited to the wrong party. And then we were too frightened to leave. Because we didn’t know who we were. In this book, I am trying to say who we were.
What exactly do those last few sentences mean? In what sense were Soviet Jews invited to the “wrong party” in America? Where would they have gone to had they not been too frightened to leave? And why didn’t they know who they were?
It is ironic that Shteyngart, an extraordinarily successful writer with three bestselling novels, would choose to frame his story and the story of “his people” in such a light. It is unquestionable that Jews who left the Soviet Union in the 1970s and 1980s knew exactly what they were leaving and where they were going. And they got there.
True, American Jews might have been surprised and even put off by their pork-eating, Russian-speaking brethren. But that attitude did nothing to slow down the astonishing rapidity with which Russian-Jewish immigrants assimilated into American society. The neighborhoods in which they originally settled, most famously the “Little Odessa” of Brooklyn’s Brighton Beach, are largely a thing of the past. The younger generation, the generation of Shteyngart, has moved on—so, for that matter, have their parents.
Perhaps the “wrong party” to which Russian Jews were invited was American Judaism. The Soviet Union made it all but impossible for them to observe their faith in any meaningful sense, and it is true that most Russian Jews have not become observant during their decades in America. But then, that is true of the vast majority of American Jews as well.
Or was the “wrong party” the United States? If that is what Shteyngart means, it is a claim absurd on its face. Russian Jews didn’t leave America soon after their arrival because they were too frightened to do so; they didn’t leave because they didn’t want to leave and had no reason to do so.
Shteyngart is up to something very interesting and very troubling. Though he maintains the comic perspective of his previous work, his aim in Little Failure is bold and revisionist. In it he aims to rewrite one of the main narratives of recent American Jewish history—the exodus of Soviet Jewry. According to Shteyngart, the success achieved by Soviet Jewish immigrants in America conceals a failure or even a tragedy.
Little Failure is a balancing act. On the one hand, it hilariously and poignantly tells Shteyngart’s story of leaving (and never quite leaving) Russia and coming to terms with America—from the early childhood in Leningrad, to his “torturous” Jewish education in New York, to the secular public halls of the glorious Stuyvesant High School, to the pot-smelling dorms of Oberlin College. On the other hand, he attempts to generalize from his experience and create a paradigmatic ethnic identity story for the Russian-Jewish immigrant.
This is overwhelmingly problematic, because Shteyngart’s story is and should be his own. It’s hardly surprising that not all Russian Jewish families function as his does, with parents who hate each other, whose speech consists largely of profanities, and who emotionally smother their children.
Dysfunctional families can be funny, and without question, Shteyngart is a funny writer. But this portrayal of dysfunction is meant to illuminate the more general cultural experience of being a Soviet Jew in America. Shteyngart defines this culture both psychologically and politically. Soviet Jews are frightened of everything and it is this fear they bring to America, where it is soon transmuted into something much more pernicious—namely, racism.
“We are refugees and even Jews, which in the Soviet Union never won you any favors, but we are also something that we never really had the chance to appreciate back home. We are white,” Shteyngart writes. The young Shteyngart, who grew up in this racist atmosphere, is finally able to extricate himself from it and learns to live with his parents’ sins.
His aim is, at core, political: to brand Republicanism as racism, both in American terms and in terms of the support of Israel. We learn that his parents, especially his father, are vulgar haters of Arabs and lovers of Israel. No longer a Republican and not terribly interested in Israel, the adult Shteyngart ceases to be a Russian “without the anger-fueled right-wing fanaticism.”
Shteyngart contradicts himself. He says the Russian Jews didn’t know who they were. But then he says they did—they knew they were Republicans and they supported Israel. And through this knowledge, they found a way to fit in. But it is not a way he approves of. By doing so, in Shteyngart’s view, they have helped to populate the country’s most unattractive corners and have denied the better part of who they are.
What is the better part? Not their Jewishness, certainly. Being Jewish is essential to them, but that fact does not manifest itself culturally or religiously. Gary’s mother cannot cook Jewish dishes and even his grandmother feeds him chips and burgers in America. They do not speak much Yiddish and do not know Hebrew. Their Jewishness does sit deeply in their bones, but there is little that is positive about it.
What is positive, what is redeeming, curiously, is their Russianness: “Behind those accents, behind the fearful, angry, conservative views, there is culture of the kind Pamela [Shteyngart’s American girlfriend] can only imagine, the culture of a superpower that was tossed on history’s ash heap, but the culture of Pushkin and Eisenstein and Shostakovich and Eskimo ice cream and diapers that had to be washed and hung out to dry, and black-market Grundig radios desperately trying to catch voice of America and the BBC.”
This is an interesting hodgepodge—Russian pride and Soviet nostalgia coming from a man whose family fled the institutional Jew-hatred of a totalitarian regime. Shteyngart’s list is carefully selective, to the exclusion of anything Jewish. The actual Soviet Jewish list would have been far more complex. What about the fact that along with BBC and the voice of America, the voice of Israel was also desperately sought out? What about the cultural resonances of Sholem Aleichem, whose six-volume collected writings in Russian were in practically every single Soviet Jewish household? What of the German Jewish writer Leon Feuchtwanger, whose historical novels about Josephus and medieval Spain practically constituted the Soviet Jewish Bible? There is much to excavate in how the traces of Jewish memory functioned in the Soviet context, but Shteyngart does not go near those sites.
Shteyngart offers a telling description of the bookcase in his parents’ house in Queens. Most prominent are the Russian classics, but the shelves also feature “a siddur, enclosed in a plastic case and coated with fake silver and fake emeralds. It is written in a language none of us understands, but it is so holy that it blocks out the Pushkin that my parents have all but committed to memory.” It is safe to assume that the siddur was acquired in America, most likely given as a gift to the family by the local synagogue. In his view, the garish tome is a false idol, decorated with cheap stones, that obstructs the true deity—Pushkin, the 19th-century poet, indeed viewed throughout Russian history as a cultural deity.
Shteyngart claims in the book that he is trying to understand his parents. Why then not presume that they in fact treasured that prayer book, even if they could not read it? Why not presume that their Jewishness may not only be expressed through their traumatic memories and “reactionary” politics?
His evocation of the bookcase is a striking parallel—perhaps deliberately so—with a similar description in Osip Mandelstam’s autobiography, The Noise of Time, published in 1925. A great Russian poet who died in the gulag in 1938 and who had a complicated relationship with his own Jewishness, Mandelstam describes his parents’ bookcase’s lower shelf as the dusty domain of unread Jewish scripture, with the Russian and German classics towering over it.
Is it because of this sort of perspective that Shteyngart cannot imagine a Jewish religious text being genuinely revered in a Russian Jewish household? If so, he should have kept in mind the enormous respect Mandelstam had for not only for the Bible, but also modern Hebrew and Yiddish culture.
Shteyngart ends Little Failure on a sentimental note. He returns to his native city of St. Petersburg with his parents for the first time after they all left Russia decades ago. They show him “their” Petersburg (or, rather, Leningrad), and his father reminisces, at times very painfully, about his past. They visit Shteyngart’s grandfather’s grave, where Gary chants the Mourner’s Kaddish.
“I can read the prayer, but I cannot understand it,” Shteyngart writes. “The words coming out of my mouth are gibberish to me. And they can only be gibberish to my father’s ear as well…I chant the gibberish backwards and forwards, tripping over the words, mangling them, making them more Russian, more American, more holy.” While Jewishness is not being denied, the actual traditional Jewish element is described as “gibberish,” and is made “more holy” by the author’s Russian and American accent and intonation. As his book concludes, Pushkin once again triumphs over the siddur.
And so the infamous Soviet project of hollowing out Jewishness, which should have died with the death of the Communist regime, has now entered American literature—through the work of Gary Shteyngart.