“The Toughest Kid in Hebrew School”

May 5, 2004 |

Natasha and Other Stories
By David Bezmozgis
Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 147 pages. $18.

In its darkest years, the Soviet Union swallowed up some of the most promising writers of the 20th century. As readers, we’ll never know exactly how much was lost, but it’s natural to wonder. What if Isaac Babel, the Russian-Jewish master of the modern short story, hadn’t been executed by Stalin’s goons? What if he had escaped Russia to a somewhat friendlier environment — like, say, suburban Toronto in the 1980s?

David Bezmozgis’s Natasha and Other Stories reads like the product of that ridiculous hypothetical. And not only because the Latvian-born Bezmozgis shares Babel’s roots in the U.S.S.R. and his complex position as a Soviet Jew. The two possess similar literary talents for compression, for unusual but precise imagery, and for the devastating phrase. Bezmozgis’s pointed, emotionally resonant tales are so elegant they seem destined, like Babel’s, for anthologies of classic fiction.

In seven stories, Bezmozgis lays out the Canadian immigrant experience as lived by a couple of Jews from Latvia, Roman and Bella Berman, and as narrated by their son Mark. In the early years, money is scarce. Roman’s work at a chocolate bar factory earns almost nothing, and the gorgeous first piece, Tapka, describes the impossibility of raising $1500 for surgery to save a neighbour’s beloved Lhasa apso.

Still, there’s hope. In the case of the injured dog, Mark realizes, “Either money will be found or money will not be necessary.” And Roman can’t contradict a visiting Latvian colleague who, having witnessed beggars “wearing Levi’s jeans and Adidas running shoes” on the streets of Toronto, dismisses Roman’s financial worries with a plain truth: “Believe me, your worst day is better than my best.” (So perfectly does this phrase sum up the hopes of those who move here, perhaps Citizenship and Immigration Canada might want to license it as an advertising slogan: A Canadian’s Worst Day Is Better Than Your Best.)

With time, conditions improve. The Bermans advance from English illiteracy to cultural fluency, from a subsidized apartment to a semi-detached home and onwards to a “new house at the edge of Toronto’s urban sprawl.” At six, Mark picks up fundamental vocabulary (“Hello, havaryew?” as well as playground favourites ” ‘shithead,’ ‘mental case,’ and ‘gaylord’ “); by 16 he’s already graduating from Mordecai Richler to philosophy, not to mention recreational narcotics.

Two of Bezmozgis’s best stories focus on Roman’s past as a weightlifting coach for Latvian Olympians (it was his “responsibility to ensure that all the weightlifters were taking their steroids”), and his struggle to parlay those skills into a career as a masseuse.

In Roman Berman, Massage Therapist, the eponymous patriarch hopes to prop up his fledgling business with the aid of wealthy Toronto Jews. “This was 1983,” Mark relates, “and as Russian Jews, recent immigrants, and political refugees, we were still a cause. We had good PR.”

Roman drags Mark to a rabbi’s office and has him sing Hebrew songs to evince the family’s piousness. An invitation follows to the home of Dr. Harvey Kornblum, where the Bermans dutifully appear (“three refugees and a warm apple cake”) to tell their tale of woe. Contrasting the Bermans, who admit they were only “almost refuseniks,” to another, less pleasant, Soviet family, Bezmozgis limns the humiliation of immigrants lumped together and forced to beg.

The strained relations between Soviet newcomers and established Toronto Jewry (to whom the author refers as “the children of Polish Jews”), reach a head in An Animal to the Memory, Bezmozgis’s nod to the complexities of post-Soviet religious identity and the tensions of Jewish day school. Not accustomed to poverty and 15-year-old Volvos, the private school kids attack: “Fuck you, Berman, and that red shitbox your father drives.” In response, Mark relates, he becomes a kid who, “with the right kind of provocation, punched people in the face.”

“Congratulations,” the Russian punks from Mark’s block tell him, dryly, “you’re the toughest kid in Hebrew school.”

That story ends ambiguously with a stern principal upbraiding Mark on Holocaust Remembrance Day. “So that my uncles hear you in Treblinka!” the rabbi commands; Mark shouts, “I’m a Jew!” Sadly, here Bezmozgis reduces the insoluble puzzle of modern Jewish identity to one monolithic fact: the Holocaust. It’s a typical and disappointing move for a young writer seeking out the kernel of Jewish distinctiveness.

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Later, though, Bezmozgis offers a more inclusive vision, in the voice of a synagogue administrator desperate to attract a quorum: “Homosexuals, murderers, liars, and thieves — I take them all. Without them we would never have a minyan.”

The last three stories in the book shift focus onto Mark’s sexual explorations with a young Russian girl, and his relationships with his grandparents. In Natasha, Bezmozgis delves into sex, drugs, and teen angst, while Chyonski and Minyan aim for pathos in describing the deaths and dire straits of the elderly. Although looser than the first four pieces, the back half of the collection compellingly fleshes out Mark’s growing self-consciousness.

While Natasha and Other Stories comprises a slim 150 pages of text — all seven stories previously published, several still available free on-line — Bezmozgis should be applauded for his willingness to revise. An Animal to the Memory, for example, was first published in paperplates, a Canadian literary magazine, before Bezmozgis’s work exploded in major magazines, including The New Yorker and Harper’s. Whether on his own initiative or with the help of editors, Bezmozgis revised the story for the book, and the new introductory section contextualizes Mark’s religious confusions within his family’s debate between Canada or Israel as their destination, their fear of anti-Semitism, and the religious ambivalence of Soviet Jews.

As a first-time author, Bezmozgis relies thoroughly on autobiographical material, and in the tradition of outstanding debuts like Philip Roth’s Goodbye, Columbus and Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Interpreter of Maladies, he elevates anecdotes culled from family and community into masterful art that transcends ethnic interest. Along with recent books by Soviet emigrants Gary Shteyngart and Lara Vapnyar, Bezmozgis’s stories offer some slight consolation for the loss of literary output under Communist oppression. He’s not quite Babel — no one could be without having ridden alongside the Cossacks — but he’s ours.

[Originally published in The Globe and Mail.]