"People of the Books" Blog

Interview with author Maxim D. Shrayer

Maxim D. Shrayer (www.shrayer.com) is professor of Russian, English, and Jewish studies at Boston College. Among his books are Russian Poet/Soviet Jew and the literary memoir Waiting for America: A Story of Emigration. In 2007 Shrayer won the National Jewish Book Award for An Anthology of Jewish-Russian Literature.

Maxim D. Shrayer in conversation with Marie Cloutier about his new book, the collection of stories YOM KIPPUR IN AMSTERDAM.

7 May 2010

“Yom Kippur in Amsterdam” is a collection of eight short stories about a diverse group of characters, people at different points in their lives and different settings, many of them on the verge of one transition or another. Can you elaborate some of the themes the stories share? How do these eight stories form a whole?

MDS: This sounds both alluring and mysterious. Thank you, Marie, for reading the collection. You’re right that the eight stories in Yom Kippur in Amsterdam aren’t connected by narrative threads. At the same time, thematic ropes and tethers of identity hold the collection together. Seven of the eight stories are set—and the eighth is presumably remembered and told—in Russian America. All theprotagonists except one are Russian immigrants or their children. In these stories, I trace variousobsessions and aspirations of Russian (Soviet) immigrants in America. There is humor and tenderness in the stories, and also heartbreak and nostalgia. There are boundaries of ethnicity, religion, and culture that my characters desperately try yet often fail to cross. The identities of my characters are overloaded (Jewish, Russian, Soviet, almost or partly American) and therefore unstable, volatile. It’s not simple or easy to generalize about one’s own book or one’s beloved characters. I think my new book offers a collective portrait of Jews in America struggling to come to terms with ghosts of their Russian and Soviet pasts.

What was it about these themes that intrigued you? What were you trying to work through or think about as you were writing?

MDS: As you know, there are about 750,000 Jews from the former Soviet Union living in North America, and about a million in Israel. It’s difficult to imagine the fabric of our communities without ex-Soviet Jews. And yet, our stories (or is it our story?) are only now entering the cultural mainstream. Several years ago, in my memoir Waiting for America, I wrote about Soviet Jews waiting in transit, in Austria and Italy, to become Americans. As I worked on the stories in Yom Kippur in Amsterdam, I kept asking myself: Why is it that in America Soviet Jews and their children have been so successful professionally (think, for instance, of the inventor of Google), and yet have not been fully integrated or acculturated as either Jews or Americans? In creating my characters, I wanted to get to the bottom of what it feels like to be constantly wrestling with the mix of prosperity, professional pride, cultural loneliness, and insecurity that defines the lives of many ex-Soviet Jews.

A the end of the title story, Jake, the protagonist, has what struck me as a near-mystical experience, this moment of "piercing clarity." What was this clarity? Does it come from within him, or from an external source? What prepares him (and us) for the change about to overtake him?

MDS: You’re absolutely correct that Jake Glaz undergoes a mystical experience while attending the Yom Kippur service at Amsterdam’s Portuguese synagogue. We should also remember that Glaz comes to Amsterdam in the aftermath of having broken up with his Catholic girlfriend Erin, who wouldn’t convert (he still has strong feelings for her). And let’s also keep in mind that upon arriving in Amsterdam (he stops there on the way home from Nice so as to avoid having to atone in flight), Jake Glaz visits the Red Light district and finds some answers to his dilemma of marriage and identity in a paid-for conversation with a part-German, part-Jewish prostitute. Since the experience Jake undergoes during the Yom Kippur service is a metaphysical one, his “clarity” is quite beyond words—either in his native Russian or his acquired English. It would be presumptuous for me to overinterpret in discursive terms what I have related in the story though a combination of metaphors and a lyrical digression. 

I will tell you this much: Jake’s realization relieves him of some of his doubts about his own identity. Allow me to offer a brief quote from the scene (this is on p. 141 of the book): “Jake was no longer thinking of Yom Kippur, of Erin, of Jewishness and Christianity. Those matters he had already understood, if not fully resolved in his heart, and this knowledge comforted him. He arrived at a plan—in the streets of Amsterdam: he would return to Baltimore, where after seventeen years his immigrant family had rooted themselves; they had even brought back from Moscow and reburied the remains of his father's parents. In four years, when Jake turned forty, he would have lived in America for half his life. Leaving Russia at nineteen, he had carried with him on the plane baggage so heavy that it took him years to unload it and so lofty that there were still times he couldn't stand solidly on American ground. That first flight over the Atlantic was also a flight from all the demons, monsters, and sirens a Jew can never seem to escape.”

How does your book fit into the growing, and fascinating, body of fiction emerging from the post-Soviet landscape?

MDS: That’s certainly not for me to judge, Marie. Take a look at this very amusing flyer (attached). A colleague of mine found it in a blog devoted to things Russian, American and literary. As you can see, this list of younger writers (how young is younger—in the Soviet Union it was 35, sometimes even 40), includes 5 authors born in the former USSR and writing in English, 1 author born in the USSR and writing in both English and Russian, 1 American-born author of Turkish descent with Russian literary interests, and 1 American-born author (whose origins I honestly don’t know) who writes fictions about Russian characters. What do you make of such a category of writers “on notice”? I certainly agree that the Russian-American literary landscape is beginning to expand again. But people sometimes forget that the Russian presence in Anglo-American letters goes back to the 1800s, and also that we have yet to climb peak Lolita or to descend to the bottom of canyon Fountainhead.

Tapping your expertise as a scholar of Soviet and Jewish literature, what are some recent Jewish/Russian fiction and nonfiction that Judaica librarians might consider adding to their collections?

MDS: Volume 2 of Antony Polonsky’s The Jews in Poland and Russia is a must (it was just released), along with the previously published volume 1. It would also make me very happy if Judaica librarians got to know my Anthology of Jewish-Russian Literature. 

Would you be willing to share a personal memory about a library that helped shape you as a scholar and a writer?

MDS: In the spring of 1993 I spent almost two months in Prague gathering materials for what would eventually become my first book, The World of Nabokov’s Stories. I was renting a section in the house of Viktor Faktor, a vintage ’68 Czech dissident. Every morning I would have breakfast in an overflowing cherry orchard and then take a tram to the center of town. I would walk across the Charles Bridge and then disappear in the cloisters of the Slavonic Library. I was researching aspects of Russian émigré culture in then the recently opened holdings of what had remained of the Russian Historical Archive Abroad. Dr. Milena Klímová, at the time director of the Slavonic Library, introduced me to a saintly archivist by the name of Helena Musátova. 

A Prague-born daughter of Russian émigrés, Ms. Musátova was herself a living legacy of the great interwar émigré culture which had been destroyed and dispersed by the fires of World War 2 and the Holocaust. With Ms. Musátova’s help, I was able to read though the complete runs of dozens of émigré newspapers and magazines. I made small discoveries. To the librarians at the Slavonic Library—and to other dedicated librarians with whom I’ve had the good fortune of working—I owe a debt of gratitude. So imagine, I would spend the day perusing the time-yellowed émigré publications, and then I would wander around Prague, coming onto vestiges of its Jewish and Russian past—now Kafka’s grave, now a cottage where Tsvetaeva had stayed in the 1920s. That “Prague spring” of research and discovery has influenced me profoundly, and I have yet to cast these impressions and memories into creative prose.

It’s a pleasure to talk to you, Marie. Good luck.

7 May 2010.
Maxim D. Shrayer’s answers copyright © Maxim D. Shrayer.

For Shavuot - A Memory and a Poem

For the holiday of Shavuot, AJL President Susan Dubin wanted to share a family tradition and poem she wrote about the holiday and what it means to her:

I share the book The 11th Commandment and have the children share their own 11th commandment. I also have written several poems that I am happy to share about the story of Ruth:


Orpah

I am alone now.

My husband is dead.

My father-in-law is also gone, as is my husband's brother.

But still I had you, Mother Naomi, and Ruth, my sister.

I know I am not the daughter of your flesh,

But you are the mother of my heart.

I did not share parents with you, Ruth,

But you are my chosen sibling.

And now you, too, must go.

So, I am truly alone.



I cannot come with you like my sister Ruth.

It is not because I love you less, Mother.

My home is not in Israel.

My people are not the children of Jacob.

My god is not the God of Abraham.

I would be a stranger in your land.



When you have returned to your home, Mother,

Will you remember me?

I knew happiness with your son.

He loved me, and I loved him.

If he had lived, I would still be your daughter.

My children would be part of your household.

But you have left me in my own land.

I will never see your face again.

For this I weep.



Good-bye, Naomi.

Your Moabite daughter will sing your praises now and forever.

Good-bye, Ruth.

Hold the memory of your Moabite sister in your heart.


Ruth

When I said that I would follow you,

I did not know where we would go.

I did not know who we would meet.

I did not know.



When I said that I would be one with your people,

I did not know how different our life would be.

I did not know how bitter you would become.

I did not know.



When I said that I would accept your God,

I did not know if your God would accept me.

I did not know if I could truly believe.

I did not know.



Now I know that when my husband died my life was not over.

Now I know that love can be mine again.

Now I know that happiness still awaits me.

Now I know.



Your people have shown me kindness and compassion.

Your kinsman has accepted my love.

Now I am a daughter of Israel even though I was born a stranger.

Now I am home.



Naomi

How can I welcome this bride of my son?

She is not of my people.

She is not of my land.



And yet, she has been a faithful wife.

She has been a devoted daughter.



If she comes with me,

I will have to care for her.

I am afraid that my shriveled heart

Cannot make room for her devotion.



She claims that she desires only to make my people hers,

My home, her home,

My G-d, her G-d.

But what if she grows lonely for her own people,

Her own land, her own G-D?



I know not what awaits me in Bethlehem.

Maybe all she wants is my mother-love.

But I am a bitter woman

Who dares not promise anything.

If she leaves me, I will truly have nothing.

Can her daughter-love sweeten my sour soul?

Spotlight on: Incoming Officers- Daniel Scheide

My regular job is as a cataloger for Florida Atlantic University; I also coordinate the book reviews for the AJL Newsletter. This involves contacting publishers and asking them for free books. And they actually agree to this! So my office is usually filled with books that are going to reviewers.   My house is filled with books as well, most of which I haven’t read. There are books I intend to read, books I think I should read one day but know that I won’t, and books that simply look nice on the shelf. I think the real reason I have them is that I like to be prepared; if someone asks for the source of a rabbinical quotation or an unusual minhag, I can nonchalantly walk over to the bookshelf and answer them. If that’s not sufficient, I will navigate my way through the internet. Or IM one of my AJL buddies on Facebook who may have more expertise in that particular area.

People get into this profession because they love information. These days, the amount of information we all have access to is staggering. It’s exciting, yet intimidating. As professionals, we have the training and the desire to work our way through this information, to help others find and use resources that will ultimately lead them to the answers they seek. These resources are arguably our most important tools. It is crucial that we continually evaluate our reference sources and keep current in all fields of Jewish studies.   I’m running for the position of RAS vice-president. This largely entails chairing the Judaica Reference and Bibliography Awards Committees. The Association of Jewish Libraries is a great resource for Judaica librarians to share ideas, learn from each other and find inspiration when we get stuck in a rut. I’m excited to be a part of this organization.   Get involved in AJL. There is so much you can learn from us and so much we can learn from you.

Convention Countdown, Week 2: Our Keynote!

Dr. Joseph Janes will be the keynote speaker at the 2010 AJL Convention. An Associate Professor at the Information School of the University of Washington, he is the founding director of the Internet Public Library (www.ipl.org). He writes the "Internet Librarian" column for American Libraries magazine. As you can see in this video, he is a very interesting speaker! Take a look, then read his exclusive AJL interview below.

 

Dr. Janes, can you give us a sneak peak into the theme of your keynote address for AJL?

I’d love to—but I haven’t written it yet! I’ll do my best to make it interesting, at least as a preamble to the fireworks later that night.

You are the founder of the Internet Public Library, and very involved in digital life. Why is it important for librarians to participate in the online world?

Is it possible not to? It’s an ever-more digital world, as people spend more time there, more resources are born digital, and the expectation of instant access to, well, everything, approaches the universal. With only very rare and increasingly exotic specialized environments, an online presence is critical if not imperative.

Studies have shown that Seattle is the most literate city in the nation. What makes Seattle such a great place for reading and libraries? Can you give us a recommendation for any recent books you enjoyed? 

You mean besides the rain and the coffee? We spend a lot of time inside, caffeinated, so we’re alert and reading fits in there beautifully. We also have great libraries in the region, of all kinds, and fantastic librarians who make it all work.

I just finished Alistair Horne’s Seven Ages of Paris, which is just the sort of popular history I enjoy, vividly and cogently written, with a vibrant feeling for the place and the people. I’ve switched gears back to an old favorite, rereading Terry Pratchett’s Going Postal (again).

The Seattle area is the home of both Amazon and Apple. What’s your preference, Kindle or iPad? Your feelings on digital books? 

I don’t have either one, though when I saw the first iPad commercial I started to drool in much the same way I did when the iPod came out. The “book” obviously is undergoing a transformation in form of epochal proportions, as the physical codex coexists with emerging digital forms for some time to come. I can’t imagine the current digital versions will be the final ones, and there are lots of issues yet to be resolved about shape, size, standards, rights management, interoperability, the reading experience, and so on…but I also think that this evolution will happen really fast and will be better off with the participation and insight of librarians, on behalf of the communities we serve and represent.

What Seattle experience should visitors be sure not to miss?

So many to choose from! Pike Place Market, of course, Pioneer Square, a ride up in the Space Needle, the flagship Nordstrom’s, local coffee (try Stumptown, available at some cafes downtown)…but worth trying a few less-well-known things as well: take a ferry over to Bremerton or Bainbridge Island, worth it for the view alone, wander down 1st Street to see the marquee for the Lusty Lady before they tear it down, and of course visit the spectacular Central Library on Fifth and Spring, just a few blocks from the Fairmont. When I’m downtown, I always love to just wander around, and look up; there are some fantastic architectural features on many buildings in the area, and it’s all quite walkable (though hilly in spots); bring comfortable shoes and enjoy!

Dr. Janes, thanks for speaking with us! We're looking forward to your keynote presentation at the AJL Convention!

MENTION CONVENTION

Enter the Mention Convention weekly drawing for a $10 Amazon gift card by linking back to this interview during the week of May 16-22 , 2010 on your blog, on Facebook, or on Twitter (hashtag #AJL10) — just email [email protected] to show us what you did!

Nonfiction Monday: Emma's Poem, by Linda Glaser

Emma's Poem, by Linda Glaser with illustrations by Claire A. Nivola. Published 2010 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Emma's Poem is a lovely book about Emma Lazarus, activist for the poor and writer of "The New Colossus," the famous poem about the Statue of Liberty.

This charming book recounts her life story in a sweet, simple tone. Lazarus was born into a wealthy family but believed that educating the many struggling immigrants coming to the United States in the late nineteenth century would eventually yield benefits for society at large. She died young, at age 38, but left a lasting legacy of compassion towards the less fortunate.

The text, written in simple free verse poetry, is accompanied by Claire A. Nivola's delicate artwork. I've always admired the way Nivola shows details of clothing and domestic interiors, and she recreates Lazarus's privileged surroundings as well as scenes of immigrants arriving and the State of Liberty with equal grace.

Emma's Poem would make a lovely starting point for story-time for children of varying ages, as the librarian could choose to emphasize different parts of her story or use it as the basis for a variety of discussions on American and Jewish history, as well as tikkun olam and other Jewish values.

Nonfiction Monday is a moving meme headquartered at Picture Book of the Day and hosted this week at Rasco from RIF.