The ProsenPeople

Interview: Yelena Akhtiorskaya

Wednesday, October 01, 2014 | Permalink

by Nat Bernstein

Yelena Akhtiorskaya was recently named one of the National Book Foundation's 2014 5 Under 35 Honorees. Her debut novel Panic in a Suitcase was published in July by Riverhead.

Nat Bernstein: What was the impetus behind Panic in a Suitcase? What inspired the novel, and what pushed you to write it?

Yelena Akhtiorskaya: The impetus for Panic in a Suitcase was really just the vague but potent need to write that is always present, always nag­ging, like a feral beast-child that will bite off your arm if you don’t keep throwing things at it. The only thing I happened to have on hand was “my experience.” I wish I could’ve given it something tastier and more satisfying, but it was an emergency situation and the most important thing is that I saved myself—for now.

The inspiration was my family and the hilarious and devastating ab­surdity that is Brighton Beach. What pushed me to write it, other than compulsion, was a desire to chronicle, understand, and conquer.

NLB: Your bio indicates that you share roots in Odessa and Brighton Beach in common with your characters. To what extent is the novel autobiographical?

YA: With the novel it’s hard to say, but my bio is almost entirely autobio­graphical.

NLB: As a writer, where or how do you see your fiction and nonfiction writing interact?

YA: I don’t write very much nonfiction, and, to be honest, when I do I have the sense that I’m tricking somebody because I don’t entirely understand the distinction. A piece of writing is either good or not. The good is true, the not good is false. Everything a person writes should be infused with her opinions, thoughts, feelings, moods, dreams. Basically, the goal is to have a really good infusion mechanism worked out.

NLB: We tend to focus on the isolation and perpetual homelessness of the immigrant experience (I’m thinking of Jhumpa Lahiri’s stories, in particular, or Junot Diaz, Julie Otsuka) but the cast of Panic in a Suitcase convey the opposite phenomenon: the transplants—Marina, Esther, Robert—share a groundedness in where they are and con­nectivity with the members of their family and acquaintances, while Frida and Pasha seem individually alienated and alienating both at home and abroad. Do you find something unifying in the immigrant experience of which perhaps their rooted relatives feel an absence or distance?

YA: For better or worse, you take yourself wherever you go, so people who are grounded, practical, sane, and social in the old country, will be the same in their new land, whereas people who are miserable, unbearable, and isolated are going to stay that way wherever they go (which is why it’s probably best they stay put). Pasha and Frida are of the latter variety. It doesn’t matter where they are. The outside world, made of crowds and noise, is there to be bristled against and pushed out. But I absolutely think immigration can be invigorating, and serve to strengthen bonds.

NLB: Pasha is set (or sets himself) apart from his family in every conceivable way: a poet in a family of medicine, he languishes in Odessa rather than joining his eager parents and sister in the United States—and renounces his religious heritage for Christianity. What do you feel is the starkest line of division between him and his immediate relatives?

YA: The Atlantic Ocean is a pretty good partition, even considering Skype. There’s just something to be said for sheer distance. Essentially, the starkest line of division is an invisible one—it’s something inside of Pasha that allows him to have an independent way of thinking and to make the decisions that then seem to be the things that set him apart. The specific decisions matter less. Pasha could’ve substituted Christian­ity with a lot of things. But I don’t know if he could’ve been as apart if he lived on the same block in Brighton Beach.

NLB: Is Pasha—as the persona of Pavel Robertovich Nasmertov, “the great Russian poet”—based or inspired by a real-life or literary figure?

YA: I should probably be coy about this, but my uncle is a Russian poet, and he is pretty great.

NLB: Do you share Frida’s sublimated belief that “old Odessa’s great­ness lay solely in its Jews”—many of whom relocated to the commu­nity in which you grew up?

YA: I think that’s being simplistic about it! Like you said, a large contin­gent of Odessan Jewry relocated to Brighton Beach and yet it’s very dif­ficult to imagine that the Brighton Beach community ever contributed to a city’s greatness, let alone been solely responsible for it. And I don’t think getting a quarter million Jews to settle in Odessa today would bring back the magic—though some would say that the magic isn’t even gone, and on certain days I might agree; it’s really a lovely city. But I attribute the city’s current loveliness to a mixture of nice architecture, a quaint feeling, the eternal sea breeze, nostalgia, and the glowing em­bers of true historical specialness. That specialness was a result of many factors, but the Jews were, I think, the most integral.

NLB: The current literary scene is boasting a wealth of novels exploring the simultaneous collective and individual narratives of Soviet immi­grant families, pervaded by something of a chronic melancholy, or dis­satisfaction, or detachment. Do you think Soviet-heritage writers have been in a sense doomed to write about “unhappy families” since Tolstoy penned the opening to Anna Karenina—does the common exploration of family micro-turmoil stem from a literary legacy, or from something intrinsic to the culture and identity of a Russian-speaking household?

YA: Tolstoy had a catchy line but I think all writers regardless of culture or era are doomed to write about unhappy families because they’re doomed to live in them, and often be the singlehanded cause of the un­happiness. Probably immigrant writers in general are going to be crank­ing out more family-heavy stuff because often it’s the family unit that gets unmoored and transplanted into a new place where everything is strange and foreign. The walls around the family fortify and inside those walls temperatures rise, resulting in a thick, garlicky, incestuous stew that is irresistible to write about. (What else are you going to do with it?) If there’s anything particularly Russian, though, it’s the chronic melancholy and dissatisfaction. That is the Russian tradition. Russians are fantastic, maybe the best, at suffering.

NLB: What other works inform your writing? Which authors—classic or contemporary—were most influential while you worked on Panic in a Suitcase?

YA: As far as I’m aware, it’s still a mystery how the brain decides which input will inform the output and which will be filed away in some unknown location, never to be accessed again except in polite dinner conversation. Since I don’t have control over this process, it’s necessary to be extremely careful. Even one crappy book is dangerous. While writ­ing this book, I was reading Bellow, Nabokov, Tolstoy, Platonov, Leonard Michaels, Clarice Lispecter, Harold Brodkey. It wasn’t on purpose, but it seems that if I was reading you, you’re Jewish, Russian, or Russian-Jewish, and dead.

NLB: What are you reading now, and what can your readers expect from you next?

YA: I’m reading Musil’s The Man Without Qualities and a statistics textbook. I just read Elaine Kraf’s The Princess of 72nd Street and it is unbelievable. I urge you to read it! As for what’s next, I’ve learned this is a giant letdown, and I apologize in advance, but I’m afraid it’s going to be a story collection.

Nat Bernstein is the JBC Network Coordinator at the Jewish Book Council and a graduate of Hampshire College.

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Jewish People and Books

Friday, June 08, 2012 | Permalink
Earlier this week, Yehuda Kurtzer wrote about a recent Commentary article by Jack Wertheimer and the transmission of memory. He has been blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

Do the Jewish People need more books? And are books the key to Jewish innovation? In the 1920s Franz Rosenzweig wrote that “It could hardly be asserted that the great urgency of the present moment is to organize the science of Judaism or to prompt both Jews and non-Jews to the endless writings of books on Jewish subjects. Books are not now the prime need of the day. But what we need more than ever, or at least as much as ever, are human beings—Jewish human beings, to use a catchword that should be cleansed of the partisan associations still clinging to it.”

Rosenzweig then, and we in the business of Jewish education now, sense that the conditions in which modern Judaism is struggling for a continuous foothold require something more than the perpetuation of Jewish knowledge for knowledge’s sake; that our seeking, studying, teaching and learning needs to focus on human outcomes. Accordingly, the trend in the so-called innovation sector focuses heavily on just the “Jewish human beings” that Rosenzweig calls for: on innovators themselves, on people with ideas who fall between the margins of the institutions.

And yet it has always seemed ironic to me that with all the advances in our knowledge of Jewish history, and the successes of Jewish Studies in the academy, that we know now more about the Jewish past than we have ever known before; but as a community, we tend to care about the past less than ever. To paraphrase Leon Wieseltier, our collective ignorance of the classical Jewish past may be the scandal of contemporary American Jewry. I am concerned that the fixation on new programs – even in the embodiment of new individuals to lead the Jewish community – is alone insufficient to make a credible claim for the legacy of what this generation of Jewish life is going to leave behind, that we are substituting program leadership for the thought-leadership that ultimately has kept intellectual history in productive parallel with actual Jewish history.

I see the classical rabbis as the paradigmatic bridge-builders between the perpetuation of ideas and the programmatic work of innovation: they were architects not only of an extraordinary literature – one that they tied to the authenticity of the Bible through an ideology of calling it a second Torah, the oral Torah – but also of systems for Jewish life to enable Judaism to change productively through a period of existential challenge.

So I am not sure that a book – even if it is not the book that Rosenzweig derides – turns the tide for the innovation sector (which is not to say I was not grateful for the philanthropic experimentation that brought it about!). But it does make me hopeful that we are remembering the legacy of the transmission of ideas that has helped define Jewish life in the past as we do the work of redefining Jewish life in the present.

Yehuda Kurtzer is the president of the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America. His first book, Shuva: The Future of the Jewish Past, is now available

Transmission of Memory

Wednesday, June 06, 2012 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Yehuda Kurtzer wrote about a recent Commentary article by Jack Wertheimer. He will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

When my son Noah was about 3 or 4, he came home from school one day and asked me, “Abba, who are the Jewish people?” Thrilled by this opportunity to really begin in earnest my son’s Jewish education, and by the depth of this question coming at such a young age, I replied, “Why, Noah – we are the Jewish people!” Whereupon he burst into tears, inconsolable. When I finally calmed him down, I asked him why he was so upset. “Because I don’t want Pharaoh to hurt me!”

I was conflicted about how to answer him. My parenting instincts inclined me to disabuse him of the myth altogether: to tell him that it was just a story from a long time ago, that he was safe, that maybe the story wasn’t even true. Goodness knows a toddler does not need to be terrified by Judaism in general, much less as a catalyst for his sense of belonging to a story he is just learning about for the first time.

At the same time, I was proud to see that he had unwittingly internalized the mandate of the Passover Haggadah: that in every generation a person is obligated to see themselves as though they left Egypt. Pharaoh was alive for him, a source of genuine terror. The non-parental, Jewish educator side of me wanted to shrug my shoulders and tell him, “Shver tsu zayn a yid.”

This is a defining question in Jewish education, as it goes to the heart of what it means to create, cultivate and transmit memory. Not facts, not history, and not just values and ideas that are critically important as part of the texture of an intellectually credible Jewish education, but memory – that sense of belonging to a narrative that precedes you and will outlast you, and a set of stories and visceral experiences in which you may not have physically participated but are part of defining the identity to which you belong. But is there a workable way to transmit the power of traumatic memory, without creating post-traumatic stress?

Yehuda Kurtzer is the president of the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America. His first book, Shuva: The Future of the Jewish Past, is now available.

The Future of the Past

Monday, June 04, 2012 | Permalink

Yehuda Kurtzer is the author of Shuva: The Future of the Jewish Past. He will blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

In a recent Commentary article, Jack Wertheimer once again takes on the trends in American Jewry – individualism, pluralism, universalism, anti-tribalism, non-judgmentalism – to attack these modern moves as anathema to the Jewish past and the tradition that modern Jews have inherited (and implicitly rejected). Wertheimer playfully positions his critique in the literary frame of the Ten Commandments, which is a useful straw-man in making these trends into inviolable beliefs held by his (mostly) unnamed opponents. Seeing as the article came out the week of Shavuot – the holiday that marks the receiving of the Decalogue (along with the rest of the Torah) at Mount Sinai, perhaps Wertheimer was seduced by the liturgical calendar.

But in telling the story of contemporary Jewry in this way, Wertheimer makes an ironic mistake. To truly traditional Jews, the laws of Bible co-exist with an interpretive tradition – an Oral Torah – that signals the constant way in which the values of the original revelation co-exist with the changing mores and morals of the societies in which Jews attempted to live out its mandate. In positioning the truths of the past (which he likes) as rigidly opposed to the truths of the present (which he hates), Wertheimer regrettably whitewashes the interpretive processes by which American Jews have remade their essential values.

The interpretive act of authentic change – even when it only comes about because it attempts to keep up with the pace of change of what the Jewish people are actually doing – is much more essential to the enterprise of Jewishness than is the canonical code itself which is being interpreted in the process. Our tradition fundamentally doubts the written tradition alone, aware that in its fixed state it is fundamentally limited in its ability to speak to present realities. The Decalogue requires both a parallel interpretive tradition, and an eager set of interpreters who live in the world, to make it applicable to contemporary realities.

So do contemporary Jews live by new rules? Sure – just as the Judaism of the Jews of 1950s America would have been unrecognizable to the people of the 1920s. I would welcome a healthy public debate about what Judaism should be in the face of the changing realities of the present. But the notion that Judaism should not let its core values evolve in response to changing world conditions? Well, that is not Torah-true Judaism at all.

Yehuda Kurtzer is the president of the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America. His first book, Shuva: The Future of the Jewish Past, is now available.