My Moth­er’s Secret: A Nov­el of the Jew­ish Autonomous Region

  • Review
By – November 14, 2022

My Mother’s Secret begins with hero­ine Regi­na flee­ing Stal­in­ist Moscow for Biro­bidzhan, the Jew­ish Autonomous Repub­lic (JAR) in the Far East. Estab­lished by the Sovi­et Union in 1934 as a home­land for Russia’s Jews, Biro­bidzhan was an inhos­pitable land, with no infra­struc­ture or prac­ti­cal sup­port from the Com­mu­nist gov­ern­ment. Starv­ing and work­ing all day in fields that yield­ed min­i­mal crops, Biro­bidzhan Jews were sub­ject­ed to the same total­i­tar­i­an dou­ble­think as the rest of their fel­low Russians.

The strength of Ali­na Adams’s unique writ­ing lies in her depic­tion of the mind­set of Jews who lived in Rus­sia between the 1917 Rev­o­lu­tion and the end of the Sovi­et Union. Num­ber­ing in the mil­lions, they sur­vived thought con­trol and indoc­tri­na­tion in the first gen­er­a­tion, then lived with cyn­i­cism and mis­trust in the sec­ond. Mean­while, anti­semitism was a con­stant. All of this, and yet the twen­ti­eth-cen­tu­ry expe­ri­ence of Jews in Rus­sia before and dur­ing World War II — the pogroms of World War I, the rise and fall of Sovi­et Yid­dish, Biro­bidzhan — is most­ly unknown to Amer­i­can Jew­ish readers.

Regi­na strug­gles with the con­tra­dic­tions between her own com­mon sense and her for­mal edu­ca­tion in Com­mu­nist dog­ma. As a young adult, she already knows that she has to weigh every word she says, every response she gives, every facial expres­sion and ver­bal reac­tion from her supe­ri­ors. Fright­ened that any mis­take could end her life, she doubts her abil­i­ty to make a cor­rect deci­sion. Like the hero­ine in The Nest­ing Dolls, Ali­na Adams’s oth­er book about Jews in Sovi­et Rus­sia, Regi­na encoun­ters a man who is young and sexy and also knows how to game this dan­ger­ous sys­tem while keep­ing his human­i­ty intact.

Punc­tu­at­ing My Mother’s Secret is the sto­ry of Regina’s daugh­ter Lena, who has inher­it­ed her mother’s crip­pling inabil­i­ty to trust her own instincts, despite grow­ing up in San Fran­cis­co in the 1980s. Lena’s sto­ry pro­vides a vehi­cle for a hap­py end­ing, but it’s not entire­ly nec­es­sary. At the book’s core is Regi­na: as a believ­ing young Com­mu­nist, as a dis­il­lu­sioned woman torn from her lover, and as a sur­vivor in Amer­i­ca, regret­ting all her choices.

There is real­ly no oth­er mod­ern author writ­ing fic­tion about this vital Jew­ish demo­graph­ic in its orig­i­nal locale, offer­ing a sto­ry that isn’t cen­tered on the Holo­caust. With her depth of knowl­edge and her grip­ping, fast-mov­ing prose, Ali­na Adams is a dis­tinc­tive writer of Jew­ish his­tor­i­cal fiction.

Beth Dwoskin is a retired librar­i­an with exper­tise in Yid­dish lit­er­a­ture and Jew­ish folk music.

Discussion Questions