The Cos­mopoli­tans

By – August 31, 2011

Tolstoy’s famous quote about hap­py and unhap­py fam­i­lies is the sub­ject of a heat­ed fam­i­ly argu­ment ear­ly on in The Cos­mopoli­tans. The quote fore­shad­ows the lives of the fam­i­ly we are about to meet. You may think you know a fam­i­ly like the Molochniks, but Nadia Kalman brings them into your life.

They are striv­ing Russ­ian immi­grants liv­ing in an alien sub­ur­ban Amer­i­ca. There is a class­con­scious biol­o­gist moth­er, Stali­na, named after Stal­in, and a hard work­ing father, Osip, (think Tevye) try­ing to under­stand and cope with three dif­fer­ent and con­fus­ing daugh­ters. There is Mil­la, the good stu­dious girl, Yana, the left­wing teacher, and Katya, the frag­ile one who invol­un­tar­i­ly spouts Leonid Brezh­nev quotes imi­tat­ing his deep voice. All enter pre­car­i­ous rela­tion­ships and mar­riages. Then add an anom­aly to the fam­i­ly — a talk­ing hand­ker­chief that depicts the Russ­ian Soul.” These char­ac­ters and oth­ers make for a most wit­ty, fun­ny, irrev­er­ent, and extreme­ly touch­ing and enter­tain­ing story.

Kalman struc­tures the book in a unique way. A fam­i­ly tree dia­gram pre­cedes each chap­ter to announce the many char­ac­ters’ align­ments and move­ments with­in the family.

Each char­ac­ter is pre­sent­ed in short, absorb­ing two to three page seg­ments through­out the book, reveal­ing their unique points of view. This tech­nique moves the book quick­ly along as we recon­nect repeat­ed­ly with each sto­ry­tellers’ insights and accounts of events.

Kalman, who came to Amer­i­ca as a child, keen­ly observes the foibles, frail­ties, weak­ness­es, and incon­sis­ten­cies of the Molochniks, but treats them with respect and warmth. Her use of the Russ­ian-Eng­lish dialect adds verac­i­ty and amuse­ment to the story.

There are numer­ous laugh out loud moments as well as those qui­et shake your head empa­thet­ic ones. We move through the Molochniks’ fam­i­ly life, hap­pi­ly and unhap­pi­ly, liv­ing day to day with their tenacity.

Reni­ta Last is a mem­ber of the Nas­sau Region of Hadassah’s Exec­u­tive Board. She has coor­di­nat­ed the Film Forum Series for the Region and served as Pro­gram­ming and Health Coor­di­na­tors and as a mem­ber of the Advo­ca­cy Committee.

She has vol­un­teered as a docent at the Holo­caust Memo­r­i­al and Tol­er­ance Cen­ter of Nas­sau Coun­ty teach­ing the all- impor­tant lessons of the Holo­caust and tol­er­ance. A retired teacher of the Gift­ed and Tal­ent­ed, she loves par­tic­i­pat­ing in book clubs and writ­ing projects.

Discussion Questions

1. The book begins with Mil­la Molochnik and Mal­colm Strauss plan­ning a wed­ding, despite Milla’s crush on a female co-work­er, the oppo­si­tion of Malcolm’s par­ents, and Malcolm’s emo­tion­al ties to an ex-girl­friend. Why, in the face of all these obsta­cles, do Mil­la and Mal­colm get married?

2. Do you think the Russ­ian Soul in the book is real, or a fig­ment of the char­ac­ters’ imag­i­na­tions, or both?

3. Do you think the three Molochnik sis­ters are more alike or more dif­fer­ent from one anoth­er? What do you think they might say in response to that question?

4. What do you think of Stali­na and Osip Molochnik as parents?

5. Is Jean Strauss a sym­pa­thet­ic char­ac­ter? Why or why not? How about Bob­by Strauss?

6. Accord­ing to Webster’s dic­tio­nary, a cos­mopoli­tan is a per­son who is free from local, provin­cial, or nation­al bias or attach­ment.” How cos­mopoli­tan are the Molochniks? What about the oth­er char­ac­ters in the book? Is it pos­si­ble for any­one to be ful­ly cosmopolitan?

7. Do any of the char­ac­ters remind you of peo­ple in your own fam­i­ly? How so?

8. At the end of the nov­el, Yana and Pratik, Katya and Roman, and Mil­la and The­an­dra are togeth­er. What kind of future do you pre­dict for these couples?

9. What is the role of Lev in the nov­el? Do you think of him as a char­ac­ter with­in the novel’s action, or is he sep­a­rate from it?

10. Many cul­tures clash in the nov­el. Do you think its ulti­mate mes­sage is that peo­ple are basi­cal­ly dif­fer­ent, basi­cal­ly the same, or some­where in between?

Immi­grant Spies

By Nadia Kalman

My first work of fic­tion was a sto­ry I told myself. When my fam­i­ly emi­grat­ed from what was then the Sovi­et Union, I decid­ed my new class­mates spoke Russ­ian. Grant­ed, they could be a bit slow some­times, pass­ing the yel­low cray­on when I’d clear­ly asked for orange. I’d give them a teacher­ly, dis­ap­point­ed look then — the same look I’d receive a few min­utes lat­er when they addressed me in t heir made-up tongue. No won­der they didn’t know their col­ors yet; they didn’t practice! 

I was try­ing to com­fort myself, invent­ing a world in which these strangers and I under­stood each oth­er. And yet, in some sense, we were cre­at­ing that world, too. Point­ing, nod­ding, con­vinc­ing myself I was under­stood, I made my first Amer­i­can friends before I could speak a sin­gle Eng­lish word. 

Of course, it’s too sim­ple to say that sto­ries only draw us togeth­er. The sum­mer I was sev­en, in the heart of the Evil Empire Eight­ies, my grand­par­ents — both heav­i­ly-accent­ed sub­ma­rine buffs — took me on a trip to Gro­ton. Our patri­ot­ic motel keep­er, sus­pi­cious of our inter­est in the USS Nau­tilus, tried to have us arrest­ed as spies. She was oper­at­ing under a very dif­fer­ent narrative. 

And yet, I can’t help but admit that there was truth in the motel keeper’s sto­ry; immi­grants are a species of spy. We hide and try to pass unde­tect­ed; we parse secrets. It was this pars­ing, per­haps, that led me to become a writer. 

I’ve long thought about the sto­ries we tell, the ways they con­nect and divide us. What did it mean that we said we’d emi­grat­ed for free­dom,” when we came from a place where that word had almost no mean­ing? What did it mean that we want­ed to live as Jews, even as we wished for the word Jew” to van­ish from our iden­ti­ty cards? 

This is also the con­tention with­in every fam­i­ly — the com­pet­ing urges to be togeth­er, and to find our own ways in the world — and one that echoes through Jew­ish his­to­ry from the two king­doms of Judah and Israel onward. All this was on my mind as I wrote my novel.

The Cos­mopoli­tans fol­lows the Molochniks, a Russ­ian Jew­ish fam­i­ly in Con­necti­cut, as three daugh­ters mar­ry very dif­fer­ent suit­ors. The plot was inspired by Sholem Aleichem’s Tevye sto­ries, which sit­u­at­ed humor in the midst of Tsarist Russia’s hor­rors in a way that felt very famil­iar. My own rel­a­tives have always spun com­e­dy from fright­en­ing mem­o­ries: the great­grand­par­ents try­ing to arrange a bris in the midst of an anti-Semit­ic cam­paign, the great-uncle evac­u­at­ing his mis­tress and wife in adjoin­ing train cars, just ahead of the Ger­man army. We told these sto­ries to keep our mem­o­ries alive with­out being haunt­ed by them; we want­ed to know our past and still move forward.

I hoped to give voice to these con­tra­dic­to­ry impuls­es. The Cos­mopoli­tans is peri­od­i­cal­ly nar­rat­ed by Lev Molochnik, whose past in Sovi­et labor camps, and inabil­i­ty to com­fort him­self with mis­re­mem­ber­ing, stop him from liv­ing his life in all but the most basic ways. On the oth­er side is the Strauss fam­i­ly, into which one Molochnik daugh­ter mar­ries. Gen­er­a­tions removed from immi­gra­tion, they are seem­ing­ly ful­ly at home in Amer­i­ca. Yet matri­arch Jean Strauss claims every famous Strauss as a rela­tion — the com­pos­er, the jeans-mak­er, the own­ers of Macy’s and more — try­ing to con­struct for her­self a sense of belong­ing, a his­to­ry that eludes her. One char­ac­ter is chained to an exact­ing truth about the past, and so can­not embrace the present; the oth­er seeks safe­ty in fic­tion, and finds her­self root­less and alone. Very dif­fer­ent anx­i­eties dovetail.

I began this nov­el think­ing that it was going to be a whole-cloth inven­tion, and then, like the char­ac­ters in it, dis­cov­ered that fam­i­ly his­to­ry has a way of assert­ing itself. I remem­bered my great-uncle, who spent decades in the Gulag; I remem­bered fam­i­ly sto­ries. As I wrote, I came to under­stand, just as the Molochniks do, that you can’t escape your fam­i­ly. Exas­per­at­ing as this is, it can be a great com­fort, too.

When I write, I seek to under­stand peo­ple — in my fam­i­ly and out­side of it — who ini­tial­ly seem too dis­tant to fath­om, and to imag­ine sit­u­a­tions that seem too absurd ever to become real. My mod­els include Sholem Ale­ichem, and Osip Man­del­stam, but also some writ­ers — Gogol, Pushkin — who were well-doc­u­ment­ed anti-Semi­tes. I’ve often won­dered what pre­vent­ed these writ­ers’ vast empa­thy from extend­ing to Jew­ish peo­ple. In turn, I won­der where my own empa­thy and under­stand­ing fail, and how I may extend them. It’s a process that involves tri­al and error, like a kinder­garten­er hold­ing out crayons until, at last, one is right.