Just after his twentieth birthday in 1987, Maxim Shrayer and his family were suddenly granted permission to leave Moscow after nine years as refusniks. They were not permitted to take much with them — some cash, clothes, mementos, and an unusually heavy trunk, bearing a surprise addition to their party. Over the next three months, they would meet an eclectic cast of Jewish characters on their own exoduses from the Soviet Union. The family was housed by JIAS (Jewish Immigration Aid Society) in the low-rent districts of Vienna and Rome, and in the unlikely Italian beach resort of Ladispoli. Not even a string of furtive love affairs could take the edge off Shrayer’s anxiety as the family waited for its papers to America and tried to imagine how they would survive. His joy at new freedoms in the West, the shock of material plenty, his visits to long-imagined historical sights and watching American movies are tempered by a keen awareness of the toll statelessness and poverty were taking on his family. His parents, who struggled with English, would face a loss of status and their identity as well-known intellectuals. Now, after twenty successful years as an American, Shrayer reminisces about that difficult transitional period with charm, insight, and unexpected humor. A lovely read.
Lisa Pearl Rosenbaum’s debut novel, A Day of Small Beginnings, was published by Little, Brown and Company in November, 2006. She lives in Los Angeles, California.