This week father and son, neigh­bors in Brook­line, Mass­a­chu­setts and long­time col­lab­o­ra­tors, David Shray­er-Petrov and Max­im D. Shray­er dis­cuss Din­ner with Stal­in and Oth­er Sto­ries  in a three-part con­ver­sa­tion con­duct­ed for the Vis­it­ing Scribes series. Read the first install­ment, A Fic­tion­al Mod­el of the For­mer USSR,” here. They will be blog­ging here for the Jew­ish Book Coun­cil and MyJew­ish­Learn­ing all week. 

Max­im D. Shray­er: Papa, let’s con­tin­ue with our top­ic. What hap­pens after a Jew­ish writer emi­grates from the USSR to the USA? Of the four­teen sto­ries in Din­ner with Stal­in, you wrote 13 in Amer­i­ca, as an immi­grant. What has changed in your cre­ative laboratory?

David Shray­er-Petrov: First of all both the imme­di­ate envi­ron­ment and the greater envi­ron­ment have changed. Most of these sto­ries fash­ion Russ­ian—Jew­ish-Russ­ian—char­ac­ters liv­ing in Amer­i­ca. In this sense, I’ve become an Amer­i­can writer. Take the sto­ry The Val­ley of Hin­nom.” Even though much of the action is set in Moscow and in Israel, I could nev­er have writ­ten this sto­ry with­out know­ing that the main char­ac­ters are for­mer refuseniks liv­ing in the US.

MDS: One more Amer­i­can” ques­tion, then. A num­ber of your sto­ries are set in New Eng­land cities and towns, in Rhode Island and Mass­a­chu­setts — Prov­i­dence, Lit­tle Comp­ton, Worces­ter, towns on Cape Cod. And there are also Euro­pean sto­ries set in Paris, Moscow and Leningrad, and scenes of Rome and Jerusalem, com­posed, as it were, from mem­o­ry. How have many years of liv­ing in New Eng­land influ­enced your stories?

DSP: I’ve lived here for almost twen­ty-eight years. I think that I’ve root­ed myself in New Eng­land. It has become my sec­ond — now my main — habi­tat. If asked about it, I now respond with­out hes­i­ta­tion that I’m a New Eng­lan­der, even though I lived for fifty years in Rus­sia, in Leningrad and Moscow. I actu­al­ly won­der how I was able to write, so many years lat­er, the short sto­ry The Bicy­cle Race” and set it in the Leningrad of my youth. I guess I real­ly want­ed to fish out of the depth of mem­o­ry and to recon­struct the image of a very com­plex indi­vid­ual. He’s called Shvarts” in my sto­ry, but his pro­to­type was Eduard Cher­nosh­varts (nick­named Chy­orny” which lit­er­al­ly means black” in Russ­ian), a famous Sovi­et cyclist. He was a Jew who had risen above the mass­es in the 1940s, when there was a strong pop­u­lar anti-Jew­ish sen­ti­ment. In my sto­ry he’s a great Jew­ish ath­lete, but hard­ly a Jew of high moral standing…

MDS: …yes and no, but to return to the ques­tion of a Jew­ish writer in New Eng­land… if we look ana­lyt­i­cal­ly at your sto­ries, it appears that you write with­out estrange­ment about today’s life in New Eng­land (as in such sto­ries as A Store­front Win­dow of Mir­a­cle”) and about your youth in Rus­sia (as in Mimosa Flow­ers for Grandmother’s Grave”). Yet you write with a much greater degree of estrange­ment about your last three Sovi­et decades, espe­cial­ly the refusenik years.

DSP: Yes, I think it’s true. In this regard Mimosa Flow­ers for Grandmother’s Grave,” the only sto­ry in Din­ner with Stal­in that I wrote while still liv­ing in Rus­sia, is a case in point.

MDS: Our Eng­lish trans­la­tion of this sto­ry had first appeared in Com­men­tary, and I think it tapped our shared mem­o­ry of a Jew­ish past in East­ern Europe. A Jew­ish fam­i­ly for­ev­er bro­ken by tur­bu­lent events, a halutz, love and long­ing — these are things to which Jew­ish-Amer­i­can read­ers might be par­tic­u­lar­ly attuned. 

DSP: I think that through­out his or her entire life, every Jew is haunt­ed by some poignant detail of the past… Say, one had a great-grand­moth­er who was a tra­di­tion­al Jew in the full sense of this term. And then, across coun­tries and lan­guages, this image of a Jew­ish great-grand­moth­er was being passed on from immi­grant grand­moth­er to moth­er to Amer­i­can child. And it has thus survived.

MDS: I agree, Mimosa Flow­ers for Grandmother’s Grave” is the most uni­ver­sal­ly Jew­ish sto­ry in Din­ner with Stal­in. So let’s con­tin­ue with ques­tions of Jew­ish fam­i­ly and mar­riage. In each of your sto­ries you observe and com­ment on aspects of love and mar­riage between Jews and non-Jews. Crit­ics have point­ed out that for you as a Jew­ish sto­ry­teller this is a key ques­tion. Why?

DSP: I have observed very many mixed mar­riages grow­ing up. My uncle, my mother’s broth­er, was mar­ried to a Russ­ian woman who was an obser­vant Ortho­dox Chris­t­ian. And there’s a fam­i­ly leg­end that when I was an infant, a five- or six-month old, she brought me to church. But who can now tell…. The very mar­riage between Rus­sia and Jew­ry is, I think, a sym­bol that was sup­posed to divert the strik­ing hand of anti­semites — and at times it did do that, but at oth­er times it did not, only nur­tur­ing false hopes. 

MDS: This is a very rel­e­vant top­ic in today’s Amer­i­ca, and for that rea­son I think the sto­ries in Din­ner with Stal­in will be of inter­est to Jew­ish-Amer­i­can readers.

DSP: Yes, but here there’s a reli­gious agen­da to this prob­lem as one must decide about the reli­gion of one’s chil­dren. In the Sovi­et Union such deci­sion-mak­ing was less man­i­fest in mixed mar­riages. But in 1953, Stalin’s last year and the piv­otal year for Sovi­et Jews, with geno­ci­dal sce­nar­ios in the air, there were non-Jew­ish spous­es who, out of fear, sought to dis­solve their mar­riages to Jews. This shame­ful con­duct of some of the non-Jews mar­ried to Jews resem­bles what hap­pened in Ger­many after the Nazis came to power. 

MDS: Before we pause and have some tea with lemon, let me ask you what is now a fash­ion­able ques­tion: What’s your list of 5 Jew­ish books which every­one must read — that is, besides Din­ner with Stal­in?

DSP: This is a very par­tial list. I would rec­om­mend: The Ugly Duchess by Feucht­wanger, Heavy Sand by Rybakov, Shosha by Bashe­vis Singer, Rav­el­stein by Bel­low (and giv­en Thomas Mann’s Jew­ish con­nec­tions, Death in Venice), and Ilf and Petrov’s dil­o­gy The Twelve Chairs and The Gold­en Calf.

MDS: May I also add a per­son­al favorite — and may this wish soon come true— your refusenik saga Her­bert and Nel­ly, which is being trans­lat­ed into English.

Check back tomor­row for Part 3: Cryp­to-Jews and Auto­bi­o­graph­i­cal Ani­mals

Born in Leningrad in 1936, David Shray­er-Petrov emi­grat­ed to the Unit­ed States in 1987. He is the author of twen­ty-three books in his native Russ­ian and of sev­er­al books in Eng­lish trans­la­tion, includ­ing Jon­ah and Sarah: Jew­ish Sto­ries of Rus­sia and Amer­i­ca and Autumn in Yal­ta: A Nov­el and Three Sto­ries. His lat­est book is the col­lec­tion Din­ner with Stal­in and Oth­er Sto­ries. Din­ner with Stal­in was edit­ed by the author’s son, Max­im D. Shray­er, a writer and a pro­fes­sor at Boston Col­lege. Two sto­ries in the col­lec­tion were trans­lat­ed by Emil­ia Shray­er, Shrayer-Petrov’s wife of over fifty years and a for­mer refusenik activist. The oth­er trans­la­tors include Arna Bron­stein and Alek­san­dra Fleszar, Mol­ly God­win-Jones, Leon Kogan, Mar­gar­it Ordukhanyan, and Max­im D. Shrayer.

Copy­right © 2014 by David Shray­er-Petrov and Max­im D. Shrayer

Relat­ed Content

Max­im D. Shray­er is a bilin­gual writer and a pro­fes­sor at Boston Col­lege. Born in Moscow in 1967 in the fam­i­ly of the writer David Shray­er-Petrov, Shray­er emi­grat­ed to the Unit­ed States in 1987. He has authored over ten books in Eng­lish and Russ­ian, among them the mem­oir Wait­ing for Amer­i­ca: A Sto­ry of Emi­gra­tion, the sto­ry col­lec­tion Yom Kip­pur in Ams­ter­dam, and the Holo­caust study SAW IT. Shrayer’s Anthol­o­gy of Jew­ish-Russ­ian Lit­er­a­ture won a 2007 Nation­al Jew­ish Book Award, and in 2012 he received a Guggen­heim Fel­low­ship. Shrayer’s lat­est book is Leav­ing Rus­sia: A Jew­ish Sto­ry, a final­ist for the 2013 Nation­al Jew­ish Book Awards. A recent review in Jew­ish Book World called Leav­ing Rus­sia a stun­ning mem­oir” and rec­om­mend­ed that it should be assigned read­ing for any­one inter­est­ed in the Jew­ish expe­ri­ence of the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry.” Read addi­tion­al blog posts he’s writ­ten for the Vis­it­ing Scribe here.

Young Jews Lost in Leningrad: Part One of a Two-Part Blog

Notes of For­give­ness: Part Two of a Two-Part Blog