Tag Archives: Soviet Union

“To Catch a Traitor,” by D. B. Shuster

Crime Bytes Media. 308 Pages . Trade Paperback $16.99

Review by Philip K. Jason

In this prequel to her Sins of a Spy series, D. B. Shuster deftly portrays Soviet Jews’ collective state of mind during the 1980s. Soviet Jews continue to face anti-Semitism; they are confined to low-paying work and are used as convenient scapegoats for others’ disappointments. Laws don’t protect them. The KGB shadows them relentlessly, especially those who, for whatever reason, are felt to be a danger to the Soviet system. These conditions are magnified by the desire of many to emigrate either to Israel or the United States. Their goal of escape makes them traitors.

Shuster

The novel centers on the Reitman family—especially on clever, curvaceous Sofia, who has dedicated her life and her talents to achieving Jewish freedom from Soviet oppression. Though KGB agents are everywhere, she has found satisfaction in risk-taking and has become a spy, trained to photograph secret Soviet documents that can be used to shape world opinion and modify Soviet policy. Her handler, Paul, is a CIA agent.

When Sofia’s husband, Mendel, is released early from his five-year prison sentence for teaching Hebrew, he is a greatly altered version of the man Sofia married. It is not clear if his early release involved a deal with his jailers. Mendel won’t talk about it, and it seems that the former intimacy between them cannot be restored. He has learned to be suspicious, even of his wife. . . .

To read the entire review, as found on the Jewish Book Council web site, click here:  To Catch a Traitor

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“Jews and Ukrainians: A Millennium of Co-Existence”

by Paul Robert Magocsi and Yohanan Petrovsky-Shtern. University of Toronto Press. 320 pages. Oversized hardback $44.95.

An amazing exploration of the relationship between two marginalized peoples, Paul Robert Magocsi and Yohanan Petrovsky-Shtern’s narrative is accompanied by 335 color illustrations and 29 maps in a well-designed oversized page format.

Magosci

After an introduction that focuses on the stereotypes and misperceptions that Jews and Ukrainians have had about either other over the centuries, the authors of this interdisciplinary work lay out twelve chapters, at once accessible and complex, covering a wide range of topics. One explores physical and human geography, another explores history, while others examine economic life, traditional culture, religion, language and publications, material and artistic culture, and diaspora life as defined and experienced by Ukrainians and Jews. Latter chapters focus on the contemporary situation.

Petrovsky-Shtern. Photo by Andrew Collings.

The structure of each chapter is such that the section featuring some aspect of the Jewish situation in Ukraine is framed by the necessarily much larger treatment of the Ukrainian experience and situation. This pattern often becomes complicated by the fact that the Jewish situation is not necessarily uniform throughout Ukraine and because the story of Ukraine is a story of flux. Jews of Galicia, Bukovina, and Transcarpathia require treatment distinct from that of Jews who live—or once lived—elsewhere in Ukraine. . . .

To read the entire review, as it appears on the Jewish Book Council web site, click here:  Jews and Ukrainians: A Millennium of Co-Existence

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A stunning debut novel about loyalty, honor, and identity

A Replacement Life, by Boris Fishman. HarperCollins. 336 pages. $25.99.

A generation of Jewish immigrants from former Soviet Union countries is coming into its own as a special breed of Jewish American writer. The balance of ethnic identity spans a significant range. Some of these writers seem more Eastern European than Jewish, as might be expected when growing up under a regime that had little tolerance for religious communities. Others seem to treasure their Judaism as a kind of heirloom, but still arrive in the U. S. lacking significant Jewish learning or worship experience. In fact, their American lives often make possible the process of Jewish education and acculturation (as Gary Shteyngart recalls his American Jewish day school years in his recent memoir Little Failure).

In 1979, Minsk-born Boris Fishman came to the U. S. from Belarus at the age of nine. After well-placed work as an accomplished journalist, Fishman’s first novel is putting him on the map in a big way. ReplacementLifeHCc

Slava Gelman, Fishman’s surrogate, works for a prestigious New York based magazine called Century. However, whatever his tasks, he has not yet broken through with an article bearing his by-line. He needs to break through, to prove to his skeptical grandfather – the family patriarch – that his choice of a career was neither foolish nor unmanly. Stava needs, as well, a fulfilling relationship with a woman. The pursuit of these needs springs the action of this unique and brilliant novel, along with the effect of Slava’s grandmother’s death on the family.

The Gelman family and their relatives have become part of a Russian-Jewish enclave in Brooklyn. Inside their community, they are – of course – insiders. Still, they remain outsiders in the larger community of New York City. They admire the abundance of choices that America offers, but they are not able to partake of this abundance on a large scale.

An almost totally Americanized Slava has become marginally connected to his family and his roots. To a significant extent, he is an outsider among them. He is also an outsider, for a complex of reasons, in his workplace community. What good are his writerly aspirations doing him or anyone else?

His grandfather, the ultimate schemer and scammer, has made a reputation as the guy who can get his hands on things that others cannot. His well-played false innocence leads him to hatch a devious scheme to benefit himself, his neighbors, and perhaps even his grandson. What’s wrong with lying for a good purpose?

He comes up with a plan for Slava to fabricate letters requesting war reparations from the German government. While many of the aging Jews in the Gelmans’ Brooklyn community were disadvantaged because of the Nazi regime’s actions during World War II, they had survived the Nazis to lose even more under Soviet repression in the years following the war.

First reluctant and then fascinated with the idea, Slava finds himself going along with it. He is now a creative writer, making up biographies with key incidents that qualify that alleged victims for reparations. His underground fame spreads. Money is offered for his services. His grandfather is, finally, proud of him.

Boris Fishman

Boris Fishman

All goes well until an odd, shrewd inspector corners Slava and starts asking questions.

Just as Slava is lured into one part of his destiny, he is lured into another as well. This time, there is far more upside to it. His co-worker, the quirkily independent Arianna Bock, finds something in Slava to arouse her sympathy and then her passion. She leads him into a romance and also wises him up about the ways of a writing career at Century and beyond.

Perhaps Fishman’s greatest gift is his talent for writing group scenes made out of conversations that couldn’t possibly be real but are totally convincing and revealing. There are several such scenes in A Replacement Life that could be expanded into plays. They are filled with social nuance, familiar pettiness, and (from the perspective of the participants) unintentional wit and humor.

Fishman’s narrative shines with bright metaphors and similes. Describing a woman who has been assigned by a social service agency to assist his grandfather, he writes: “Like a Soviet high-rise, each floor of Berta was stuffed beyond capacity.”

How do things work out with the family, with Arianna, with Slava’s career creating fraudulent lives on paper? Well, that’s a long story. Do yourself a favor and read it for yourself.

This review appears in the November 2014 issues of Federation Star (Jewish Federation of Collier County), L’Chayim (Jewish Federation of Lee and Charlotte Counties), and The Jewish News (Jewish Federation of Sarasota-Manatee).

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