From Russia, with Love

I admired her gumption.

Sofia Gelman’s very first email to me got straight to it: The 83-year-old Russian-born immigrant to Los Angeles had led a very colorful life — the child of shtetl Jews, she was forced to flee her home as an adolescent to escape the Nazis, suffered hunger, deprivation and disadvantage before attending medical school and becoming a neurologist; then prospered as a career-driven wife, mother and grandmother before conditions in Russia (and anti-Semitism in particular) compelled her family to immigrate to the United States in 1992 — the details of which she had compiled into her book, “Jids,” and could I please help her find a Hollywood producer?

“In the book there [are] so many thrilling moments that you [won’t be able to] stop reading it,” Gelman wrote to me with her trademark aplomb in strained but legible English.

She had that classic Hollywood conviction that her story was worthy of the screen, and she was eager to make her pitch. “I want to work days and nights with a screenwriter to make all the details more interesting, because my English is still poor,” she added. “My book is the best source to make a movie.”

I admired her certitude. But when I received the book, I placed it on the shelf and left it alone. Gelman refused to accept my indifference.

For two years she wrote me letters, sometimes including a poem she had written, or a reflection on the war, or even a letter to the editor. She was tireless, unrelenting. Last January, out of the blue, she sent me a 28-page document detailing her work as the chief neurologist of Batumi, Georgia, where she had lived and practiced medicine for 30 years (“I was like an icon,” she later said with surprisingly endearing immodesty. “The people worshipped me.”)

Her missives were always passionate, painstakingly detailed, filled with references to Judaism and God, but her basic English precluded her from the fullness of articulate expression. And so I would read her words, reply politely and move on.

But Sofia Gelman, I would come to learn, is as indefatigable as she is adorable. And she had toppled obstacles far more intransigent than a reluctant journalist.

So, one day, as I had just finished speaking at a Jewish Federation event aimed mainly at young Jews, an effervescent octogenarian with snowy white hair, cerulean eyes and a petite frame that hardly seemed to contain her personality approached me with a note and a poem.

“Sofia!” I exclaimed, knowing it had to be her.

She hugged me and kissed me and handed me a scrap of paper on which she had scribbled a movie idea promoting Jewish values and achievements. “Zis,” she declared in her thick Russian accent, “is my mission.” She was so irresistible and radiant, I told her it was time we talked.

Three months later, I arrived at the two-bedroom West Hollywood apartment she shares with her husband of more than 60 years, Elya. When she opened the door, she offered a lavish greeting, grabbed my hand and promptly showed off the Baroque-style furniture Elya had crafted by hand. “He is very, very handy man,” she boasted. Then she sat me at her dining-room table, where a Georgian feast awaited — gefilte fish made with the fresh-caught carp Elya had hooked in a nearby lake, and which she had prepared according to her mother’s recipe; shredded cabbage salad salt-and-peppered with savory croutons; a green bean and carrot cassoulet with caramelized onions; and warm fried rolls with the chewy texture of doughnuts — all prepared solely for me.

“Fersst, you eat,” Gelman insisted. “Zen ve talk.”

But by the time I got through three servings of the spongiest, juiciest gefilte fish I had ever eaten, Gelman had to be at a West Hollywood City Council meeting, where she was being honored with a women’s history banner for her decades of community service. After arriving in L.A. from Georgia in the early ’90s, Gelman immediately went to work founding an afterschool teen center in her neighborhood and serving on the city’s Senior Advisory Board. I went with her to the meeting, where it became obvious that Gelman is one of WeHo’s best-loved senior citizens (the original painted banner from the event will be on display on Santa Monica Boulevard next year). Irrepressibly gracious, she accepted her honor by reading her latest poem, an ode to West Hollywood, to the city councilmembers.

We decided to reconvene two weeks later.

Again, there was gefilte fish. For the next two hours, Gelman shared her story, delving into deep, rich details about her childhood — fleeing Ukraine from invading Germans, hiding inside a train during an air bombardment, being separated from her mother, who left in search of bread, the factory manager who saved them, the military exploits that stole away her father, the starvation, the shoe-lessness, the anti-Semitism, the near-death illnesses, the medical school miracle, the five miscarriages and painful pregnancies, her idealized mother, her illustrious husband and her two sons, who now work as doctors at UCLA and Cedars-Sinai. Every step of the way, her stories were so vivid and captivating that, an hour and a half in, Gelman was still steeped in 1940, and I had to remind her that in the same conversation we had to make it to 2014.

But when you have lived as many lives as Gelman has in a lifetime, through a war-ravaged childhood, Soviet Russia, the creation of a family and professional life only to start all over again in a foreign place, every little story deserves its due.

“Everything concerns me so much that I cannot sleep!” she tells me at the end of our interview. 

“You know, Sofia,” I say. “Your life would make a very good movie.”