November 17, 2018

Books: Leaving Russia behind — somewhat

When Perestroika came in 1985, anti-Jewish feeling in Russia became even more overt than it had been during the Soviet era.

There were flyers announcing threats to burn down Jews’ homes, and one night, on national TV, a nationalist leader announced they were planning a massive pogrom. “It was very matter of fact, and my parents freaked out and called a meeting. We didn’t feel safe anymore,” said Ellen Litman, the Russian-born author of “The Last Chicken in America” (W.W. Norton), a novel set in stories about the Russian Jewish immigrant experience. The book has been nominated for the Art Seidenbaum Award for First Fiction as part of the Los Angeles Times 2008 Book Prizes to be awarded April 25 as part of the Times Festival of Books.

When she was 19, after two years of deliberations, Litman’s family decided to move to America. She and eight family members went to Pittsburgh, where her mother’s sister — and many other Russian Jews — lived.

“At first I was devastated. In Russia, you live in Moscow; you don’t move around that much, you expect your whole life to be in the same city with the same family and the same friends — then you leave the country and never see people again,” said Litman. “I was pretty devastated at first and gradually came to terms with it — but it was pretty disorienting and lonely.”

These tales of disorientation and loneliness are at the heart of “The Last Chicken in America,” which alternately focuses on a young new immigrant, Masha, and her family, as well as other Russian Jewish immigrants who live in Squirrel Hill, Pittsburgh, the neighborhood where the Litmans lived.

So is this an autobiography? Not exactly. While Litman lived in Pittsburgh and completed her degree in computer programming at the University of Pittsburgh she took notes on the characters. “Some of the characters resemble the experiences of what we went through and things I’ve seen, and a lot of it is a hodgepodge of reality and imagination; some stories are triggered by a certain sentence,” she said. But it’s “very much fiction; I do associate with the main character, those experiences are the closest to mine.”

Masha is just out of high school, and her parents, former scientists who are unemployed as new immigrants, eventually get blue-collar jobs. She must serve as their translator and guide as they all navigate this new world of English classes, low-wage pay and beginning life anew.

“All the passengers stood and applauded their pilot and one another. They had arrived. It was the end of one struggle and the beginning of many others, though no one seemed to be thinking about that yet,” reads the story “What Do You Dream of, Cruiser Aurora?” about an old widower named Liberman who spends his time with Mira, another older lady, at the local JCC.

“In the lunchroom Russians seniors were clustered to the right. You could recognize them immediately: men in ill-fitting brown trousers, women in cotton dresses and knitted cardigans, all of it purchased a long time ago and altered repeatedly. Lips pursed sternly, faces stiff. Compared to them, the Americans (mostly women) looked like careless parakeets — bright, excessively painted and cheerful.”

Many immigrant novels have been written about America — including many immigrant Jewish novels. But “The Last Chicken in America” provides a modern, fresh take with its focus on the differences between Russians and Americans — how Russians see Americans.

Americans are “so goddamn joyful,” and live in a “soulless society,” while Russians are “sensitive, foolish, illogical” and “live in a state of turmoil, on the brink of being destroyed, steps away from next drunken bout,” says Victor Harlamov, a visiting Russian literary professor and crush of Masha’s in the story “Russian Club.”

American Jews and their practice of Judaism is also a mystery to the Russian immigrants, who lived without religion for decades.

“My grandparents were born right around the revolution — and all this time they were alive, they were living in society where religion was opiate for masses, and we believed that,” she said. But they all knew they were Jewish — they couldn’t forget it, being stamped on their passports, listed as their nationality.

“We weren’t Russian; we were Jews,” she said. But there was no connection to Jewish ritual, or to the Jews in America.

“American Jews had it easy. They all seemed well-off, and except for Chassids they weren’t too conspicuous; in the proverbial American melting pot, they could pass for Italians or Greeks. Not that they had any worries. They took pride in their Jewishness, they celebrated it by building community centers and synagogues and by sponsoring immigrants from Eastern Europe,” Masha observes.

Litman, who got her MFA at Syracuse University, working with mentor George Saunders, wanted to write about the immigrant experience from different perspectives: the passionate Harlamov, the older Liberman, the young Masha, her middle-aged parents.

“I wanted to create this immigrant community, and I wanted to show how the immigration process went,” she said. “I wanted people to know as many sides of the community and the experience,” she said in a phone interview.

She succeeds not only because she lived many of the experiences, but also because her worldview, and her language, is Russian and American. While Litman knew some English when she moved to America at 19, she had to really learn it when she left her parents’ home in 1995, and learn to write in it as well. She still speaks with a soft Russian accent.

“My accent will probably stay with me forever, but I’m comfortable with that,” she said, even as she comes to her 18th year in America.

“Most of my friends are Americans, I feel like an American. There is also part of me that is Russian — I remember where I came from,” she said. “There are two parts. I don’t want to completely blend in.”