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A minyan of the marginal

Natasha And Other Stories David Bezmozgis Farrar, Straus & Giroux: 150 pp., $18

June 06, 2004|Daniel Schifrin | Daniel Schifrin is director of literary programs for the National Foundation for Jewish Culture.

Thirty years ago, the critic Irving Howe predicted that without the energy of immigrants desperate to assimilate into America, Jewish literature here would shrivel and die. The success of young Jewish writers such as Allegra Goodman, Myla Goldberg, Jonathan Safran Foer and Nathan Englander, for whom the immigrant experience is distinctly secondary, suggests that Howe's analysis may have been a little shallow.

On the other hand, the sudden appearance of three extraordinary North American writers of Russian Jewish origin -- Gary Shteyngart, Lara Vapnyar and now David Bezmozgis in his brilliant first collection "Natasha and Other Stories" -- suggests that the Great Voyage to these shores illuminates the quintessential elements of family, community and identity, Jewish or otherwise.

"Natasha and Other Stories" chronicles in seven tales spread over 23 years the fate of the Berman family, Latvian Jews who fled the Soviet Union in 1980 for Toronto. Mark Berman, the only child of Roman and Bella, narrates the stories, and through him we learn, as if for the first time, what it means to remake a life in a new country and language. Like Philip Roth, and Isaac Babel before him, Bezmozgis is fascinated with the varieties of ethical responsibilities demanded by Jewish family and culture, and the limitless ways of transgressing them.

In "Tapka," 6-year-old Mark's quest for independence leads to an accident with his Russian neighbor's beloved dog, shattering the family's confidence in its future. Soon after, in "Roman Berman, Massage Therapist," Mark watches his father try to recapture his prestige as a trainer for Olympic athletes. Ironically, he must do this by exaggerating his mistreatment in the Soviet Union to get referrals from a sympathetic local doctor.

At a dinner party where the Bermans meet the doctor's family, Roman is victimized by the man's wife, who clumsily tries to seduce him before rejecting the family's gift of homemade apple cake for being insufficiently kosher. The dessert is the perfect symbol of the gift of the immigrant, casually and cruelly dismissed by the new society along with his language, skills and education.

Bezmozgis' humor in these stories is explosive, yet perfectly balanced between absurdity and pathos.

In "Roman Berman, Massage Therapist," we are treated to this priceless description of the immediate family waiting for a first patient to call: "Now with every ring of the phone there was the potential for salvation.... The phone would ring and he would leap. My mother would leap after him -- her ear millimeters away from his exposed ear, listening, as if my father's head was itself the telephone. She listened as friends called, other friends called, my aunt called and called. Everybody called to see whether anybody had called."

As Mark gets older, his humiliation at being an immigrant increases. In "An Animal to the Memory," he hits a bigoted kid during a Holocaust memorial observance at Hebrew school, unsure of the relative values between respect for the dead and respect for himself.

In adolescence, Mark's aggression is replaced with malaise. In the title story, the 16-year-old narrator flees the boredom of his suburban basement existence, delving into drugs, existential literature and the 14-year-old body of his recently arrived cousin, Natasha. His conflicting responsibilities and transgressions constantly force the reader to question the moral valence of seemingly obvious choices. If sleeping with his cousin is a sin, perhaps it is a bigger sin to stop, leading as it does to the girl's departure from the extended family and into the arms of Mark's 20-year-old drug dealer, Rufus. However, it is the drug dealer, not Mark, who protects the girl from her abusive mother. Rufus, in fact, is a paragon of respectability and honor, who always has his table set with linens, napkins and matching cutlery "so that even when he was not expecting guests there existed tangible evidence announcing that he was open to the possibility."

This study of community continues in the final story, "Minyan," the term for the 10 Jewish men needed to hold a prayer service. We see a mellower, 20ish Mark during his visits to his grandfather at an old age home for Jewish immigrants. Now old enough to be nostalgic for a continent and religion no longer really his, Mark often lifts the heavy Torah scrolls during Sabbath services held in the home's chapel or does odd jobs for the residents.

Mark befriends his grandfather's two roommates -- Itzik, a taxi driver from Odessa with a shady past, and Herschel, a Holocaust survivor from Lithuania. When Itzik dies, the other residents, in a campaign to replace Herschel with one of their own relatives, accuse the two men of having been lovers. The home's manager stands up for Herschel: "They should know I don't put a Jew who comes to synagogue in the street. Homosexuals, murderers, liars, and thieves -- I take them all. Without them we would never have a minyan."

A minyan of marginal Jews -- this is the magic demographic that helped transform the work of Babel, Roth, Saul Bellow and so many others. Yet Bezmozgis makes these characters, and the state of marginality itself, uniquely his. This hysterical, merciless yet open-hearted excavation of a Jewish family in the process of assimilating gives his literary predecessors a run for their money. *

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