Russia, Judaism; Continent: Asia and North America

A Bear, a Backpack, and Eight Crates of Vodka: A Memoir by Lev Golinkin

  • Emigration, a realistic story served without the “happily-ever-after” charm of An American Tail
  • 322 pages

The 1980s, and the Cold War haunts me sometimes as I fall asleep. One evening, I stand transfixed in front of CNN watching regular people tear down the Berlin Wall. American television news of the time portrays Mikhail Gorbachev as a shard of hope inside a broken system (and, let’s face it, as a teenager I’m not digesting The Economist). Meanwhile, the babushkas on Russian park benches are linking a prophecy of doom with the man the Western media loved. The babushkas are this author’s neighbors, and they are watching him.

The Soviet Union of the 1980s

Inside the the USSR, Gorbachev’s policies are creating chaos even for those who might stand to benefit from them in theory. Among the changes in the Gorbachev era, vastly more Jews are able to leave the Soviet Union. To do so, in theory, they need sponsorship from a relative who would welcome them into Israel. Lots of fake uncles and aunts with documented lives in Tel Aviv and a desire to reunite with Soviet relations pop up. On their way out, however, Russian Jews can expect to run a gauntlet of anything from disrespect and bullying to outright danger.

The Golinkins

Lev Golinkin is about five years younger than I am, but being born a Jew in Soviet Russia pushes him out of his childhood early. This memoir recalls an awareness of danger in his surroundings that a child born into relatively safe circumstances couldn’t have. Although his school is rumored to be among the more tolerant of Jewish pupils, the author is bullied daily with the full knowledge of his teacher. The neighbor kid, his onetime playmate, stops acknowledging his existence the day he realizes Golinkin is Jewish (the boy says has been taught in school how to recognize Jews). Plus, others in his family suffer for their heritage: his older sister’s exceptional grades do not gain her admission to medical school. Instead, she is pushed into engineering.

The bitter irony for the Golinkins is that they are Jewish only by ethnicity. As with many urban-dwelling Russian Jews, they have little to no familiarity with the religion or traditions observed by other Jews worldwide. Calendars feature no religious holidays, so Golinkin’s father orders mazzo from the local bakers, secretly, at the time of year he thinks might be Passover. To get mazzo for his family, his father supplies the flour himself in addition to the payment. This curious arrangement prevents any obvious spike in flour usage at the Soviet bakeries – not something a baker wants anyone who reports to 1980s Moscow to notice.

The West

Ten-year-old Golinkin is an old soul; and yet, the author makes sure we recognize that he was a child at the time in which most of his journey occurs. His mother, father and college-age sister fuss over him. However, he understands that his role as younger child is to be fussed over: it assuages the helplessness the older family members so often feel. Per the title, he still wants Comrade Bear (I didn’t make that up), can have only a backpack of his own things, but is worldly enough to observe that the eight crates of vodka are to make bribes as the busload of Jewish emigres travels to the checkpoint at the border into the West.

The story of their time in Vienna, where they await a life in the United States, is as interesting as the suspenseful border crossing itself. The Golinkins meet Jews fleeing other, more rural parts of the USSR and learn that these people, largely Ukrainian, have more of a handle on the Jewish faith: they had been less closely watched by the rest of the village, so they remember the rituals and traditions lost to their more urban counterparts. Later in life, the author tracks down many of the characters he meets here, for their impact on young Lev is evident in his writing as an adult. He discusses the history surrounding the events his family endured with a satisfying degree of completeness, yet without defusing the alternately suspenseful and frustrated emotions powering this memoir.

The Happy Ending Isn’t Really the End (Spoiler Alert? Consider Reading Anyway)

The Golinkins’ plane arrives at long last on American soil, and that’s the point at which an American film would probably roll the credits. Except here is where Lev Golinkin’s story moves into a phase less suspenseful, but more ultimately worthwhile for the American-born reader. The United States isn’t the Promised Land, after all. It’s definitely pretty great to not have your neighbors care what books you read, but capitalism has its down side. Specifically, Lev’s mother, a respected psychiatrist in the USSR, works as a security guard because her medical credentials couldn’t leave the country with her. And while the neighbors may be pretty tolerant, generally, the American Jewish population that footed much of the bill for Russian Jews to immigrate to the U.S. wonders why all that newfound religious freedom doesn’t see more families like the Golinkins in the synagogues regularly. The author explains the religious freedom angle from his point of view in a cogent and sympathetic way.

I was born in the United States, and most of the people I knew growing up were, too. If all you know about coming to America is what you learned in social studies, then you might have the impression that life is automatically better just by showing up here. Yes, life is better, Golinkin wants you to know, but it isn’t automatically so, and it isn’t perfect.

Image: Public domain,, 2010.


One thought on “Russia, Judaism; Continent: Asia and North America

  1. Your writing has evolved to an exceptional level. Why don’t you ever get around to writing an Amazon novel? Self-publish to get started. I read many of these: plots ranging from poor to respectable, writing from very poor to poor plus. Yet, many of these folks have 100K – 200K sales! You write very much better than these and could do so provided you didn’t aim so high at first (e.g., the great American novel…) that you never got around to finishing it.

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