Soviet Jews and their discontents


“The Chateau” by Paul Goldberg. New York: Picador Press, 2018. 372 pages. $26.

“The Chateau” certainly has its moments. There is the very useful life lesson about vodka: French Grey Goose vodka “bespeaks prosperity and generosity,” writes author Paul Goldberg. “That’s a good thing. Its cost is a bad thing. The solution: procure a bottle of Grey Goose, consume its contents, then keep the bottle in perpetuity and continue to fill it up with something more in line with what you wish to spend.”

There’s also satirical humor and Trump thrashing in this novel. But “The Chateau’s” plot is not very engaging. Protagonist Bill Katzenelenbogen, fired from his job at The Washington Post, sees a potential book in the death of Zbignew Wronski, the “Butt God of Miami Beach” and Bill’s roommate at Duke, who died after falling from the 43rd floor of a Miami apartment house. Our man goes to Miami to investigate, but see an even better possibility for a book in the widespread corruption on the board of directors of that building, where his father lives.

One of this novel’s themes is that many Jews who grew up in the Soviet Union and lived there as adults before migrating to the United States are poorly integrated into American life and survive on the edges of society and its accepted ethics. Bill’s father, Melsor, for example, has made his money from engaging in a Medicaid scam.

Bill finds great support for Donald Trump among the former Soviet Jewish residents of the Miami high rise in which his father lives. Of the 44 vehicles in one of the building’s parking lots, he counts 29 bumper stickers with the message, “TRUMP: Make America Great Again.”

This support for the anti-immigrant candidate among people who are recent immigrants themselves and whose escape from the great Soviet prison was made possible by pressure exerted by American Jews and their government is almost ludicrously ironic.

There’s even the suggestion — at least in the case of Bill’s father — that they were better people in the old country than they are here.

“In Moscow, Bill was proud of his father, the man who stood up to the Bolsheviks, who didn’t fear being in contact with the American press, who appeared at demonstrations in front of the Moscow synagogue, who didn’t give a rip about being arrested. When his father’s poetry was read by announcers at the Voice of America, Radio Liberty and the Voice of Israel, Bill was a proud boy.

“In America, he came to fear that his father would one day appear at the private school that gave him a scholarship and provoke a fight with the headmaster.”

In part, the problems of older Soviet Jews in America is a reflection of the difficulties that all immigrants undergo, dealing, often unsuccessfully, with a language and culture that is not their own.

“The Chateau” contains much poetry and dialogue in Russian. Yes, the English translation is always provided, but Russian, of course, is written in the Cyrillic alphabet. This means that not only will readers not fluent in Russian not understand what is written, they can’t even read it.

In the case of Jews who immigrated from the Soviet Union, there’s something else at work. The Soviet authorities not only stripped them of their religion but also of their Jewish culture and ethics — and thus of their self-respect — supposedly replacing them with the values of the “new Soviet man,” which, they claimed, would fit the new communist society being created.

Only their names remained — Jewish names, easily recognizable so that the widespread prejudices and discrimination against their people would not miss their marks.

Is it any wonder that those Jews — without the armor of self-respect and confidence so prevalent in their American Jewish cousins — often found it difficult to fit in with American Jewry and become comfortable with their new American identity?

So, in a sense, these Jews — as outsiders in their new milieu, as marginalized people — find Donald Trump appealing for reasons similar to those that attract the president to his core followers — rural, high school-educated white people — also outsiders in 21st century

Aaron Leibel’s essay “Finding hope in Tisha B’Av” won second place in the 2017 Simon Rockower Awards for excellence in commentary. His novel, “Generations: The Story of a Jewish Family,” is available online.

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