Review: A Backpack, a Bear, and Eight Crates of Vodka: A Memoir

A Backpack, a Bear, and Eight Crates of Vodka: A Memoir
A Backpack, a Bear, and Eight Crates of Vodka: A Memoir by Lev Golinkin
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It’s books like this one that make me love memoir. Golinkin tells the story of his family’s last days in the USSR, their successful application to leave, and their adjustments to life as people without a country (until they become American). Fear of the government, getting beaten up at school, being denied one’s choice of occupation for political reasons rather than lack of aptitude, having your official papers confiscated, your life’s history burned, showing up in a foreign land with no proof that you ever went to school, held a profession, existed. You wouldn’t think that would hold humor! Or be fun to read! But, it is. Golinkin has a way with storytelling. There’s a joy for the reader. He also manages to convey the experience he had as a ten year old refugee and combine it with the context and details he learned as an adult through study and travel.

As a teen in NY in the 1980s, I marched ‘for Soviet Jewry.’ A high school acquaintance’s father was an artist who created posters for one of the marches, and he posed in a kerchief as a babushka. We saw him in every subway station, representing the people we hoped to liberate from religious persecution.

Golinkin’s grandfather had an aptitude for Torah study; just 2 generations later, he and his father know to buy contraband matzoh in the spring but they don’t know its meaning and get no pleasure from eating it. In fact, there is no joy in being Jewish for Lev — It’s a nasty name that other kids lob at him before punching him, smearing him with filth. By the time he’s in first or second grade, he only knows that he doesn’t want to be the thing that causes other kids to react to him this way. (The other kids also don’t know what it means to be Jewish — They only know they’re supposed to despise it.)

And then, brought out of the Soviet Union by the combined efforts of Israel, the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, American congregations, and others, the expectation is that the Golinkin family (and every other former Soviet Jew) would exuberantly embrace synagogue membership, Jewish holidays, bar mitzvah. But it’s not that easy to love what you’ve been taught, daily, to hide and hate. The latter part of the book, in which Golinkin grows up, becomes American, and tries to learn to like himself, is less humorous, but very touching.

Also moving is his telling of the trip he took after college, re-tracing his family’s path and seeking to reunite and thank the many people in various countries who did large, small, and important things to enable them to get out and stay afloat. I look forward to reading whatever Lev Golinkin writes next.

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