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Maxim D. Shrayer. Photo by Lee Pelligrini.
Maxim D. Shrayer. Photo by Lee Pelligrini.
featureJewish & Israeli Culture

‘We live our lives not entirely, fully understood,’ Jewish Russian-American writer says

Maxim D. Shrayer, a professor at Boston College, thinks that there are lessons for Jewish Americans from his “translingual” immigrant experience and the history of refuseniks.

Maxim D. Shrayer was seated next to the grandmother of his younger daughter’s friend at the latter’s birthday party one summer on Cape Cod, Mass., where his family has a home and his daughters went to camp. Making small talk, he asked where she was from.

“She looked at me and she said, ‘Well, my ancestors were on the Mayflower,” Shrayer told JNS. “I looked at her and I said, ‘Well, my ancestors were in the Holocaust.’ That was the conversation.”

Shrayer, professor of Russian, English and Jewish studies and director of the East European studies minor at Boston College, delivered the line matter-of-factly. “She was a little scandalized,” he said.

That might have been more of Shrayer’s family history than she bargained for, but readers of his new book Immigrant Baggage: Morticians, Purloined Diaries and Other Theatrics of Exile are forewarned that there will be morbidity.

The book is his fourth memoir, but Shrayer—who has a poetry collection Kinship on the way and has penned nearly 30 books in English and Russian—doesn’t think he is narcissistic. He notes that each volume has been different. The first two are historical—one about a young Jew from the Soviet Union discovering Italy while waiting as a refugee to come to America and the other about growing up Jewish in the Soviet Union.

“It’s about antisemitism. It’s about the refusenik movement,” he said.

“This new book really is not about a historical subject,” he said. “It is primarily an attempt to figure out how one lives between languages and cultures.”

That sort of “translingual” book, of “betwixt and between,” as Shrayer puts it, offers a template that he thinks can be instructive to other Jews as antisemitism has soared, even though Shrayer penned it well before Oct. 7.

Refusenik

The term “refusenik” referred originally to Soviet citizens who were barred from emigrating, primarily Jews who sought to make aliyah. (The term has taken on a broader meaning of someone who refuses to do something.)

“Even though you would think that the texture of daily life in a lot of parts of the United States and metropolitan parts of Canada is unimaginable without Soviet Jews in them, somehow people still don’t entirely understand what ‘refusenik’ means,” Shrayer said.

Maxim Shrayer
Credit: Courtesy.

The term is an “imperfect” English approximation of the Russian otkaznik, according to Shrayer.

“In Russian, when a child hears the otkaznik, they think of a person who is refused as opposed to actively refuses,” he said. “Refuseniks were Soviet Jews and their family members who petitioned the state to be allowed to emigrate to Israel or on Israeli visas. This was a legal process that began in the late 1960s and continued into the late 1980s, when the floodgates were reopened, and basically, if you were allowed to leave, you paid the fee and you got out.”

But with Jews as a bargaining chip in Soviet relations with the West, the Soviet Union barred more and more Jews from emigrating as relations soured, “especially Jews who were believed to have some sort of strategic value,” Shrayer said. “Jews who had special technical, academic or intellectual skills, all based on the theory of brain drain.”

When the state rejected the petition of a writer or a medical doctor, claiming them to have “state secrets,” the Jews then ended up living in limbo. “In the eyes of the state, you are now a traitor. You’ve declared your intentions not to be Soviet and to leave. The state is punishing you by disenfranchising you,” Shrayer said. “It’s not allowing you to leave, but it’s also preventing you from living a normal life. You become a refusenik.”

The state no longer treated those Jews as equal citizens. Shrayer’s parents immediately lost their jobs, as did tens of thousands of other refuseniks, “who became basically in the eyes of the countries de facto traitors.”

“When a person who doesn’t know this context hears the word refusenik, they think, ‘Oh. These are people who basically refuse things.’ No. No. No. We did not refuse. We were refused. So correctly in English, refusenik should be called ‘refusees,’ not refuseniks.”

At their height, there were about 15,000 refuseniks, according to Shrayer, who notes that there were more than 2 million Jews in the Soviet Union in the 1970s. Now there are some 200,000 combined in all of the post-Soviet states, including Ukraine and Belarus.

“You’re talking about a complete depletion of the Jewish communities there,” he said.

The refusenik experience, in part, gives the lie to a common suggestion today, which Shrayer calls a “morbid antisemitic canard,” that Israelis should just go back to the countries from whence they came.

“People who say that are either completely ignorant of Jewish history or they say it in spite of the knowledge that Jews cannot return to places from which they were either expelled or where they were hunted, murdered and persecuted,” Shrayer said. “This is a deeply hostile prejudice.”

Maxim Shrayer
Maxim D. Shrayer. Photo by Mira Shrayer.

Between languages

So much about the way that Shrayer tells stories—and has mined his own story in so many of his books and crafted a unique voice to tell it—comes from having been an immigrant and from learning English from scratch. Being Jewish and channeling so many voices of Jewish writers is also part of his recipe, he told JNS.

“This is a translingual book, literally and figuratively. It is a book about being between languages. It is a book about, in a sense, thinking self-consciously of a voice while also trying not to think about it,” he said.

“The last thing any writer, and especially a writer who is not writing in his or her native language, would want to do is to come across as labored, overwritten, overtly concerned with making a stylistic impression,” he added.

A third-generation writer, Shrayer has gone through periods of writing only in English or in Russian, and at other times, has translated his writing from one to the other, or as he puts it, “given his writing a new existence in either Russian or English.”

“I think we immigrants live our lives in translation and in self-translation,” he said. “I think we live our lives not entirely, fully understood, and I see this even with my wife and daughters.” (His wife, a medical doctor, was born in America to immigrant parents, and their children are “more or less bilingual in Russian and English.”)

By trying to preserve his past and the culture into which he was born, Shrayer has learned “that probably you should stay true to oneself and not try to be an assimilated kind of product when you work in a second language.” And when writing a memoir, it’s important to convey “the lived experience” in a “really authentic” way. “Otherwise, at least as a reader of memoirs, I stop and I say this is not working for me,” he said.

Living “betwixt and between” and “within and without languages,” for Shrayer, involves “negotiating cultures” in a way that “pushes one to experiment with oneself. In other words, you become both the subject and the maker. You become both the instrument and the performer. Something about it really interests me.”

The book, which Shrayer worked on during the COVID-19 pandemic, is also superficially about travel at a time when, to quote Emily Dickinson, there was a need for “a frigate like a book, to take us lands away.”

“The question of travel was obsessively on my mind because usually I do a fair bit of traveling to Europe, to Israel, lecturing, research, readings,” he said. “The whole family was stuck, so I started reflecting on that, and I think from that initial prohibition against travel came the impulse to write this book, and then it sort of wrote itself.”

Beyond just travel, though, Shrayer’s book explores “a sense about a disappeared past,” particularly during an adventure in Russia with his younger daughter Tatiana—a published poet—that gets quite dangerous.

That incident, which involves a blast from Shrayer’s past and some antisemitism, “was one of the scariest things that I’ve ever experienced,” he told JNS. “I felt that I was on the verge of a bad, bad mistake.”

“It also is about what probably, or possibly, is the last trip to Russia, because I haven’t been back since,” he said. “It’s as though Russia is sending me a dire warning.” When an official told him, “Don’t come back here. We don’t need you. We don’t want you,” he asks her if he is not wanted because he is Jewish. The official gives “this kind of ominously circumspect answer,” he said.

“There’s been a complete separation between myself as a Russian Jew and today’s Russia, especially clear after the invasion of Ukraine,” he said. “I cut off all my academic and professional ties. I no longer publish there, and I used to have quite a publishing career there. I don’t do any academic work there, which is very sad, but I couldn’t. I’d be exercising a double standard.”

He sees Russian President Vladimir Putin beginning to enact anti-Zionism, drawing on Soviet propaganda. “When he compares Gaza and the siege of Leningrad, this is directly out of the anti-Zionist playbook and this is terrifying to me,” he said. “It augers even worse things.”

Maxim Shrayer
Maxim D. Shrayer. Photo by Lee Pelligrini.

Beautiful ugliness

In a section of the book about Venice, Italy, Shrayer writes about Saint Mark’s Square. Venice was “unrecognizably recognizable,” he writes, “like a brilliant poem or time-perfected work of fiction.” But “amid this beauty, a Jew nearly forgot that Venice was also the birthplace of the ghetto.”

“It’s insane how people forget that Venice invented the ghetto,” Shrayer told JNS. “People somehow think that the ghettos come from Germany or something like that. No. Venice invents the ghetto. So in the midst of all this beauty, we Jews also are burdened with the after-knowledge of what used to be.”

That ability to see the warts and the beauty at once, coupled with Shrayer’s experiences as an immigrant, leads him to think that Jews must not forget that they are a small minority in post-Christian culture in Europe and North America.

“I think the romance with assimilation is very powerful for American Jews—the illusion of having been given the pass to the mainstream, but I think it is very important to be reminded variously that probably this kind of seamless assimilation is but an illusion,” he said.

“College-age, young Jews probably are experiencing the kind of shock that their parents did not experience with the upsurge of rabid antisemitism, and also with the way Jews are now being collectively equated with Israel and demonized,” he said. “This is something that will take some of these young Jews time and effort to sort out.”

“Some of them will become stronger, like refusenik children became stronger. Others, I worry, will probably try to obliterate their Jewishness,” he said. “I think there’s hope, and as someone who works with language, there is also the opportunity to infuse, to invigorate writing with Jewish traditions, particularly this bittersweet Jewish humor.”

“I think I’ve become more of humorist and satirist than I was,” he said.

Returning to the Jewish humor that so scandalized the Mayflower-descendent grandmother of the friend of his daughter, Shrayer notes that people ask him about Ukraine or Lithuania, from where his family comes but where he has no living relatives.

“What we have there are family graves but also unknown ditches, where people were murdered in the first summer of the Nazi invasion,” he said. “I always say, ‘Look. I have rights to this land. My bones lie there.’”

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