This year’s One Book One Jewish Community selection is a memoir of a Russian immigrant childhood.
When Lev Golinkin was 9 years old, he and his family fled the Soviet Union with 10 suitcases and $600.
Now, 26 years later, Golinkin detailed his past and his journey to find those who helped his family in his memoir, A Backpack, A Bear and Eight Crates of Vodka.
The book was chosen for the ninth year of One Book, One Jewish Community, a program of Jewish Learning Venture. Golinkin, who lives in New Jersey, will be in town for the kickoff event on Jan. 10 at Gratz College.
The book’s title refers to what 9-year-old Lev was carrying with him as they left: a backpack, his teddy bear and the crates of vodka were used for bribes for shelter among other things as they went along.
As you read through his memoir, Golinkin details growing up facing anti-Semitism in Soviet-era Ukraine, through his time at Boston College, from which he graduated in 2004, and his return from whence he came to search for who he is.
The book was chosen not just for its Jewish values and Golinkin’s story but also for the discussions that will inevitably commence once the reader closes the back cover, which is what One Book One Jewish Community is all about.
“What it does is it creates a community-wide conversation,” said Rabbi Phil Warmflash, executive director of Jewish Learning Venture, of the program.
This book in particular, he said, allows the program to involve other agencies and organizations in the community, including HIAS and Jewish Family and Children’s Service — a key factor for choosing this book, apart from the fact that it’s a “good, easy but thought-provoking read.”
“We’re looking for books that speak to different parts of the community,” Warmflash said. “One book speaks to different agencies, different synagogues — it’s hard to find.”
The One Book committee begins reading about a year in advance of choosing the ultimate book. In the past few years, as the event has grown, publishers have begun to send the committee books whereas before, the committee would reach out and ask the publishers to send them books for consideration.
Once they narrowed it down to the selection group’s top choices, Warmflash began reading also and was instantly hooked on A Backpack — which he joked is the “longest title” they’ve ever had — despite some initial doubt.
“I guess when I saw it, I thought, ‘another Russian émigré book,’ ” he recalled, “but when I read it, it grabbed me from the beginning and took me through the book.”
One aspect of the book Warmflash hopes people think about is the expectations placed on Golinkin’s family once they reached America — how they were supposed to act as “American Jews” now that they were in that community.
It was the idea that they were “religiously oppressed” in the Soviet Union and now suddenly were “religiously free” in America, he said.
Part of that was understanding that as American Jews, they learned that there wasn’t one set way of being Jewish. Rather, it was an opportunity for them to get involved in ways that were meaningful for them, Warmflash said.
“When you come into it new from another culture, you have to see if that history and culture and what we built speaks to you,” he said.
After the program officially starts, community partners and synagogues can host their own meetings and programs for further discussion of the book. The kickoff event will include a Q&A with Golinkin, which is Debbie Leon’s favorite part.
Leon, coordinator of the program, has been involved since its inception.
She loves being a “fly on the wall” during the author’s presentation during the kickoff because there are so many conversations that take place — between the audience and the author, between audience members themselves, between people who see each other during these events and bond over the book.
“It happens consistently and it’s wonderful, and that’s what you want — positive feeling and connection,” she said.
A Backpack was a “tremendous” choice for this year’s program, she said. It is also the first memoir the committee picked, which offers a different viewpoint and feel than books chosen in the past.
Golinkin’s voice, in particular, adds to the appeal of the memoir and offers lessons for the readers.
For Golinkin, 35, writing the book and telling his family’s story was a way of pushing himself forward to find who he is.
For a long time, he turned away from that and wanted nothing to do with Judaism. He picked Boston College specifically because it was a Catholic school.
“It was very hard,” he said, “because for a long time my whole identity was, ‘I’m going to push Russian and Ukraine and Jews as far as away from me as possible,’ and that consumed me. Letting it go was not an easy thing.”
The book, which was eight years in the making, started as a way for him to collect his own thoughts as he was researching.
“Writing it down really helped,” he said. “For me, if you write something down, even if nobody else sees it or you throw it away after or burn it that makes it more real. In a way, a big part of this book started with me scratching things down just to understand where I came from.”
When he began searching for those who helped him and his family all those years back, he started by talking to people already close to him. His dad, he said, was a big help and Golinkin would ask him questions about what they went through. His dad, as it turned out, had made a scrapbook that had business cards and other keepsakes from individuals and organizations who helped them.
Golinkin found the name of their case worker, and he called every number of every person in America with that name. It led to a lot of interesting conversations, he said. Finally, he received a voicemail from a woman who said, “I think you’re looking for my husband. He was your caseworker.”
Golinkin traveled back to places like Austria, where his family lived as refugees for a time, and he took his friends with him for needed emotional and moral support.
All of these experiences have led him to where he is today. However, he is quick to note that his book does not tell story of all Soviet Jews at the time.
“I was concerned to make clear, this is what was happening with my family,” he said. “I didn’t want to speak for all Soviet Jews. It’s very dangerous when you start speaking for a whole people. I was always very careful of making this a story of myself and my family.”
One topic in particular he feels strongly about ties into his newly formed Jewish identity and his own experience: immigration.
HIAS and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) — two organizations that helped him and his family — are working with Syrian refugees today, he said, which is the aspect of Judaism he most closely identifies with.
“Jewish groups helping Syrians — to me, that is the most Jewish thing I can imagine,” he said. “Not just ignoring these people, stepping in and helping out in a crisis and that’s what makes me feel the most Jewish is things like that.”
The historical component — particularly learning more about Ukrainian Jews through Golinkin’s story — is also a powerful one for Leon. While many remember the plight of Jews in the former Soviet Union, Jews in Ukraine were suffering similarly.
“We all have a lot to learn,” she said, “not only about the history and experience of Ukrainian Jews, but also you hear a lot of conversation in the synagogue world about, ‘Why doesn’t this group of people want to associate with us?’ or ‘This group [isn’t] participating in synagogue events’ — you get a whole education around the perspective of one person.”
Golinkin’s book will be available for purchase at the event, and Leon said they are asking those who come to bring not donations but backpacks and bears to give to HIAS for immigrants coming in that the organization is working with — a community service component they have not done before.
The pride in the program — and the programs it has inspired in other cities, such as San Francisco’s One Bay One Book — is something Leon always notices.
“It’s a movement and it’s powerful and it touches people,” she said. “It seems corny to say that, but it really does — people are invested in the book and the pride that our community is doing this.”
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