Set in the final year of Soviet Russia’s collapse, this stunning debut novel tells the story of Sonya, a timid Jewish girl reuniting with her once-dissident mother and falling in love with a mysterious muddy-eyed boy who may be an anti-Semite. All the while, Sonya’s mama is falling in love also⎯with shiny America, a land where differences seem to be celebrated. The place sounds amazing, but so far away. Will Sonya ever find her way there?
|Publisher:||New Europe Books|
|Product dimensions:||5.50(w) x 8.25(h) x (d)|
|Age Range:||12 - 16 Years|
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
I never knew this place existed, that such places exist.
“A synagogue,” Mama called it.
Inside the aged, gigantic palace on Arkhipova Street whispers and breaths of hungry women form a solid wall behind me. The solemn chanting of thousands of men reaches me from below. The air rising up in columns separates me from their skullcapped heads. But even from this safe distance, at the sight of the familiar black curls escaping from out of a dark blue skullcap they call yarmulke, I almost fall off the balcony. Am I hallucinating from hunger? But no, it’s him, Misha Aizerman, with the men down there in the main hall, chanting and singing.
Babushka never told me about a day of atonement, how it comes around early October, on the heels of the New Year, our own one, just for us, Jews. Mama said she didn’t know about it, either, not until this year. There are thousands of years worth of Jewish things we still don’t know, she told me.
On Yom Kippur you must not eat. You must be serious and especially well-behaved if you want God to write your name into the Book of Life for the coming Jewish year. Yet all around me the women shove each other as if we were on a bus. Two, three layers of arms, thighs, purses, bosoms, practically squeezing Mama and me through the heavy wooden boundaries of the balcony in their fight for a better view of the marble floors underneath. There is so much to take in. Tall chandeliers alight with many candles. The holy book they call the Torah. (Not the Book of Life⎯that one’s for God. The Torah is for the people. Mama said it’s like the Bible, only without the second part.) A small bearded rabbi with huge glasses looks even shorter, standing beside a tall cantor from America.
“He looks like a Spanish Don,” one woman says reverently.
“How I like your pretty hat!” another woman gushes to Mama, and even in this squash, Mama smiles a satisfied smile and shakes her small round black hat decorated with bright flowers and a short symbolic veil. In the main hall below us, the men pay better attention behind heavy dark wood benches. Heads fill the hall, bodies pack the adjacent passages and corridors. Voices chant unknown musical words that sound something like naj-shemeyeh-ro-kha-nu-einu, some sort of a secret code only we, all of these people here, are privy to, without understanding a single word.
Once in a while one of the men will point a finger at us women on the balcony, shake his head and hiss an angry sha! to quiet us. Misha doesn’t frown and call out sha, though. At the distance of maybe three floors down all I can really make out is his dark-haired head bent over the words in a book. I wonder what would happen if he raised his head, turned around, and saw me?
But then the men on the marble steps start singing, and the women stop pushing, the men stop lifting their heads at us and saying sha!, and I stop wondering.
The American cantor’s operalike vibrato fills the giant hall. The voices of the other men join him in a slow winding melody. The voices fill me. They fill me with so much joy, so much sadness and calling that I cannot contain it, no one human could, and it overflows into the stuffy air that smells of bodies and a little dust and wood. Underneath the solemnity and sadness, the music teases me with happiness and life and defiance. I wish I knew the mysterious words, wish I could let them travel through my own throat.
I look around at the people. Ordinary people one could encounter in any bakery. And yet something about them feels close, warm, my own, ours. Their bodies are just like mine, filled with voices and magic on this most important day of the Jewish year, and it doesn’t matter that Misha cannot see me. He can feel me, I know, just as I can feel him and the dark-haired bearded man beside him who must be his father, and my own mama in her hat, and that old woman, an immovable face caught in memories, lips cracking through fading red lipstick.
At the end of the concert, the rabbi speaks of hard times. “It is difficult now,” he says, “And yet look at us all together like this, a new beginning. . . .”
“He is from Siberia,” a woman beside Mama whispers.
“The times are hard,” he says. “A difficult winter is coming. . . . And when the times are hard for everyone, for us they will be that much harder. But things will get better.” He speaks as though he really does know. “We must persevere, we must keep our ‘Jewishness,’” the rabbi says. “Come to the synagogue, not just for Shabbat, not just for the holidays, come all the time.”
After the service we’re downstairs, the women mixing with the men. Mama’s mouth barely moves, though her fingers won’t stop dancing, as she plays with the flowers on her hat, telling some blue-eyed singer friend of hers how it was all soul-shaking, incredible. Perhaps finally realizing she might rip the flower off her hat if she keeps fingering it so furiously, Mama takes the hat off. Without lifting her eyes off the blue-eyed singer’s, she thrusts her hat at me to hold. My fingers snatch it by the flower. I jam the hat over my head.
Through a black netted perfume-scented veil the world is just a little darker. Softer. Safer. Suddenly, I feel as though I have entered a dream, where nothing I could do is wrong. I look around through the openings in the small black net hanging before my eyes, at the faces of the people all miraculously related to me and to each other, at the six-sided Jewish stars everywhere, carved on the sides of the wooden benches, stitched on the velvet curtain covering the place where the Torah lives. My star, out here in the world, not hiding, beckons through the softness of the black veil.
I scan the place for Misha. I find him entering a side door.
“I’ll be right back.” In the hallway filled with voices, my own jingles with mischief.