Saturday, October 18, 2014

"There are no cats in America"

Book Review: A Backpack, a Bear, and Eight Crates of Vodka by Lev Golinkin

In the animated movie, An American Tail, the simple immigrant mice have an idealistic view of the United States, including the belief that in America "there are no cats". Needless to say, they are shortly relieved of their naivete, and nearly of their lives as well.

In A Backpack, a Bear, and Eight Crates of Vodka, Lev Golinkin presents us with a deceptively simple story - his story - and we follow this childhood memoir down its seemingly predictable path. And then, like a matryoshka doll, we find that there is another story tucked inside it; and inside that one, another -- and another.

"The anti-Semites didn't know -- they hated because they had been programmed to hate, and they obeyed because they had to obey to survive. No one knew, no one understood, and, as the old saying goes, one will always fear what one doesn't understand."

Inside Golinkin's childhood memories nestle the dark tale of anti-Semitism, the story of the dissolution of the Soviet Union, and the ongoing history of immigrants to America. Inside those are the personal stories of the Ukrainian people, the struggle of Jews seeking escape to the West, and the organizations and individuals trying to aid them. And deep inside it all, the story of Lev Golinkin and his family.

As I dove farther down into the nested stories inside Golinkin's Backpack, I began to reflect on how this plays out in America today. Immigration has become a hot button issue - but then it always has been. It was no different in decades past when the immigrants were Irish, or Italian, or German. Those who had already managed to secure the blessings of liberty were all too eager to quench the lamp, close the golden door, and leave the masses huddled outside.

"Every immigrant expects something from America. People don't scale fences, trudge through deserts, abandon careers, friends, loved ones, the graves of their parents, risk their lives without hope of something waiting for them on U.S. shores."

My grandmother emigrated from Russia at the turn of the 20th century. Her family was German, among many who had been invited to settle in the Volga Valley; but the political situation had changed, dangerously. Her parents put their two daughters, barely teenagers, on a ship to the United States. For them, America represented hope, and freedom from fear.

A Backpack and a Bear is not an essay supporting immigration. It is just the story of a Jewish boy in the Ukraine who held that hope. In the process it becomes the story of all those who have ever made that journey to stand in the light.