Books

Boris Fish­man’s mem­oir ‘Sav­age Feasts’ pro­vides in­sight into the im­mi­grant strug­gles of a Soviet Jewish fam­ily

The Jerusalem Post - The Jerusalem Post Magazine - - CONTENTS - • ELAINE MARGOLIN

Boris Fish­man knows first­hand what it feels like to feel a fierce at­tach­ment to­ward a fam­ily who threaten to swal­low him whole. His strained jour­ney to­ward adult­hood, un­der the strong hand of his dom­i­neer­ing mother, bro­ken­hearted fa­ther and tough-minded grand­fa­ther was filled with toxic strains of love, hate and bit­ter­ness, com­bined with smoth­ered dreams.

Fish­man, 39, came to Amer­ica with his fam­ily from Be­larus at the age of nine and served as his fam­ily’s am­bas­sador to the strange new world they all found in Ben­son­hurst, Brook­lyn and even­tu­ally, the placid sub­urbs of New Jer­sey. His ex­tra­or­di­nary, com­pelling new mem­oir, Sav­age Feasts: Three Gen­er­a­tions, Two Con­ti­nents, and a Din­ner Ta­ble, shows us a sec­u­lar Jewish fam­ily who set­tle into chronic de­spair. Fish­man chron­i­cles for us with great imag­i­na­tive flair his own jour­ney to­ward in­de­pen­dence, an awk­ward and ag­o­niz­ing dance.

The book be­gins with Fish­man de­scrib­ing his mother’s re­quest that he come to a fam­ily gath­er­ing.

“I can ar­gue my mother out of al­most any­thing,” he writes. “Ex­cept the sev­eral days on the cal­en­dar when she needs ev­ery­one at the ta­ble... on Passover, Rosh Hashanah, birth­days, an­niver­saries and Thanks­giv­ing, we have to please come to­gether.”

“To­gether” is prob­a­bly the wrong word for these tense gath­er­ings, which are re­ally lit­tle more than a prac­ticed rep­e­ti­tion of fam­ily slights that leave al­most ev­ery­one des­o­late, par­tic­u­larly Fish­man, who gorges him­self and drinks too much. He har­bors fan­ci­ful child­hood dreams that he can ac­tu­ally open up to those who claim to love him so much, with­out hav­ing his head torn off.

He goes home an­gry, filled with self-loathing, a feel­ing that is his con­stant com­pan­ion for longer than he cares to re­mem­ber. As a small boy, Fish­man’s anx­i­ety de­vel­oped into a series of tics. He would of­ten block his bed­room door with chairs, for rea­sons he has yet to de­ci­pher. He had al­ways been exquisitel­y sen­si­tive to his mother’s nag­ging de­mands and his fa­ther’s bro­ken­ness. Noth­ing has re­ally changed since his boy­hood.

But Fish­man sur­prises us and veers off in a won­drously un­ex­pected di­rec­tion. Her name is Ok­sana, hired by his 78-year-old grand­fa­ther as a home aide. Fish­man chron­i­cles his usu­ally ret­i­cent and cranky grand­fa­ther’s in­stant con­nec­tion to Ok­sana on their first day to­gether. They spend hours talk­ing, shar­ing tsuris, go­ing shop­ping, and laugh­ing. He proudly shows her off around his neigh­bor­hood, and she cooks him an in­cred­i­ble meal that is rem­i­nis­cent of home. When she is pre­par­ing to leave that first day, he no­tices her cry­ing. She ex­plains be­ing flat­tered by the at­ten­tion he showed her and they’re off to a rol­lick­ing start.

Fish­man is at first sur­prised by their con­nec­tion. Ok­sana is 44, a non-Jew from Ukraine, with a hus­band back home who drinks too much and an adult son who has trouble mo­ti­vat­ing him­self. Fish­man watches his grand­fa­ther soften, mes­mer­ized by Ok­sana’s way with him.

One day he wit­nesses his grand­fa­ther twirl Ok­sana around in a fum­bling at­tempt at the tango that leaves them both hi­lar­i­ously chuck­ling. When the fam­ily is called to one of the fam­ily gath­er­ings Fish­man dreads, there is a new light­ness of be­ing in the air that seems or­ches­trated by Ok­sana. To Fish­man, she seems to be a Zen mas­ter of sorts; able to use small quiet ges­tures and soft com­ments to spread good cheer to this be­lea­guered Jewish fam­ily be­fore they pounce on one another.

Per­haps, most im­por­tantly, she pro­vides the fam­ily with the foods they love: tsimmes, matza, bobka, potato latkes, and kasha var­nishkes, all made with the finest in­gre­di­ents. Fish­man re­mem­bers feel­ing a tremen­dous surge of love for Ok­sana on a night when the din­ner party didn’t dis­in­te­grate into ugly chaos and her cre­ativ­ity al­lowed “the old, well-grooved griev­ances to oc­ca­sion­ally make room for some­thing else.” It was noth­ing short of sheer magic!

Fish­man be­gins vis­it­ing his grand­fa­ther more of­ten and finds him more will­ing to speak about the past; a sub­ject he had al­ways avoided. He hears the hor­ror sto­ries about went on back home; the den­i­gra­tion of the Jews both be­fore, dur­ing, and af­ter the war with Nazis. He learns about his grand­fa­ther’s brother who died fight­ing the Ger­mans; a brother his grand­fa­ther had loved dearly who was gen­tler than he was. As for his grand­fa­ther, he fi­na­gled his way out of army ser­vice un­til the dan­ger had passed, and af­ter the war worked as a bar­ber and scav­enged the land­scape for food and other es­sen­tials. He was a born hus­tler, able to fight back and de­fend him­self – fear­less against the an­ti­semitic thugs who at­tacked him.

Dur­ing his vis­its, Fish­man be­comes closer with Ok­sana, who seems to serve as a ma­ter­nal fig­ure for him. Af­ter a par­tic­u­larly dev­as­tat­ing break-up, one of many he has en­dured, he runs to Ok­sana for com­fort. He asks her if she will teach him how to cook, and she agrees to share her se­crets. He finds their days to­gether sur­pris­ingly sooth­ing; the rep­e­ti­tion of learn­ing her tricks, com­bined with her gen­tle guid­ance, be­come a tonic for him, as are their si­lences that are com­fort­able and nur­tur­ing.

“In Ok­sana’s kitchen, I fig­ured out how chicken liver al­chem­izes into a crepe,” he said. “When the time came to flip, Ok­sana ‘drew’ around the edge of the crepe with a thin wooden skewer, as if she were cross­ing some­thing out, un­til it be­gan to sep­a­rate from the pan; then in a light­ning mo­tion, slid her fin­gers un­der the crepe and flipped it onto its back­side .... I learned to baby the rab­bit in sour cream, ten­derer than chicken and less for­giv­ing of dis­trac­tion, as well as the banosh the way the Ital­ians did po­lenta .... I learned pa­tience for the pump­kin pre­serves – stir gen­tly to avoid turn­ing the cubes into puree.”

At the end of many chap­ters, Fish­man presents Ok­sana’s recipes, and they are noth­ing short of love let­ters of a sort to her. Soon enough, a new woman ap­pears in his life, one who seems to in­tu­itively grasp the long­ings of his heart.

It took Fish­man years to break free of his fam­ily trauma and it has left last­ing scars. He has learned, fi­nally, how to pick him­self up and swim away.

(Re­becca Hall/San Jose Mer­cury News)

‘HE GOES home an­gry and filled with self-loathing; a feel­ing that has been his com­pan­ion for longer than he cares to re­mem­ber.’

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