Food from the old country nourishes the spirits of refugees.
At the age of 9, journalist and novelist Fishman (Creative Writing/Princeton Univ.; Don’t Let My Baby Do Rodeo, 2016, etc.) immigrated to the United States from Soviet Belarus with his parents and grandparents via Vienna and Rome. In each city, they underwent an examination of documents, health, and suitability to enter the U.S. The process was protracted and tense, and some families were turned away. But after making an emotional case for their oppression, they were approved, and on Thanksgiving Day, 1988, they landed in New York to begin the challenging transformation of becoming Americans. Central to Fishman’s insightful, absorbing memoir is hunger: “the trauma-derived mother-hunger that won’t give you a moment to wonder if you’re really hungry underneath all that worry.” The trauma of cultural loss, shared by many immigrants, was assuaged by his grandfather’s home health aide, whose recipes for potato latkes, stuffed cabbage, braised rabbit, liver pie, and scores more make the memoir a succulent treat. Besides hunger, the family harbored an overwhelming fear of risk and deep-seated pessimism. When Fishman’s mother went to a therapist, distraught at her son’s reckless decision to move to Mexico, the therapist, bemused, asked, “what if it goes well?” His mother was stunned: “Something as obvious as things turning out okay even if someone split from the pack had never occurred to her.” Although their innate sense of doom made his family seem “medieval and maimed,” he, too, was dogged by a pervasive feeling of sorrow and disorientation that led him to bruising romantic relationships and emerged as full-blown depression. “I used to think,” he writes, “that if I could just persuade them that risk brought reward, that things turned out okay now and then, I could be myself without confusing or hurting them. But their losses and shocks reached so far,” he concedes, “I couldn’t save them.” With great effort (and therapy and antidepressants), he managed to save himself.
A graceful memoir recounting a family’s stories with candor and sensitivity.