To Life – and to the ethnic influences in our work
S. Lee Manning: If you’ve ever watched the movie Fiddler on the Roof, the scene will be familiar to you. The Jewish protagonist and village philosopher Tevye toasts the engagement of his daughter to Lazar Wolf with the other Jewish men in the village tavern, singing the well-known words, L’Chaim– To Life. In the midst of their celebration, a group of young Russian men begin to sing, starting with the words zha vasha z’darovia – to your health. Reluctantly and a little afraid, Tevye accepts a young Russian man’s offer –and they dance together. A great example of two cultures coming together – until the Jews are forcibly exiled from their homes by the end of the movie.
And that pretty much sums up the ethnic influences in my novels.
I am one hundred percent Russian Jewish by ethnicity. All four of my grandparents lived in what was known as the Pale – an area where Jews were permitted to live without restriction, encompassing Russian territories such as Ukraine. In the beginning of the 20th century, my grandparents
immigrated to the United States because of the violence against Jews known as pogroms. My father used to tell me that me that his mother hid under a table as Cossacks shot guns into her house. Those members of my grandparents’ families who remained in the Pale disappeared into the night and fog of the Holocaust after the Nazis took over those areas.
As an adult, I am a non-practicing Jew with strong ties to my ethnic roots. What does that mean? In my case, it means an awareness of and familiarity with the religious aspects – the prayers, the songs, the rituals – even though I no longer believe or practice. It means knowing what’s kosher or not when I’m picking up a tray of something to take to my cousin’s house. It means an affinity for bagels and lox, for Chinese food on Christmas, for jokes with a Yiddish twist, for a certain range of mountains in upstate New York, for matzo dipped in egg and fried in oil. It means going to Jewish themed movies in Boca Raton. It means Seinfeld and Jerry Lewis and Mel Brooks. It means an awareness of history, including what happened to Jews in Europe 70 years ago, an eye out for swastikas being carved in cars, and knowing how to react when an acquaintance laughingly suggests sending all the Jews here to Israel. (Yep, that really happened. She didn’t realize I was Jewish until a minute after she made the comment. She’s no longer an acquaintance.) It means a pride in our survival and in our diversity of opinions and practices, in our support of social justice for everyone, and in our sense of humor.
So no surprise that when crafting Kolya, the hero for my thriller series, I made him one-quarter Jewish and made his fiancée a non-practicing Jew from an orthodox family. Sound familiar? You know the old saying – Write what you know.
But what about the other three-quarters ethnicity for Kolya?
Remember the dancing Russian men in Fiddler on the Roof?
In my teenage years, I became interested in Russia and Russian culture, despite the strong strain of anti-Semitism in Russian society. There was – and is – a dark brooding quality to Russian culture and literature that appealed to my teenage dark brooding mind. Okay, I know it’s a cliché, but sometimes clichés are true – like dinner in France really is generally better than dinner in England. Sorry, England. Love the literature. And there really is a brooding quality to Russian literature.
Russia straddles east and west, and has never completely belonged to either, despite the efforts of Peter the Great to Westernize Russian society of his time. In my younger years, Russia was our enemy – we faced each other across the cultural and political battleground that was the Cold War. Final element in my fascination with Russia was the fact that my grandparents came from a part of what was then the Russian empire.
So back in those dark and brooding years – teenager remember – I launched into an investigation of Russian literature. I read Dostoyevsky, Crime and Punishment and Notes from the Underground. I tried to read The Brothers Karamazov, but quickly reached my limit on my Dostoyevsky fascination. I read short stories by Gogol and plays by Chekov. I read Tolstoy – although I admit to skimming a bit in War and Peace. I found and read Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita, a biting satire on Soviet society yet filled with religious fervor.
Then there were the Russian composers who reinforced that dark brooding theme. Stravinsky, Rite of Spring. Mussorgsky’s Night on Bald Mountain. Okay, okay – so my first introduction to both of those pieces was due to a Disney movie — not quite the height of cultural knowledge – but damn it, the music is both dark and disturbing. After all, Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring started a riot in Paris.
I talked my grandfather into teaching me Russian, but we didn’t get very far. We did the alphabet – and then he handed me a book and told me, “Go learn.” I tried a bit, but Cyrillic is difficult – and as a teenager, I had little patience. I gave up on the language until recently when I discovered Duolingo. (Now I can confidently order coffee with milk and sugar.)
And now, as a writer of espionage fiction, I remain fascinated by Russia – not only because of its cultural history and my personal history, but because it is once again an enemy – after a brief period in the 1990s and early 2000s, when things seemed like they might be different. No longer.
So, in crafting my protagonist, Kolya, I put my Jewish heritage and my interest in Russia together to create a character who never completely fits in anywhere. In Russia, he’s the ex-pat who left the country at the age of fourteen – and who is part Jewish. To his Jewish fiancée’s family, he’s a non-Jew. To American spy agencies, he’s Russian – which is useful for operational purposes but which exposes him to a level of suspicion from certain fellow intelligence officers.
For many of us, especially for writers, there is a delicate dance between our desire to belong to a community and the emotional distance we often experience. What better way to illustrate that dance than with a character who straddles multiple cultures?
Zha vasha z’darovia.