Tevye’s daughters, modernized
The Cosmopolitans (Livingston Press, $17.95), a debut novel from Nadia Kalman, is an engaging look at the Russian immigrant experience in America through a complex family story — something of an anti-epic that chronicles how the Molochniks acculturate into the 21st century. The novel mirrors the structure of Sholem Aleichem’s Tevye stories , the gradual sacrifice of one daughter after another to the trials and scandals of modernity, much to the sadness and confusion of the seemingly unworldly parents. Kalman nods explicitly to her inspirations — the classical Russian and Russian-Jewish literary traditions that color her characters’ logic and language — from the family’s last name (Molochnik, Tevye’s moniker in the Russian translation) to the father, Osip (for the poet Mandelshtam, quoted in the epigraph) and the mother, Stalina (for, well, the obvious). Under Kalman’s deft touch, these unconcealed references highlight the Molochnik’s cultural frame of reference, enriching our understanding of the family’s context with warmth and wit.
Kalman exploits absurdist techniques and traditions with ease and subtlety, creating a fantastical yet utterly familiar world of Jewish domestic life. At the core of the novel are the love stories of three sisters, first-generation immigrants from the former Soviet Union. Milla, the oldest, marries into a wealthy Upper East Side Jewish family — and culture clash ensues. Her marriage a sham, she attempts to suppress her love for a woman. “Sex was an acquired taste,” she tells herself. “Julie had made her acquire lesbianism, and Malcolm would help her un-acquire it.” Yana is the idealist, her dilettante Marxism an endless source of amusement — and no little anxiety — for her post-Soviet parents. She explains to her suitor nonchalantly, “I took merengue for my Fascist movement requirement,” when he asks her to dance. And Katya, the youngest, a pitiful shell of a girl, attempts, with a cocktail of narcotics, to silence the voice of Brezhnev that inexplicably — and literally — bubbles out of her throat at the slightest provocation. In her fantasies of punk rock stardom, “The crowd moshed, screaming her name. Not her regular name, Katya, but her punk name, Vonyuchinka, which meant ‘the stinking one’ in Russian. She opened her mouth to vomit down on them — ‘Comrades, thanks to your most efficacious efforts, gross radish production has risen by an unheard-of and heroic percentage of six and three tenths…’”
These women, each with a struggle and a poignant love story, are symbols of the ambivalences of Westernization, Americanization, acculturation — certainly. They alternate between alienating and clinging to their loving, yet often helpless, parents. But (and this is the heart of the novel’s warmth and its success) the sisters are also full, complete characters — women with acerbic wit, intensity, and self-awareness. In the growing sea of Russian Jewish immigrant fiction, Kalman gives depth, humor, and credence to a new kind of character. While many of her themes — the ambivalence of immigration, cross-generational miscommunication, a kind of magical realism — are familiar from other contemporary Russian Jewish writers like Gary Shteyngart or Ellen Litman, Kalman’s fresh take gives these themes new life, as she brings depth, humor, and an intimate kind of grandeur to her genuinely lovable characters.
Sonia Isard is assistant editor at Lilith. She studied Russian and Yiddish history and literature at the University of Michigan and the Jewish Theological Seminary.