Food-centric memoir explores emotional hunger of a Soviet Jewish emigré family

Food-centric memoir explores emotional hunger of a Soviet Jewish emigré family

Author Boris Fishman shares real and metaphoric recipes for healing multigenerational trauma and strained relationships as he recalls his family’s journey from Belarus to the US

Renee Ghert-Zand is a reporter and feature writer for The Times of Israel.

Author Boris Fishman (Stephanie Kaltsas)
Author Boris Fishman (Stephanie Kaltsas)

Don’t let all the delicious recipes in Boris Fishman‘s new memoir fool you. “Savage Feast: Three Generations, Two Continents, and a Dinner Table,” isn’t really about food. It’s about hunger — physical and emotional — and the intergenerational trauma it can inflict on a family.

By the time the Minsk-born Fishman was ready to write his family’s story, many decades had passed since his grandmother subsisted on potato peels during World War II, and his grandfather hustled and dealt on the black market to obtain above-average provisions for the family in Communist-era Belarus.

Now comfortably ensconced in suburban New Jersey, his emigré parents have no difficulty putting food on the table. A successful writer, Fishman himself is past the starving-artist stage of his life.

Accordingly, it initially did not occur to Fishman to use food as the vehicle for telling his multigenerational family’s journey from Minsk to the United States.

‘Savage Feast’ by Boris Fishman (HarperCollins Publishers)

“It was the quintessential blind spot,” Fishman, the author of the well-received novels “A Replacement Life” and “Don’t Let My Baby Do Rodeo” told The Times of Israel in a recent interview.

It wasn’t until a Ukrainian home aide named Oksana ended up caring and cooking for the author’s elderly grandfather Arkady at his Midwood, Brooklyn, apartment that he came to understand that food was at the heart of what brought his family members together — and the root of the neuroses that pushed them apart.

“Our family dynamic has really been about hunger, addiction, and food as a perversion,” Fishman said.

Not only did Oksana feed Arkady and his friends, neighbors and family, but she also graciously taught Fishman, 40, how to cook surprisingly tasty Ukrainian fare such as borscht, sardines braised in carmelized onions and tomatoes, and roast chicken stuffed with dried fruit and apples. The recipes for these dishes, as well as some of those of Fishman’s Belarusian-Jewish grandmothers, feature in the book. (The author said his favorites are Oksana’s chicken liver pie, and his grandmother’s stuffed cabbage braised in rye bread and sour cherry jam.)

“I was so affected by what Oksana did for our family. Her table created a temporary peace for us,” Fishman said.

Oksana’s recipes are not the real reason to read “Savage Feast,” but to ignore them would be a huge mistake. These are recipes calling for the loving, hard work that goes into healthily satisfying a long-standing hunger. They expanded Fishman’s palate, as they will the culinary horizons of readers who adhere to the false idea that ex-Soviet food is bland and heavy.

Oksana hangs her recipes on clothes hangers in the kitchen. (Max Avdeev)

“Part of what I hoped to achieve with these recipes was to alert readers, and cooks, to items like pickled watermelon, marinated peppers, and pumpkin preserves; delicate soups, and vegetarian stews, and seafood and lean meat braises; and so much more that refuses the stereotype,” Fishman wrote.

“This is a cuisine more of pots than pans, of time rather than flavor-bomb spices, of ingenuity rather than flash.”

A feast prepared and laid out at Boris Fishman’s grandfather’s Brooklyn apartment. (Max Avdeev)

Ingredients of a family casserole

In this engrossing work of creative nonfiction, Fishman reconstructs his family’s past, and also deals head-on with the personal psychological struggles resulting from his experience as a 9-year-old immigrant in the late 1980s.

Interestingly for a memoirist, Fishman said that he doesn’t remember his childhood in Minsk.

“I have a terrible memory. I remember only isolated occurrences, which I am sure become more and more false with each telling,” he said.

Fishman’s memory became “less checkered” once he arrived in the US, and it is those memories of his older childhood and teen years that led to feelings of strong resentment against his parents.

Author Boris Fishman’s grandfather in his apartment in Midwood, Brooklyn (Max Avdeev)

“I have a vague awareness of what the potential of getting beat up in the Soviet Union, because I was a Jewish kid, felt like. But that was far less stressful than the trauma of being 10 or 12 years old and having to interface with a new country on behalf of your [non-English-speaking immigrant] parents,” Fishman said.

The message to the young Fishman was clear: He was expected to succeed in the outside world and be a good Soviet Jewish boy at home.

Tension between the author and his parents mounted as he left home to study at an Ivy League university and later decided to pursue a writing and journalism career in Manhattan. His parents could not understand why he would want an unstable, non-lucrative profession. As Soviet emigrés, financial security was paramount.

“It took a long time for my parents to accept my professional direction and the boundaries I put for them,” Fishman said.

Oksana, the home aide of author Boris Fishman’s grandfather, seen in the kitchen. (Max Avdeev)

His parents, insatiable in their need to stay connected to their son, have finally come around. And to everyone’s surprise, Fishman, his wife and their baby daughter are now temporarily living with Fishman’s parents in New Jersey. It’s Fishman’s first time living at home since he left for college over 20 years ago, and “everyone is on their best behavior.”

Memory with a grain of salt

To reconstruct his grandparents’ and parents’ lives in Minsk — and even his own life as a child — Fishman used his journalism skills to interview his elders. He was aware that their stories were more glowing than were the actual events, so he took everything with a grain of salt.

“Memory is unreliable, so I made my best effort. I know that not everything in the book is 100% accurate. What I was getting at was the spirit of the truth,” the author said.

By way of example, Fishman pointed to the transit period in which the family waited in Vienna and Rome for their final immigration visas to the US. He said his goal was to convey the giddiness mixed with anxiety he, his parents and his maternal grandparents felt, and not necessarily the exact facts.

A meat store in Oksana’s hometown in Ukraine. (Max Avdeev)

The rawest part of the book is the section on Fishman’s struggle with depression as a young man living on his own in New York. Through psychoanalysis, the writer came to terms with his neuroses. He learned with time to be less fundamentalist and more moderate in his thinking and doing. He learned to be more patient and forgiving of himself and others.

In particular, Fishman came to understand how the “long tentacles” of the hunger that has plagued his family for generations interfered with his ability to form healthy relationships with women. After breaking off a long-term on-again-off-again relationship with Tablet Magazine editor-in-chief Alana Newhouse in his 20s, he went on to date other women. Only after coming to terms with his issues, he ended up meeting and marrying his wife.

“When it came to women, I was all in too quickly. I had this emotional hunger for constant togetherness and company, even though I had moved away from home years earlier. I was running away from that over-closeness with my family, but at the same time seeking it with the women I dated,” Fishman said.

Oksana’s liver pie (Max Avdeev)

A highlight of “Savage Feast” is Fishman’s trip with Oksana to her hometown in Ukraine, which had been 60% Jewish before the Holocaust. Oksana is returning for a memorial event for her mother, and she agrees to bring Fishman along, treating him almost like a son. The journey is illuminating for Fishman, and a stark reminder of his fortune.

Author Boris Fishman’s grandfather and his home aide Oksana. (Max Avdeev)

Oksana is not, and will never be, a member of the author’s family, but her closeness to them — especially to Fishman and his late grandfather Arkady — is undeniable. It’s a closeness limited by the politeness in Soviet culture that prevents intimacy, according to Fishman.

Fishman said he felt fortunate to be able to chronicle the relationship between Oksana and the “heroic and limited” Arkady, and to capture the moment in time in which old Soviet Jews in the US were connected to Ukrainian migrants in this way. It’s a moment that has, for the most part, passed now that there are very few Soviet Jews of Fishman’s grandparent’s generation left.

“She kept my grandfather alive for 15 years,” Fishman said. “This could not have happened in the Soviet Union. Jews and non-Jews would not have interacted in this way.”

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