A native of Kharkov born in the fading years of the Soviet Union, Lev Golinkin eventually left Ukraine, came to Indianapolis via Austria, and then settled with his family in East Windsor, where he lives today.
His recently published memoir, A Backpack, a Bear, and Eight Crates of Vodka (Doubleday), paints a vivid picture of the pain he suffered as a small boy feeling different in a way he could never understand, his consequent aversion to anything Jewish, and his reclamation, as a young adult, of pride in his Jewish heritage.
NJJN: What remaining effects are there on you both as a human being and a Jew of having grown up in the Soviet Union?
Golinkin: From the time I came to the United States at age 10 in 1990, through my senior year of college, the effects of being a Jew in the Soviet Union were never far from my mind. I viewed being a Jewish as a liability and a disease. There was no real positive aspect of Judaism that I had; it was not like I could look back on warm times in a synagogue in the Ukraine. The only thing I knew was bad things, and I tried everything in my power to get away from Jews and being a Jew. A big part of the journey that led to my book has been me trying to understand and accept my Jewish past and embrace my Jewish identity.
NJJN: Where did those negative feelings about being Jewish come from?
Golinkin: I knew from an early age that there was something different about our family, that we were not the same as the ones around me. I didn’t know what a synagogue was, but I knew it was a word that was not to be spoken outside our apartment. I knew that I and the other Jewish kid in my class — that we for some reason were who others beat up on while the teacher ignored it, but I didn’t know why.
Not until first grade [did I know I was Jewish], playing with my best friend, who was a Russian and not a Jew, and he asked me, “Are you a zhid?” It’s hard to describe the word “zhid.” You could say it is like “kike,” but it is a little more than that. It was a cancer that was eating at Russia and Ukraine, a problem that needed to be solved, keeping them from their rightful glory. Anytime there was turmoil, they said, “Jews are behind this.” After I talked to my friend, I realized that that was what my family was hiding, because I was part of this disease.
NJJN: After going to Boston College, in part because you wanted to go to a place with few Jews, why did your perspective change?
Golinkin: My time at Boston College brought me face to face with some decisions. The main one was I wanted to have some meaningful future; I wanted to be a part of something larger than myself. I enjoyed the community and the service aspect of Boston College — I really blossomed there but realized that unless I root myself and have some sort of identity…I can’t keep trying to close myself off and at the same time run up to the world and be part of it.
A trusted professor and adviser told me, “You can’t pretend to have been born in New Jersey. You have to go back and understand your past.”
NJJN: So how did you go about retracing your past?
Golinkin: I started off learning about Judaism. I went back to the community in Indiana which had adopted my family and brought us to the States and talked to some people who became friends [there]. I talked to human rights directors of groups who gave us support and helped bring us to America. I got my family’s refugee file and the name of my caseworker and wound up calling the 15 or 20 people in the U.S. who have the same name as him and said, “Hi, are you my caseworker?” The wonderful thing is, people responded; I got a voicemail a week later, ‘This is Bill, and I was your caseworker.’”
I went back to Austria, where my family had lived as refugees, and tracked down the everyday Austrians who gave us clothing, food, and shelter, many who were not Jewish. I wanted to ask them why they did what they did and what their background and stories are and what they are proud of, and I was able to incorporate those stories in my book.
There was also a lot of looking at 40 years of individuals fighting for Soviet Jews — people I don’t know, never met, and will never meet — from everyday individuals signing petitions and wearing bracelets to people in the White House fighting for us because they believed in us, not because we were a disease but because we were human beings and needed help.
It helped me be proud of being a Jew — 40 years is a long time keeping up a struggle.
NJJN: Did you ever think of going back to the former Soviet Union?
Golinkin: No. The night we left was the happiest moment of my life — why ruin such a wonderful memory! When my family started packing, they were worried about how I would respond; we were putting ourselves at the mercy of others, had no destination and almost no belongings, and we knew no one beyond the border. I took my teddy bear and my backpack, and there was nothing I was going to miss.
NJJN: Who are you as a Jew today?
Golinkin: I’m not a Jew religiously. I’m a secular Jew, I am an agnostic, but I certainly am proud of my Jewish heritage, proud of the Jewish culture, and proud to come from a tradition of people who really exerted themselves to heal the world and not just look out for themselves. I believe I am expressing the Jewish heritage every time I volunteer and reach out to others.
NJJN: What would you say is the most important take-home message of your book?
Golinkin: One thing I didn’t want was for this to be another story of “I’ve been to the mountaintop, and I understand everything.” That being said, one thing that is abundantly clear in the book is the impact that actions can have on people anywhere from around you to halfway around the world. It’s almost November, and we’re going to have food and clothing drives. This book is for anyone who has dropped off a jacket or a can of food at a drive and asked themselves whether it made any difference.