By his own admission, Boris Fishman is “obsessed” with two subjects: Russian Jews who are fluent in American culture but choose to stay in their home culture, and the Russian-Jewish community’s “propensity for crime,” as he put it.
Fishman, who moved with his family from Belarus to the United States in 1988 at age nine, explored these two subjects in his first novel, A Replacement Life, published in 2014 by HarperCollins.
Having grown up in Wayne and earned a bachelor’s degree in Russian literature at Princeton University, he was happy to return “home” from the Lower East Side for a talk at Limmud FSU at the Sheraton Parsippany Hotel on March 28. (See related story)
At his session, Fishman was joined by his mother as he read from his novel and examined its themes with his audience of Russian speakers. Although he didn’t stay to experience the entire weekend of events, it was clear that he relished this audience’s ability to implicitly understand his remarks without lengthy explanations. Still, afterward, he said, “I don’t know if I can handle a full weekend of [Russian-Jewish] identity talk. It’s good in small doses.” That’s because like Slava, the narrator and protagonist in A Replacement Life, he is “eternally pained by the division inside me,” Fishman told NJJN a few days after his Limmud appearance.
In A Replacement Life, Slava, an aspiring writer, faces a moral conundrum when his grandfather and immigrant neighbors — who were persecuted under Stalin, not Hitler — ask him to forge their claims for Holocaust compensation. The novel asks how individuals navigate the line between justice and legality. It also observes how a variety of Russian-Jewish-American characters negotiate their places on the spectrum of identity.
Fishman said he does not surround himself with fellow Russian speakers, unlike others “my age and perfectly fluent in American culture,” who “make their homes with like-minded people in south Brooklyn.”
“There is too little integration into their adoptive country. They know too little of what America is about,” he said. On the other hand, he sometimes envies them. “They don’t feel unwhole, divided. I’m so envious. I want to know their secret.”
His own views on justice were shaped by his parents’ experience in the FSU. His mother was her class valedictorian at university, but was demoted to salutatorian because she was Jewish. Her father paid a bribe to get her promoted to her rightful place of honor.
An assumption that the law must be broken to exact justice both intrigues and irks Fishman. “When will this propensity to crime be left behind?” he asked. “Will we always have these impulses?”
He also noted that the Russian community has been silent following the publication of the book, perhaps reluctant to acknowledge the ugliness along with the beauty in the immigrant community.
As for the splash his novel made, landing on the front page of The New York Times Book Review, he said, “Every writer has a big ego.” He was, however, “so overwhelmed with the prospect of the novel being published that I never had a chance to give any thought to its reception. But I was surprised that the American reading public could have this much interest in a Russian immigration story. But we are in a moment when American literature is getting its energy from immigrant literature. And I got a big assist from Mr. Putin and the Kremlin, which keep Russia in the headlines.”
While A Replacement Life may appear to be a thinly veiled autobiography, Fishman asserted that in many ways, it is his second, soon-to-be published novel, Don’t Let My Baby Do Rodeo, that is more deeply autobiographical, especially in terms of Jewish life. That book, he said, “is infused with a certain kind of Jewishness. Judaism is not a major part of the characters’ lives but they’re also not Christian and that comes through in a lot of cultural ways.”
Much of the book is also set in New Jersey. “New Jersey is a much maligned state,” he said, relating his love for the Pine Barrens, as well as for rural Vernon, where he spent a summer volunteering on a farm. “It’s way cooler than people realize.”