1. Novelist Gary Shteyngart was a wheezing, asthmatic and fearful 7-year-old when he and his parents emigrated from the Soviet Union to Queens, New York, in 1979. (This was soon after America negotiated a trade deal with the Soviets that included allowing Jews to immigrate to Israel, Canada or the U.S.) 
The relocation meant little Shteyngart was suddenly living in the country he had been taught was the enemy. His parents, who had been prevented from practicing Judaism in the Soviet Union, sent Shteyngart to a Hebrew school in Queens, where he felt lost and despised. 

"My problem was that I didn’t know any English. So on top of not knowing any English, there was another language, Hebrew, which was even harder, that they were trying to teach me. It was too much. …
And at home we had no television so I couldn’t learn English from TV, so for the first years in Hebrew school I would sit apart from everyone at the cafeteria … and I would just have long conversations in Russian with myself … in this gigantic fur hat and fur coat, speaking in a language that nobody understood. And all the kids would run up to me and do the crazy sign and laugh and laugh and laugh, but I wouldn’t stop because that was the only language that would make me comfortable. … In speaking it, I could pretend that the people I loved were around me.”

'You Can't Be This Furry' And Other Life Lessons From Gary Shteyngart View in High-Res

    Novelist Gary Shteyngart was a wheezing, asthmatic and fearful 7-year-old when he and his parents emigrated from the Soviet Union to Queens, New York, in 1979. (This was soon after America negotiated a trade deal with the Soviets that included allowing Jews to immigrate to Israel, Canada or the U.S.) 

    The relocation meant little Shteyngart was suddenly living in the country he had been taught was the enemy. His parents, who had been prevented from practicing Judaism in the Soviet Union, sent Shteyngart to a Hebrew school in Queens, where he felt lost and despised. 

    "My problem was that I didn’t know any English. So on top of not knowing any English, there was another language, Hebrew, which was even harder, that they were trying to teach me. It was too much. …

    And at home we had no television so I couldn’t learn English from TV, so for the first years in Hebrew school I would sit apart from everyone at the cafeteria … and I would just have long conversations in Russian with myself … in this gigantic fur hat and fur coat, speaking in a language that nobody understood. And all the kids would run up to me and do the crazy sign and laugh and laugh and laugh, but I wouldn’t stop because that was the only language that would make me comfortable. … In speaking it, I could pretend that the people I loved were around me.”

    'You Can't Be This Furry' And Other Life Lessons From Gary Shteyngart

  2. memoir

    gary shteyngart

    interview

    soviet union

    hebrew

    fresh air

  1. I had fur coats and fur hats and [they] smelled of various woodland animal-type smells. The teachers would take me aside and say, “Look, you can’t be this furry. You can’t dress in these furs. Children won’t play with you if you have that much fur on.” … Basically what I was told in school every day was where we came from was wrong and where we were now was right. … It’s a lot for a sensitive 7-year-old to be told that everything he loved and believed in has to be replaced with something else.

    — Gary Shteyngart, author of Little Failure, speaks to Fresh Air about adjusting to life in America after leaving the Soviet Union when he was 7.

  2. fresh air

    gary shteyngart

    little failure

    russia

    soviet union

  1. I had this strong feeling of pride and identity as a Jew even from being very little. But…you couldn’t go to synagogue. You couldn’t do stuff like that. But we did have little relics of religion passed down here and there, like my grandmother, my mom’s mom, would always make sure that we knew when Passover was and she would somehow get, through a connection of a connection, we would have matza. And so she would make chicken soup with matza balls, but then we would have bread alongside that because we didn’t know that you’re not supposed to eat bread.

    —Regina Spektor on Jewish Identity and Anti-Semitism in the Soviet Union

  2. Regina Spektor

    Anti-Semitism

    Jewish identity

    Soviet Union

    Fresh Air