Gary Shteyngart's satiric look at globalization, petrol politics, and the obsession with Jewish continuity.

Print this page Print this page

Still, Absurdistan rarely carries on for more than few a pages without a moment of profound literary comedy. And if your patience is particularly tested, know that Absurdistan includes a major payoff toward the end, in a chapter called "A Modest Proposal."

Edge and Insight

In the civil war between the Sevo and the Svani, Misha sides with the former, and in an attempt to generate international support for their cause, they ask him to be their ambassador to Israel. If Israel is on their side, they believe, America will be too. But Misha isn't interested in the position. His father had been an ardent Zionist, but Misha pines for New York, not Tel Aviv. Instead, he offers to be the Minister of Multicultural Affairs, and in this role proposes an initiative to court the influence of American Jewry.

Misha's modest proposal: A Sevo Holocaust museum. What follows is four and half pages that may be the most insightful and hilarious satire of the American Jewish community written in this century. Composed in the form of a grant proposal for "The Institute for Caspian Holocaust Studies, aka the Museum of Sevo-Jewish Friendship" is Shteyngart's ironic look at the pathologies of the American Jewish community.

What's the problem with American Jewry? Misha provides the answer he knows the foundations are looking for. "Due to the overabundance of presentable partners in a country as tantalizingly diverse and half naked as America, it is becoming difficult if not impossible to convince young Jews to engage in reproductive sex with each other." The solution? "Identity is born almost exclusively out of a nation's travails. For us--a prosperous, unmolested people safely nuzzled in the arms of the world's last superpower (as of this writing, anyway)--this means holocaust, holocaust, holocaust."

Here we have it all--the obsession with continuity, it's rhetorical connection to the Holocaust, and the most crucial, often overlooked element: the security, wealth, and power enjoyed by the average American Jew.

The Soviet Perspective

Much has been written about the fiction published by Soviet Jewish immigrants--namely Shteyngart, David Bezmozgis, and Lara Vapnyar--in the last few years. While grouping these writers solely based on their region of origin is reductive, the similarities, where there are any, are instructive. In this regard, Shteyngart and Bezmozgis share a satirical eye for the strange relationship North American Jews have with suffering and security. Shteyngart and Bezmozgis illuminate the community's unselfconscious mix of power and victimhood in a way that American-born writers have yet to do.

Perhaps the most subtly brilliant aspect of Shteyngart's "Modest Proposal," is its genre: the grant proposal, the vehicle through which American Jewish continuity is truly fetishized. Many of the American Jewish community's new initiatives are fueled by fantasies of mass-procreation with oddly little interest paid to what sort of spiritual or moral mission the resulting Jewish babies will share. Future historians of American Jewry will undoubtedly study continuity project grant proposals as a window into the Jewish American soul circa 2006.

Did you like this article?  MyJewishLearning is a not-for-profit organization.

Please consider making a donation today.

Daniel Septimus

Daniel Septimus is Executive Director of The Sefaria Project. Previously, he served as Chief Executive Officer of MyJewishLearning, Inc.