Natasha and Other Stories

David Bezmozgis' hilarious--and profound--tales of an immigrant family in Canada.

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After a week of no responses, the Bermans get a call from a Dr. Kornblum, who invites them over for dinner. During dessert, Kornblum pulls out a family album and speaks of his ancestors in Poland. Mark narrates: "I had to go to the washroom and Kornblum said there was one downstairs and three upstairs, take your pick. He then turned a page in the album and pointed out everyone the Nazis had killed."

An even sharper look at the ironic relationship between four-bathroom Jews and Jewish suffering is presented in "An Animal to the Memory," which describes Mark's Hebrew School delinquency on Holocaust Remembrance Day ("which we called Holocaust Day for short").

The school principal berates Mark for failing to appreciate the solemnity of the day, for "choking another Jew at a memorial for the Holocaust." The principal believes this misbehavior reflects Mark's ambivalent Jewish identity, so he forces him to scream: "I am a Jew."

Of course, of the two characters here, only one left the Soviet Union because of anti-Semitism, but Bezmozgis doesn't need to state this punch line explicitly. The absurdity of the scene speaks for itself. Indeed, Bezmozgis forces us to ponder the difference between a Canadian Jewish community steeped in Judaism and defined by a fear of annihilation and a Russian Jewish community ignorant of most things Jewish, yet defined by actual anti-Semitism.

Still, Natasha is much more than an outsider's look at the culture of North American Jewry. Bezmozgis's prose is virtually flawless, simple and fluid.

The title story is a classic sexual coming-of-age tale, chock full of hilarity, honesty and loss. Even the final two stories, which are the weakest in the volume, have sentences to marvel at. In "Minyan," Bezmozgis writes of nursing home residents who come to pray: "Most of the old Jews came because they were drawn by the nostalgia for ancient cadences. I came because I was drawn by the nostalgia for old Jews. In each case, the motivation was not tradition but history."

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Daniel Septimus

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