Meryll Levine Page is a retired high school history teacher with a special interest in women’s history. She taught extensively about the Soviet Union and its break-up. Currently she co-facilitates the Minneapolis Jewish Artists’ Lab.
Every so often, a series of discrete events seems to coalesce. This week is no exception. I have been thinking of the upcoming holiday of Simhat Torah and remembering how much it meant to Alla to be able to be part of such a boisterous Jewish celebration. The dancing and singing proclaimed, Am Yisrael hai, The People of Israel live! I appreciate how Alla drew Vera into the holiday and how she defied the fears that beset others and determined to find a way to be part of the celebration. Today in the US, there are no barriers to American Jews participating in Simhat Torah. Yet, how many people will appear in our synagogue on Friday morning? Simhat Torah also reminds me of the role that liquor and drinking ashot or two plays in the celebration. In our synagogue, there has been a group of men who keep a bottle of schnapps and glasses...
The most controversial chapter of our manuscript was chapter 11—A Mississippi Dacha. Leslie, Patricia (our editor) and
I debated back and forth about keeping it, revising it, or jettisoning it. Patricia was the advocate for including the
chapter in the book. She reasoned that our American readers would identify with us and we needed a counterpoint in
the US to Vera and Alla’s Leningrad stories. It was easy for Leslie to become part of the book because she was part of
Vera’s life. It was a reach for me since I was not part of the story and I am more loathe to disclose my feelings.
Patricia, you were right. When I think about comments I’ve heard from readers, almost everyone mentions this
chapter. It’s a revelation to many Jews and non-Jews alike that there was a thriving Jewish community in Tupelo.
(Ever the teacher, I feel compelled to let readers know they can access more information.
When I look at the photo of myself opening the box of the first editions of Jewish Luck: A True Story of Friendship, Deception and Risky Business, I remember the feeling of complete and total joy. The book was finished, the cover looked good, it was real. As a realist, I assumed the joy would diminish as the calendar progressed from Oct. 2013 to Nov. to Dec. While it’s true that the initial euphoria has dissipated, I feel so energized every time a reader talks to me about a topic raised in the book. We have had the privilege of speaking to numerous book groups and I thank each and every one of them for inviting us and sharing their impressions. Writing is a solo (or in our case a dual) activity. We are not just writing for ourselves, for Vera and Alla, and for their families, but also for all the people who open the cover and are looking for a story...
Aspirational vs. Memorial Decorating
I enjoy walking in the early evening hours around Minneapolis lakes. Sure, the lakes glisten as the sun sets, but what attracts nosy-me are the lit windows in the stately homes. Before nightfall, a walker can peek into the illuminated living rooms of its fortunate inhabitants and glimpse the decor. This same curiosity fueled me as Leslie and I headed to St. Petersburg, Russia and Stockholm. How would people live there?
Could we peek?
In St. Petersburg, we rented an apartment with minimalist decor and maximum doors. Was there any symbolism to the tiny apartment with seven doors? We also spent time in Vera’s home in suburban Razliv (also home to one of Lenin’s hideouts), Vera’s brother’s apartment, and Volodya’s apartment. My first impression of all three homes was ungepachen,“over-decorated.” Over time, I thought about the home we had grown up in and I began to see similarities. ...
First the disclaimers. I know and admire both authors. I used materials Marjorie and Susan developed since the 1980s to great acclaim from my students. Not only are the materials well done, Marjorie and Susan are expert in helping a teacher navigate and make best use of unfamiliar new material.
For my first foray into the history of the USSR, I found a copy of Women of the USSR in the high school book storage room. I dusted it off, sank back in my desk chair to skim, and was enthralled by the material. I knew my students would be captivated.
Each unit includes brief chapters that highlight women’s issues with relevant primary material that Marjorie and Susan contextualize. The units also include discussion questions to guide students through the material. In the Women of the USSR, Bingham and Gross include a chart that compares and contrasts the status of women...
This week Leslie is in Princeton speaking about Jewish identity and I thought I’d toss the same question to our readers that I posed to Leslie when she shared her talk with me. What role do you think your grandparents played in helping to shape your Jewish identity?
Before Rosh HaShana many Jews go to the cemetery to visit the graves of family members. For Leslie and me, the cemetery where our four grandparents are buried is too far for a Sunday afternoon drive but we can evoke our grandparents through stories and reflections.
Aside from entering the season of remembrance, there are other forces that lead me to think more and more about my grandparents. I feel that I was strongly influenced by my grandmothers and my great-grandmother and I’ve spent a lot of time following some of the threads of my life back to my grandmothers. You can see,...
If you were leaving home, your world as you know it, what would you take and what would you leave behind?
I’ve been thinking about Alisa and her twenty-two boxes of stuff she carted from Leningrad to Stockholm because she was going into the “nowhere.” (see chapter 20 of Jewish Luck).Who knew what was available in Sweden? As Alisa remembers her move, the single most important item among her possessions was her Potapenko painting that she calls her “Mona Lisa.” I’ve been thinking about those choices as I listen to the news this summer.
Early in the summer, the southern California wildfires threatened our Mom’s home. All the residents of the Seacrest community were told to pack a bag and be ready to evacuate. Thankfully, the fires were controlled just north of Mom’s residence and she never had to leave. As summer has progressed and wildfires have spread throughout the west, I...
Leslie and I agreed from the outset that we were writing Jewish Luck for the love of writing and out of admiration for the stories of Vera and Alisa. Despite our high minded objectives, we still encourage readers to buy copies and spread the word. It wouldn’t hurt to cover our expenses!
Speaking only for myself, I also wrote the book because I thought I’d enjoy working together with my sister on a project. I did, and I also loved the process of writing and researching, especially talking weekly with Vera and Alisa. The research trip to St. Petersburg and Stockholm was a bonus. Aside from learning about the lives and struggles of Vera and Alisa, I have learned about the struggles of writers to publish and market their books and have felt warmed by the collegiality and generous spirits of other authors I have met along the way.
What has surprised...
Trivia Time: When was this song, “The World Turned Upside Down,” first sung in the United States?
Response: After the defeat of Cornwallis at Yorktown in 1781. It was composed in Great Britain in the 1640s to protest Parliament’s ban of festive Christmas celebrations and transformation of the holiday into a solemn occasion.
And what does this have to do with Jewish Luck? Lately, I’ve been pondering how amazing it is that two Soviet-educated women could think about free market economics in contradiction to their formal education/indoctrination into Marxist-Leninist thought. They literally turned their ideological economics instruction upside down. Alisa and Vera are now two quintessential capitalists who thrive on their individual achievements and have made their success through keen analysis of the free market system and their willingness to leap into a new venture trusting their talent to read the signs of the market well. So far, so good for...
Simon Sebag Montefiore (b. 1965) doesn’t need us to trumpet his achievements, but in case you haven’t read all his books, I thought I’d mention this versatile author who has written both history and fiction. The common thread among his books is Russia. (except for the book, Jerusalem, which I intend to read before my next trip to Israel in November).
I read The Court of the Red Tsar for an International Baccalaureate Teacher’s Seminar over a decade ago. All of us history teachers were fascinated by his extensive research. It seemed like once the archives in Russia opened in 1994, Montefiore hopped on the first flight to the FSU ready to take notes. The Court of the Red Tsar dazzles history teachers-and anyone else who reads it- with new details about Stalin’s rule and his control over his ministers. His prose flows and most of us IB History teachers decided...
This morning, I opened the bottom drawer of my desk to search for an envelope and happened upon the Father’s Day card I never sent our dad in 2009. I had scurried to Target to get a card before all the good ones disappeared and, then, Dad disappeared from the world before Father’s Day. Our dad’s yahrzeit (anniversary of his death) is 16 Sivan, next Shabbat. This year it happens to be the Shabbat before Father’s Day.
I have spent a lot of time thinking about Dad’s influence on us. When Leslie and I were sharing a room with one bed, along with our mutual fears about presenting at the Jewish Book Network in New York City, we felt Dad’s pride and encouragement. So do we really need a yahrzeit to remember Dad when he seems to be ever-present in our consciousness? I think we do. While other denizens of the...
Masha Gessen’s book, Esther and Ruzya: How My Grandmothers Survived Hitler’s War and Stalin’s Peace (New York: Dial Press, 2004), cropped up in our research while I was scouring the literature for memoirs of Russian Jews. I wanted to ensure our narrative was not a repeat of another tale. (It’s not). Gessen’s beautifully written tribute to her grandmothers was a model of honest writing and a how-to sample for weaving two biographies in one book. Later, when we focused on the Putin regime, we found Gessen’s newly released book, The Man Without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin. (New York: Riverhead Books, 2012). Gessen captured Putin with her sparkling prose and insightful analysis. She offers the reader an opportunity to understand a man who seems incomprehensible. The third book by Masha Gessen that we read as background before writing Jewish Luck was Half a Revolution: Contemporary Fiction by Russian...
In Book Club in a Box's interview of Jewish Luck co-authors Leslie Levine Adler and Meryll Levine Page, some intriguing questions are posed like, "What made you decide this story should be turned into a book? What was the writing process like, and how did it affect your relationship with each other? What was the biggest obstacle for these two women in Russia in the 1970s? And in the current day, what would you say are the biggest obstacles for women in Russia now?" And more.... Read the full interview in the Book Club in a Box website.
As we interviewed Alla and Vera about their lives in the Soviet Union, one fact loomed large—being Jewish was a handicap. Despite all the rhetoric of the Soviet Union claiming the equality of all peoples, the theory did not translate into practice. As most readers no doubt know, once passports were introduced into the Soviet Union in December 1932, Jews in all of the republics had to register as Jews, not as Russians, Ukrainians, Moldovans, Lithuanians, etc.
While Jews had to proclaim their Jewishness on the internal passport, the Soviet Union closed most synagogues, banned rabbinical training, and rendered it all but impossible to observe Shabbat and holidays. But what do you think would have happened had the Soviet Union not forced Jews to identify as “Jews?” Would they have assimilated even more rapidly into the local populations? Would anyone have noticed the Jews had disappeared into the communist masses?
From Lenin to Stalin to Khrushchev to Andropov to Chernenko to...
At this moment I’m not on Memory Lane but on an Arizona highway with a flat tire on my rental car. It’s a two hour plus wait for the Avis tow truck. So, what to do—write a blog as long as the computer battery holds out.
Leaving the Arizona highway for Bexley, Ohio’s residential streets, here’s what comes to mind.
One of the questions that underlies Jewish Luck is what would have happened if our grandparents would not have left Russia? Returning to Columbus Ohio for my 45th high school reunion and two book talks found me confronting a similar question---where would my life be if I had never left?
As I threaded through the streets of Bexley, I made sure to vary my route so that I saw as much as possible of my childhood neighborhood. Unlike Vera and Allawho returned to their apartments and neighborhoods in St. Petersburg and couldn’t believe how...
Yom HaShoah - The Holocaust and Soviet Historiography.
What did Soviet Jews knew about the Holocaust? Our book is not anchored in the Holocaust, but not knowing about this major event in Jewish History was a fact of life for Vera and Alisa. To find out more about this topic, see:
Gitelman, Zvi, editor. Bitter Legacy Confronting the Holocaust in the USSR. Bloomington: The Indian University Press, 1997.
Watch a video clip demonstrating the knowledge about the Holocaust of today's Russian teens.
When Cathy Spengler asked Leslie and me what we wanted or didn’t want for our cover design, we were positive---not a Magen David!
We had already imagined that a mainstream publisher would grasp that symbol, plaster in on a cover, and retitle
our book. To us it was trite, overused. It seems like every book with a Jewish topic has a magen david plastered somewhere on the cover.
As I’ve gazed at Alisa’s birthday photo in which she’s wearing her Magen David necklace “of my own design,” I’ve thought more about the
weight of a necklace. When Leslie and I traveled to St. Petersburg in 2011, I was struck by the number of people (men and women) wearing
a cross as they hurried down Nevsky Prospekt. I hadn’t expected outward signs of religion. But, it is clearly a symbol of new freedoms.
Both Vera and Alla were drawn to the Magen David when it...
Ha! Reader, you may have thought you caught a spelling error. All foodies now know locavore is an eater dedicated to eating local products. But, no, locovore, is the word I’ve coined to describe how I feel preparing for the Passover seder.
For readers unfamiliar with Passover, it is the joyous holiday celebrating the Israelites’ freedom from slavery. For traditional Jews in the Diaspora there are two celebratory feasts and a host of dietary proscriptions which differ depending if your ancestors hailed from Russia or Yemen. The most well known of the restrictions is the ban on bread but it extends to include all products made of wheat, oats, barley, spelt, peanuts, beans, rice, etc.
Enter 21st century dining. There are three aspects of Passover preparations that drive me meshuga (loco, crazy). First, the cleaning and changing the dishes. Someone else can write about that. Second, if you live in...
February came and I was officially retired. I remember the absolute luxury of not awakening to an alarm at 5:20 am. Fearing the chasm of free time, I was soon flying to San Diego for my mother’s birthday. The following month I was off to Israel for a family Bat Mitzvah; and, without work looming, I could stay for several weeks. The days in Israel were filled with excursions and leisurely talks with friends and family from Haifa to Beersheba. My two grandchildren greeted me when I arrived home. In the back of my mind, I still wondered how I would spend time in a meaningful way. Playing with my grandchildren dispelled any worries that I would regret my decision.
I fell into a rhythm of travel to New Jersey to be with my friend. I learned dying didn’t mean the end of laughing and togetherness. It brought an intensity to...
A typical interview question employers ask aspiring employees: “where do you see yourself in ten years’ time?”
If asked that question ten years ago, I would not have responded with any accuracy. I could not have imagined retiring from teaching and being a published author at sixty-three.
Retirement was an idea that hit me between the eyes. It was late August and I was sitting in morning services at synagogue after reciting the second Mourner’s Kaddish for my dad. Once I begin teaching this fall, I thought, I won’t be able to attend daily services at 7:00 am. By that time I am already at work. Resentment flooded my body as I realized the opportunity to pray with my community would disappear on school days. That thought led to the question that I discussed internally each morning, “what would Dad want me to do?” The first answer was easy-- he would...
Our hometown book launch is now behind us and we can reveal some of the behind the scenes negotiating and preparations.
First of all, the clothes. We didn’t want to look too matchy-matchy, and we didn’t want to appear in the same outfit. Believe it or not, many Sundays Leslie and I would end wearing the same outfit as we wrote or skyped. Our mom could see a way to intervene and help out. She arranged for us both to go to Nordstrom’s in La Jolla and meet with a personal shopper who would coordinate our outfits. I (Meryll) was first. Rarely have I been as overwhelmed as I felt when I entered the dressing room overflowing with pants and tops. My mother, on the other hand, kept suggesting more combinations. I tried everything on and walked away with a sweater and a pair of pants. That was a good way...
My Hennepin County Library bookmark commands: read local. The imperative rings in my ears as I search the stacks or the computer for my next book. I find a range of choices by Minnesota authors and there is a delicious pleasure in reading about a secret meeting on a bench at Lake of the Isles or a household of women living near Como Lake. Even if I omit mythical Lake Wobegon, there are still 10,000 other idyllic locations.
If “Read Local!” is Hennepin County Library’s first commandment, I propose the second commandment should be ….Write Local!
Over the past three years my sister and I have written a non-fiction book that takes place predominantly in the former Soviet Union and Sweden although Minneapolis makes a cameo appearance. As first-time authors we discovered how fortunate we are to live in the Twin Cities, a metropolitan area that nurtures its writers.
Sholom Aleichem (Solomon Naumovich Rabinovich) 1859-1916
In February we feature the well-known writer whose stories about MenakhemMendel were the basis for the Soviet film, Jewish Luck. This film along with Vera’s use of the term “Jewish luck” prompted us to also title our book, Jewish Luck. Mosfilm changed Sholom Aleichem’s storyline to conform to Soviet propaganda, but it’s clear why Marxist ideologues thought a Sholom Aleichem story would draw the Jewish population to the theater. He was popular and he was funny. You may have heard him called the “Jewish Mark Twain.” When Mark Twain heard the comparison, in response, he styled himself, “the American Sholom Aleichem.”
Sholom Aleichem’s economic circumstances were tenuous. At times, his family was relatively prosperous, at other times, they lost everything. Illness stalked the family and following the pogroms of 1905, he left for the United States along with millions of other Russian Jews. Sholom Aleichem...
Advice to aspiring writers who are considering self-publishing: Self-publishing is relatively straightforward, but marketing is the major hurdle.
Leslie and I have rejoiced over the comments of our friends, acquaintances, and strangers who have read Jewish Luck and written reviews or notes to us. We aspired to write the book to appeal across cultures and age groups and from our unscientific survey, we’re succeeding. But how do we storm the shelves of local bookstores?
Bookstore managers are an embattled breed. They are trying to fight the aptly named Amazon. A new book with a weird title by unknown authors? “No, thank-you” or “We’ll think about it and get back to you” are their responses. And now out of the pack emerges one resounding “yes!” Thanks to Magers & Quinn of Minneapolis for taking a risk.
For those of you unfamiliar with this bookstore that sounds like an English marmalade, it is located in uptown Minneapolis at...
FEATURED BOOK FOR JANUARY:
Why you might be interested: Gal Beckerman frames the story of the Soviet Jewry movement as a redemption story. We don’t all know that story as well as we think we do. If you remember “Save Soviet Jewry” billboards, prisoner of conscience bracelets, and twinning with a thirteen year-old-Russian for your Bar or Bat Mitzvah, you lived during the struggle but may not understand what happened behind the scenes. Alisa and Vera claim that most Americans and Europeans are not very well-informed on the dissident movement and believed everything they read in the American papers. They have their view and they would approve of Gal Beckerman’s well-researched and compelling history of the movement.
Just as Beckerman discovered in his research, we found that the paradox of the USSR not allowing Soviet Jews to completely assimilate and also not allowing them to express a positive Jewish identity pushed many Soviet Jews to assert...
FEATURED BOOK FOR DECEMBER:
In November we wrote about a nonfiction work that directed our feet in St. Petersburg.
This month we’re highlighting a novel that treads on some of the same territory we reference in our book—the hunt for one’s place when displaced. The setting is the US and not Europe or the Caribbean. What Happened to Anna K by Irina Reyn follows a young Russian woman in New York City whose life parallels another Anna K—Anna Karenina.
I read this after Leslie and I completed our manuscript. I found that not only did the novel parallel Anna Karenina, but we wrote some passages about the lives of our Vera and Alisa that were remarkably similar to Reyn’s Anna. Perhaps, to paraphrase Tolstoy, all Russian mafia are the same. The author permits the reader both an insider and outsider view of a Soviet emigrant and captivates the imagination through Anna’s dreams.
For more information about this...
Now that the book is published, we discovered it doesn’t fly off the internet.
We have to market. As a confirmed introvert, marketing isn’t my chosen field
for good reason. When I email people I feel like I’m bothering them.
I choked down my distaste and began the process of reaching out and back.
Here is a report on three connections. They almost convince me marketing can be fun.
My arch-rival from elementary through high school:
I was always neck and neck competing in academics with one particular
classmate. Since all my classmates can name her in a millisecond, I’m not sure
why I’m uncomfortable naming her, but, for now, the rest of the world will
have to guess.
With a very small class, even rivals invited each other to
their homes. The two of us did get together and listen to Beach Boy
records and talk. What struck me when...
When we consulted with Scott Edelstein about the steps from written manuscript to published book, he patiently explained the complicated world of publishing and concluded with an introduction to the equally complex world of self-publishing. Both Leslie and I remembered one particular nugget of advice—if you want to be in control, self-publishing is the route to go.
That characterizes Leslie and me. We love control! We wanted input into every phase of our book – particularly, the cover. We batted around a lot of cover design ideas between us, usually incorporating a photo of Vera and Alisa. Neither of us is a designer and, finally, we decided we needed professional intervention.
How do you find a good designer? I thought it would be like finding a good hairdresser.
You look at others’ haircuts and asked, “who did it?” It’s not quite that simple because we also wanted a local designer....
The Jews of St. Petersburg by Mikhail Beizer
FEATURED BOOK FOR NOVEMBER:
Beizer, Mikhail. The Jews of St. Petersburg. Excursions through a Noble Past. Translated by Michael Sherbourne. Maps by Sir Martin Gilbert. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1989.
Summary: This book deserves its own story of origin. It begins with Mikhail Beizer’s passionate compulsion to capture the history of Jewish St. Petersburg/Leningrad from 1880-1930. Under the Soviets, the history was hidden and Beizer uncovered people, documents, and buildings that all bear witness to the lively Jewish presence that existed in St. Petersburg/Leningrad. He was, in turn, encouraged by one of my all-time favorite authors, Sir Martin Gilbert, who met him in Leningrad in 1983. The book includes Sir Martin’s cartography and introduction.
Why you might be interested: If you are traveling to St. Petersburg, this book can serve as a travel guide unlike any other. The six excursions through the...
We imagined our grandma hovering lovingly above us as we worked. We also imagined what would happen if our grandmother conversed with Vera and Alla's grandmothers. We knew that our grandma would prepare treats and tea no matter what the conversation. Below is an updated version of her mandelbrot. See the deleted chapters for the imagined conversation that might accompany these treats. I converted the recipe so that you would not lose a filling.
Mandelbrot—Updated version: Chocolate Shot Biscotti
2 eggs1 cup canola oil1 cup sugar
2 cups all purpose flour1 teaspoon baking powder1/2 teaspoon salt
4 ounces chocolate shot (jimmies, sprinkles)6 ounces slivered almonds, chopped1 teaspoon vanilla
cinnamon and sugar
Beat eggs, oil, and sugar until well mixed. Add flour, baking powder and salt and continue to beat with mixer until dough is smooth. Add chocolate shot, almonds, and vanilla.
Chill dough at least 8 hours.
Form into rolls (like play-doh snakes) and place on...
I snapped up the invitation to speak at a zoom meeting for the Jewish Affinity Group from Columbus School for Girls. Self-quarantining for almost a year has made me hungry to talk about Jewish Luck. It's certainly clear from the news that Vera and Alla's perceptions about the "New" Russia are just as relevant now as they were when Vera first encountered Putin in Leningrad.More than the intellectua...
What I learned from American Kompromat by Craig Unger (2021) Dutton: NYC has prompted me to write a blog.
Trigger Warning: This book contains potentially distressing content that could trigger trauma that we have experienced regarding the previous US President.
I whisper this mantra to myself: "We're safe now. He's gone. We're safe now." The purpose of this exercise is to reduce my blood pre...
"Faster than a speeding bullet." .Organized anti-government rallies in 109 cities across Russia from jail for January 23 and January 30, 2021. Watch each weekend.
"More powerful than a locomotive." Able to make a miraculous recovery from Novichok poisoning on Aug. 20, 2020 after remaining in a coma for nearly a month. His is the only known case of survival of that strain of Novichok.
We were featured speakers at Hadassah Brandeis Institute and Levy Summer Series. Our speaking engagements include JCCs, synagogues, libraries, book groups, retirement communities, schools, and organizations (e.g. ORT, Hadassah, and Women's League). References are available.
"I was very fortunate to be able to hear Meryll and Leslie speak at a Hadassah event in Israel. Each of the ~50 participants really enjoyed the event because Meryll and Leslie were so engaging. While they had a natural rapport with the audience, you could also tell they had prepared well so they could connect with our particular group's interests. I learned a lot from listening to them, and I found their sisterly interaction unique and fun. If you want an enlightening and uplifting experience, attend one of their book talks." Lisa Shimoni, Modiin Israel
"Truly, you have written a story that makes accessible the reality of existence in Russia, through the eyes of individuals who lived through the various regimes and dictates. It is fascinating and very well told. As I read Vera and Alla's story, I learned more Russian history than I had known from a textbook. That's a big deal, women! You tell the tale with vivid detail and hook us on the two women and their stories, then weave in the history to illuminate their journeys. It is such a necessary book. I am thrilled that the two of you collaborated, as I can see the uniqueness of your personalities come through in the stories, and that, too, makes the book a gem." Margaret Leibfried, Danielson Group consultant
Buy the Book
Click here to order your copy of Jewish Luck: A True Story of Friendship, Deception, and Risky Business on Amazon.com.
Make a donation to Sholom Home and enjoy Jewish Luck at the same time. Jewish Luck is now available at the Sholom Home West gift store. Meryll and Leslie will donate 50% of the proceeds back to Sholom Home. Enjoy!
Nourish mind, body, and soul with Meryll's Tasting Torah, which will bring oneg (joy) and limmud (learning) to your Shabbat, broaden your culinary horizons, and draw your Shabbat guests closer together.