S.F. woman tells story of Siberian Jews in epic novel

Laura Chamberlin Levy wanted some letters translated from Russian to English. She hired a young Russian émigré, and somehow, in conversation, the topic of Levy’s mother came up.

“I told her my mother had lived in Siberia, and she said, ‘There are no Jews in Siberia.'” How wrong she was.

During Levy’s youth she had been fascinated by the stories her mother told her of life in Siberia.

“Finally, when my mother was getting older, I interviewed her and taped it,” said Levy.

The San Francisco woman first transcribed her mother’s story in the 1960s. Her two-part, self-published novel, “Siberian Odyssey,” came out in the past few months.

As is common for authors, the finished product strayed quite far from what Levy originally intended.

Initially, she was fascinated with her mother’s stories. For example, on the night her mother was born, her grandfather, who was in charge of the horses in a mining camp where they lived, had to go out looking for strays.

While he was out, her grandmother gave birth to her mother, at around 3 a.m. Her grandfather returned late; he had been thrown by a horse, and had a dislocated shoulder. Levy’s mother always blamed herself for his injury, though it wasn’t her fault.

“I had meant to write about my mother, but I got interested in all the people that came before her,” said Levy, “and the book ended up about that.”

The 81-year-old Levy, who raised a family and was often working full time as a secretary or law clerk, wrote the lengthy work in “bits and pieces” at first.

She also had to do a lot of research, as her mother’s memory was good, but could not provide important details about the history of the period.

“When I retired in 1987 I was really going to get into it,” said Levy. “I didn’t work religiously on it all the time, but I did finally finish it.”

Levy then spent several years trying to market the book, but the fact that she was trying to sell a long manuscript by an unpublished writer made it impossible. She decided to go the publishing-on-demand route, a new option for authors whose work cannot find a publisher.

Levy calls her two-part series a novel based on fact. The characters in the novel are all ancestors on her mother’s side, meaning their names and dates of birth are real. But most of the stories and all of the dialogue are invented, as she knew very little about these people’s actual lives.

“There are other ancestors that I knew very little about, so I just had to invent their histories,” she said.

Some of the stories are based on fact — like in one incident, her great-grandfather is exiled for slapping a policeman for not doing anything when a Jewish home is looted.

This was based on a true story in the family, said Levy. “When the policeman just stood there, my great-grandfather couldn’t control himself and hit him, and that was considered a felony, so he was exiled at the age of 35.”

Levy said she hoped the book would find an audience among Jewish readers who might want to know about what life was like for Jews in Siberia, as life was so different then.

Talking about some of her ancestors who moved 4,000 miles with their household items and cattle in tow, she said, “It took them two years to do that.”

“Siberian Odyssey, The Exiles, Part One” by Laura Chamberlin Levy, (376 pages, Author House, $18.95) and “Siberian Odyssey, The Immigrants, Part Two” by Laura Chamberlin Levy, (396 pages, Author House, $18.95).

Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."