Soviet migr isnt quiet about his past in Shush!

About two days into reading Emil Draitser’s “Shush! Growing Up Jewish Under Stalin,” I caught myself doing a curious thing: Every time I took the book out in public, I would do a quick check to make sure that the book jacket faced me, away from the eyes of passers-by or fellow Starbucks habitués.

I wasn’t hiding the jacket, exactly; it was just that exposing the cover, with its forlorn-looking, scrawny boy in a yarmulke and a post-World War II getup of short pants and a blazer, made me feel vulnerable and conspicuous, as though I were inadvertently proclaiming, “Hey, everyone, I’m Jewish!”

The irony was not lost on me. Here I was, living in the tolerant, diverse, multicultural Bay Area in the 21st century — and hiding a book cover that might identify me as a Jew. Thirty years ago this year, my parents and I emigrated from the former Soviet Union, in large part so that this would not have to happen, so that I would not have to flinch — as my mother did for many years after coming to the United States — every time someone mentioned Jews or Judaism.

Evidently, if Draitser’s observations in “Shush!” are to be believed, my mother’s behavior was not anomalous. In the prologue to the book, Draitser, currently a professor of Russian at Hunter College in New York City, recounts a similar tic, describing his surprise and dismay when a colleague pointed out to him that even after almost 20 years of living in America, he still lowers his voice each time he says the word “Jewish.” The colleague is curious about the reasons for his reaction — American Jews, as she points out, say “‘I’m Jewish,’ calmly and clearly, without looking around.”

Spurred by his colleague’s curiosity, Draitser attempts to find an explanation for his unwillingness to acknowledge his Jew-ishness publicly, out loud, and the resulting explanation is as profoundly disquieting as it is wrenching. As he reflects on his childhood and adulthood in Soviet Russia, it comes to him that he “simply couldn’t recall a single moment in my life when the shame [of being Jewish] wasn’t an intimate part of my existence.”

In “Shush!” (the title is taken from a rejoinder Draitser heard throughout his childhood from his parents and older relatives every time Jews or Judaism were mentioned), Draitser brings to life his earliest memories. Evacuated from his native city of Odessa in 1941 at the age of 4, he and his mother fled the advancing German forces by train, under heavy aerial bombardment; they returned to the open hostility and virulent anti-Semitism of the residents who had stayed behind.

Although Germany and Russia were bitter enemies in World War II, both countries and cultures had a deep-seated mistrust and hatred of Jews in common. Draitser’s sense of inferiority is born on his first day of grammar school, when the teacher stumbles over the pronunciation of his “funny-sounding” last name, and the teasing begins.

At first, Draitser doesn’t even know why he is being teased; he knows little of his Jewish heritage, only enough to know that it sets him apart — it makes him suspect, second-class, the “other.” Odessan Jews at the time, he writes, walked with a characteristic stooped posture, their heads tucked between their shoulders, as though expecting a blow from behind. And indeed, at the time, beatings based on the length or crookedness of one’s nose or on whether or not one rolled one’s “r’s” were not uncommon.

Admittedly, life under Stalin was difficult for all Soviet citizens: Draitser describes the shortages, the communal apartments, the pervasive queues for food and basic necessities, and, in a priceless account, the Byzantine process of hand-washing and boiling laundry. “Detergent powder has not yet been invented; the best minds of the country are busy inventing fuel for long-range missiles,” he writes.

Still, life is exponentially more difficult for Soviet Jews, who are forced to lead a double life. Draitser must negotiate between home — where his parents speak Yiddish, an alien, embarrassing, guttural language — and school, between his parents’ public identity and their Russianized “official” names (Sofia and Aleksandr) and their private selves (Soybel and Abram). He recounts his love of Russian literature, and the unmitigated delight with which he plunges into the works of Pushkin, Gogol and Lermontov — only to recoil in shame as he comes across demeaning portrayals of dirty and miserly “Yids.”

Eventually, Draitser internalizes both the feelings of profound inadequacy and the Soviet propaganda of the time, and comes to divide the world into “ours” (Soviet) and “not ours” (non-Soviet). For Draitser’s father — a housepainter gifted with tremendous insight and native intelligence — “ours” and “not ours” means “Jewish” and “non-Jewish.” In the epic Cold War chess

confrontation between the Jewish American grandmaster Samuel Reshevsky and the non-Jewish Soviet grandmaster Mikhail Botvinnik, father and son take opposite sides. But slowly, gradually, the younger Draitser too begins to divide the world “into who is Jewish and who is not Jewish,” to search for Jews “I can be proud of.”

Draitser’s memoir charts — with unflinching honesty and a rueful humor for which Odessans, and Odessan Jews in particular, are celebrated — the process through which he gathers the courage to emigrate, to proclaim and to celebrate his Jewish identity.

But the title of the book — like his urge to drop his voice, or my mother’s habit of flinching, or my turning the book cover inward — speaks volumes about the steep price of decades of institutionalized anti-Semitism, and about the long and difficult journey to get out from under its shadow.

“Shush! Growing Up Jewish Under Stalin” by Emil Draitser (320 pages, University of California Press, $24.95)

Emil Draitser will speak in English at 2:15 p.m. and in Russian at 3:45 p.m. at Bookfest 2008, Nov. 2 at the JCCSF, 3200 California St., S.F.

Paging all readers: Bay Area JCCs celebrate Jewish Book Month