Excerpt from Savage Feast by Boris Fishman, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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Savage Feast

Three Generations, Two Continents, and a Dinner Table (a Memoir with Recipes)

by Boris Fishman

Savage Feast by Boris Fishman X
Savage Feast by Boris Fishman
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  • First Published:
    Feb 2019, 368 pages
    Feb 2020, 368 pages


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Book Reviewed by:
Rory L. Aronsky
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Ultimately, our friends wouldn't go on to Israel; when they arrived in Vienna, the first document-processing point, they would declare their desire to emigrate to the United States instead. Israel pressured America to close the door to maneuvers like these, but without success: Everyone—the Americans, Jews and not; the Dutch, who represented Israeli interests in Moscow; the Austrians; even the religious refuseniks stuck in the Soviet Union who wished to go nowhere but Israel—supported freedom in this choice for Soviet Jews.

The maneuver worked, in our case—soon the letter arrived from the Soviet visa office, summoning my father and grandfather, as the heads of their families, for the interview that would decide whether we'd be allowed to emigrate. But the situation had changed since we applied. In December 1979, the Soviet Union had invaded Afghanistan. Jimmy Carter grounded the arms reduction treaty, refused to send grain, and boycotted the 1980 Moscow Summer Olympics. The Soviets had nothing to gain from letting their Jews continue to go, and, just like that, the doors started closing. (That was always what we called them—" the doors.") By the time my father and grandfather were called, they had been hearing about far more rejections than approvals. If permission to leave was denied, you became an official refusenik. (The term comes from having been refused permission to leave rather than a personal refusal to remain in the USSR.) But if you didn't show up for your appointment, maybe the application would be thrown away, or stamped FAILURE TO APPEAR, which, at everyone's workplaces, the right gifts for one's superior could transform into RELAIZED THEIR MISTAKE and a quiet return to previous positions.

When my father and grandfather heard their names called, they looked at each other for a long time, trying to decide. If they slipped through, they'd get out to America. If not ... there was no way to know. No matter what they could smooth over at work, their declaration of intention to emigrate assured them of a future of zero assurances. Their names were called again, people swiveling to look.

They didn't go in. The other thing this assured was that, instead of getting started in America as a toddler, I would spend my formative years in the Soviet Union instead.


I was born into a minor scandal. The first involved my father's mother, Faina (fah-YEE- nah). Instead of crowding the maternity ward with everyone else, she went ... cross-country skiing. It was a perfect day for it, the cold February sun glittering off the snowpack, taller than a man after four months of winter. (With us, half the year was winter.) It was scorching and freezing at once.

My mother's parents regarded this as an act of unpardonable self-indulgence. In their eyes, Faina was the Egoist. Instead of spending all her time making money to pass on to her offspring, she sang in a choir, performed calisthenics, and looked after herself. She wore teal, periwinkle, magenta, and lemon—never black. She refused to utter the word "death." Did not believe in bad moods. In a Soviet version of Zen, she lowered herself into sleep by intoning the names of the major body parts: The shoulder is resting. The forearm is resting. The elbow is resting. In the choir, she would sing only from the front row. The front row was for the best voices and, while Faina's was certainly ... resounding, and without a doubt ... enthusiastic, the truth was that her hearing wasn't the greatest. Faina heard out the choirmaster's delicate plea, then informed him that she would continue to sing from the front.

Evacuated to the Soviet interior during the war, she had endured obliterating hunger and had watched her sister die of typhus. She wanted to live. My mother's parents had endured no less, but their conclusion was different: they would live for their children. After my birth, they alternated between wishing Faina would come to her senses and offer more help and resentfully wanting her nowhere near. And yet, in a way, Faina was the one responsible for my appearance.

From the book Savage Feast by Boris Fishman. Copyright © 2019 by Boris Fishman. Reprinted courtesy of Harper, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.

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