Friday, April 18, 2008
Out of Line: Growing Up Soviet, by Tina Grimberg
Out of Line: Growing Up Soviet, by Tina Grimberg, is a vivid, affecting memoir of a childhood and adolescence spent in Ukraine under the Soviet regime. Grimberg, now a rabbi in Canada, lived in the former Soviet Union until she was 15 and emigrated with her family to Indiana. The book is a memoir about growing up in a world that doesn't exist anymore.
Grimberg's narrative jumps back and forth through the years, from early childhood to her emigration. Grimberg frames her narrative in terms of a young girl and her family doing what they needed to do to survive- queueing up in long lines, working connections for that extra little luxury that made life bearable and worthwhile. The reader gets to know her parents, deeply in love with each other and devoted to their two children, Tina and her older sister Natasha; we meet her grandparents, especially Inna (always "Babushka Inna"), who changed her name from the Jewish Ginda to the more ethnically indeterminate Inna to fit in, and a small cast of friends and some family members who passed away before Grimberg was born.
Throughout the book the tone is warm and affectionate but not really sentimental; Grimberg depicts a loving family struggling to survive and is open about the trials of life as a Jewish family under the anti-Semitic, anti-religious Soviet regime, as well as her own lapses and failings. One of the most touching, albeit sad, anecdotes in the entirety of this slim volume is when Grimberg tells us the time she rode on the bus with Babushka Inna and heard Inna speaking Yiddish with another Jewish woman. After a brief altercation with another passenger they got off the bus; then little Tina told her grandmother never to speak Yiddish in public again, so ashamed was she of the attention it attracted. She speaks then of the heavy, loaded silence and shame that lived between her and Babushka Inna for the rest of the day, even as Babushka lovingly laid out Tina's nightclothes and put her to bed. I have Russian Jewish friends who escaped like Grimberg's family did and most of the time they don't like to talk about their more painful experiences, or only do in general terms, but this anecdote in particular brought something home to me about the damage done to families and to people by the Soviet system.
We also see some other aspects of Soviet life. Through her grandparents' story we see the terrible price the Soviet people paid for World War II, with nearly every family missing that entire generation of men; we see the role played by that generation of women, including Babushka Inna, as essential childrearers and neighborhood watchdogs. We see privations and little victories, such as when Grimberg is able to buy flowers for her mother for Women's Day even after the florist has sold out.
Grimberg draws herself as a basically happy, normal little girl and although her circumstances were grim, we have to remember that the story has a happy ending for the Grimberg family, however unlikely it may have seemed to them even up to the very moment they boarded the train for western Europe. I'm grateful for them that they made it, and grateful for being able to read this sweet, moving book. Out of Line gives some great insights into everyday life in a time and place that shaped a lot of people and is definitely worth checking out. Aimed at young adults, I think it would be a great read for teens (or anyone) interested in the former Soviet Union, in Jewish life there, and in the world that was swept away with the fall of the Soviet Union.