Novelist Gary Shteyngart has a new memoir out this month. It tells the story of his emigration here with his family at the age of seven from the Soviet Union in 1979. You would think someone with such a story would have a deep appreciation for what America has offered him. But in a recent interview with Terry Gross on NPR’s Fresh Air, he regularly puts down his adopted country, his parents, and their beliefs.
Here’s what it was like in Russia: "When I was growing up, the ambulance would come almost every week to take me to the hospital because there were no other treatments for asthma," he says. "[My mother] really made this calculation of whether to leave her family behind and have me grow up fairly healthy, or stay with them and have me grow up an invalid, and ... she decided to go to America."
Shteyngart recalls the amazing differences in the health care in America. Inhaled steroids to treat asthma had not been introduced in Russia, for instance. Later in the interview, he goes on to say that he has parted way with his parents politically. And while he has become a liberal, his parents continue to worship Reagan and watch Fox News and what he calls “an even scarier version on the Russian cable channel.” He says his parents listen to people “who are paid millions of dollars to exploit the anxieties of people like them about the coming apocalypse of Obamacare.” It’s hard to imagine why Russian emigrés would have anxieties about healthcare managed by the government, huh?
Shteyngart recalls how his father was thrilled to be able to practice his faith openly for the first time in his life. Judaism was not only unimportant to Shteyngart, it was also the source of great unhappiness in his childhood as he describes it.
I think my father . . . was the one that believed in Judaism to a large extent, and he joined a synagogue immediately, and that was the one community that he felt really close to, these Orthodox Jews. I, on the other hand, was sentenced to eight years of Hebrew school for a crime that I didn't commit — a conservative school in Queens.
Shteyngart’s complaints about his childhood at a Jewish day school in Queens are numerous, but basically he was ostracized by other children for being different. It’s not clear how his childhood would have been otherwise had he gone to a public school. Were asthmatic Russians wearing ugly fur coats who didn’t speak English welcomed with open arms at the neighborhood school down the street? He doesn’t say.
We all have complaints about our childhood, but Shteyngart’s phrase being “sentenced . . . for a crime I didn’t commit” just stinks of moral equivalence. The people who were sentenced for crimes they didn’t commit were the people living under totalitarian regimes. Not the ones going to Jewish elementary schools in New York.