There are Jews in My House

Chicago Nextbook will host Naama Goldstein and Lara Vapnyar on March 21 as part of their “Readings & Performances” series. The title “I Have Only Just Arrived: New Voices” reflects their wide travels and shared dislocation. Goldstein was 3 when her family left Boston and moved to Petakh Tikva in the ‘80s, whereas Vapnyar’s family emigrated to the United States from Russia in the ‘90s.

Goldstein’s collection of short stories, The Place Will Comfort You, is divided into two sections: Olim (Ascending) and VeYordim (And Descending). In part one, Jewish-Americans arrive in Israel expecting to blend in, but find themselves surprisingly disoriented: “Shouts spatter the schoolyard with a spectrum of accents. Faces and limbs paint blurs of brown and tan and pink against the background of concrete. You’re pale and you have a pale sound. When your father and I brought you here, your mother says, oh boy. We didn’t even speak the language. Transitioning on that scope, she says, it takes conviction and persistence.” In part two, her characters return to the United States, but still find little peace.

Most of the stories in Vapnyar’s collection, There are Jews in My House, are set in Russia, although one (called Mistress) is set in New York. In the title story, two women meet at work and bond. They share secrets, cook together, and shop: “The dresses were made of light cotton, dark blue with specks of white and red. They had short sleeves, low necklines, and fringed hems. ‘We are twins!’ Raya cried when they both looked in the mirror…”

But of course they are not twins, and when the Nazis occupy their town, Galina must decide if she will shelter her Jewish friend, and Raya must live with her sudden dependence on a former equal. The quick unraveling of their intimate relationship, told with spare eloquence, left me in tears.

The program begins at 7 p.m. at the Abbey Pub, 3420 W. Grace St. in Chicago. For information, reservations, and directions, visit www.nextbook.org

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