A Backpack, a Bear, and Eight Crates of Vodka

by Lev Golinkin

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

Lev Golinkin’s memoir, A Backpack, a Bear, and Eight Crates of Vodka, traces his family’s journey from the Ukraine as the Soviet Union broke apart to resettlement in the United States. As he was a child when the process began, the book is his coming-of-age story, but it also serves as a collective portrait of his family that sheds light on the situation of many Eastern European Jews.

The Effects of Anti-Semitism

Although Golinkin’s family were secular Jews, in their native Ukraine, anti-Semitic sentiments and behaviors constantly affected them. Official discrimination under the Soviet system shaped employment and education opportunities as well. Lev’s struggles to understand these issues, as he was only nine years old when his family decided to leave, also reveal his parents’ limited ability to explain a system riddled with contradictions as well as based in prejudice.

The Difficulties of Immigration and Assimilation

Halfway around the world, US immigration policy played a strong role in the Golinkins’ choice about when to begin reaching toward America. The author effectively conveys how deadlines, such as that put into place in 1989, and quotas can affect the most crucial decisions in peoples’ lives. Lev’s family’s journey to the United States included a lengthy interlude in Austria, and relocation to Israel was also considered. Once they reached New Jersey, the author reveals the adjustment problems he and his relatives initially experienced and the ways he reinvented himself as an American. In writing the book, Golinkin looked further into the vast network of people and agencies that had contributed to his own family’s and other Soviet Jews’ refugee experience as part of a massive exodus.

The Complexity of Identity

Because the memoir focuses on Lev’s story, the reader gains insight into his personal feelings and decisions. His foreignness both in Vienna and in the United States generated feelings of isolation and difference that he found challenging to overcome. The complexity of the family’s limited self-identification as Jews while in their home country also shaped Lev’s attitudes toward the religious side of his identity. Considering other religious traditions, such as through studying at a Catholic college, ultimately led him back around to an understanding of what being Jewish meant to him.

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