Friday, 25 November 2011

Local Russian Jews are doing the ‘write’ thing — together

When Boris Glants, a 29-year-old Russian Jewish immigrant, finished a double major in economics and computer science at Brandeis University, he decided it was finally time “to do something fun.” He had fulfilled his “good Jewish boy” quota and now it was time to let loose.

So he went to graduate school for fiction writing. And like so many aspiring writers, Glants turned to his past for inspiration. In a work-in-progress novel based in part on his immigrant childhood in New Jersey, where he moved from Ukraine at age 10, Glants is exploring the question of whether love can survive immigration.

On a recent Saturday night in San Francisco, Glants joined a slate of other young Russian Jewish writers at the MishMash Writer’s Block Party. An audience of about 40 sipped espresso drinks at Caffe Trieste on Market Street and listened intently as Glants read from his unfinished manuscript.

The Nov. 12 event was the culmination of the MishMash Writer’s Salon, a project jointly funded by the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation, the Jewish Agency for Israel and the Genesis Philanthropy Group. Six Bay Area Russian Jewish writers have been meeting regularly since June and mining literary material out of the Russian Jewish immigrant experience — replete with its awkward moments, ESL classes and expectations of super-human achievement.

The brainchild of Yelena Kozlova, a 29-year-old marketing manager for MTV Networks, the MishMash Writer’s Salon was founded to give voice to the Bay Area’s Russian Jewish community.

“I wanted to tap into the Russian Jewish community in the Bay Area to help each other work on our craft and to build community,” said Kozlova, who, like Glants, also immigrated from Ukraine at age 10. “One of the things we discovered in the writing salon was how much we related to one another’s stories.”

Among those who read at the salon event was Irin Kutman Levy, the Jewish Agency emissary for the Russian-speaking community in the Bay Area.

Kutman Levy, who works at the federation’s Israel Center, said that the writer’s salon is one of several community-building initiatives under the auspices of MishMash, a young adult group founded in 2008 to cultivate future Jewish leaders in the Russian community.

For Kutman Levy, 29, the salon also was an opportunity to explore her own identity.

“The idea of writing about our identity arose from the group,” she said. “It was a great setting to talk about it and reflect it through our writing, and it really bonded us together.”

The group of six was guided by a professional writing teacher, Nada Djordjevich, who also had one-on-one meetings with the participants. Kutman Levy said the salon was such a success that many of the participants want to continue to meet on their own, like a writers’ group.

“We want to keep this flame alive,” she said.

Kozlova is hoping that one way to do that will be through the publication of an anthology of young Russian Jewish writers from the Bay Area and around the nation. The MishMash evening was a way to raise awareness for the anthology, and perhaps even solicit new submissions, she said. So far, Kozlova has submissions from the writers who participated in the salon, as well as from Glants, whom she met through a writing teacher at California College of the Arts in San Francisco (where Glants went to graduate school).

Another salon participant, Vlada Teper, has been writing since she was an undergraduate at Stanford University, where she later earned master’s degrees in education and English.

Passionate about education and multicultural understanding, Teper recently founded the nonprofit Inspiring Multicultural Understanding, which brings together high school students from different cultural backgrounds to learn from one another. The MishMash reading also served as a fundraiser for IMU.

Teper, 32, who writes literary nonfiction, read a story at the MishMash event titled “Foreign” — about her experience of immigrating from Moldova.

“It’s about my experience of first arriving in Buffalo, N.Y., and first learning English, and my disconnect from some of the words,” she said, “And ultimately, it’s about finding a connection with the world around me through language.”