The Arty Semite

A Soviet Journey to Adulthood

By Anna Goldenberg

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Ellen Litman dreamed of being a writer when she went to school in Moscow in the 1980s. There was only one problem: She was Jewish, and thus she was advised to focus on something more practical, since in the Soviet Union, Jews couldn’t be successful at writing.

Litman studied math and computer programming, and immigrated to Pittsburgh with her family in 1992. It took her several years to work up the courage to take a writing class; she worried that she couldn’t write in a language that was not her native one. It turned out she could: In 2004, she completed her Master of Fine Arts degree in creative writing at Syracuse University. In 2007, she published her first book, “The Last Chicken in America,” which deals with the experiences of a young woman from Russia trying to settle into Pittsburgh.

In March, Litman, who is an assistant professor at the University of Connecticut and teaches writing and English, released her second novel, “Mannequin Girl.” Set in a Soviet boarding school for children with scoliosis, it tells the story of a Jewish girl, Kat, and her journey into adulthood dealing with her parents, who teach at her school, as well as unrequited love and latent anti-Semitism.

Litman, 40, lives with her husband and two children in Mansfield, Conn. She spoke to the Forward’s Anna Goldenberg about playing with autobiographical elements and why moving to the United States hasn’t changed her idea of Judaism.

Anna Goldenberg: What can you tell us about the genesis of this novel?

Ellen Litman: I thought of it as a Perestroika novel. It didn’t really happen like that once I started writing it, so I think my Perestroika book is still ahead of me, just because once I started writing, the events, the characters, took precedence…

Some elements are definitely autobiographical: I grew up with scoliosis. I did go to a school very similar to the one in the novel, the semi-boarding school. [But] I didn’t have that kind of family, I wasn’t that kind of character: I wasn’t quite as assured or brave as Kat was. We didn’t quite have those kinds of aspirations for better or worse. I think when I started writing the novel, I was keeping it close to autobiographical material, but then I realized that it was kind of getting boring to read.

When I went to that school — my mother did work there, but she was a math teacher — I was enthralled with this couple of literature teachers who, in reality, are different from the ones portrayed in the story. So I thought: What would it be like to be a daughter of different kinds of parents, sort of the more artistic couple? That gave me a push to experiment with that [and] to create a character very unlike myself.

At the beginning of the novel, Kat’s Judaism doesn’t play much of a role, but as Kat gets older, she seems to discover it and it becomes more important. Did you have similar experiences?

When I think of my family, my grandparents were born just before and after the [Russian] Revolution. Probably their parents could practice their religion, but my grandparents couldn’t really. It wasn’t something you could just absorb or learn. But at the same time, the awareness that you are Jewish and that you are different was very, very clear…. Any step in life you took, from applying to college to getting jobs to trying to travel, everywhere that would come into play. As a child, you would learn from your parents that you always must perform better than everybody else, because you are judged harsher. When Perestroika happened, suddenly nothing was regulated anymore… and nationalist parties started appearing, and [with them] the whole rhetoric of going back to the roots, Russia for Russians, being truly Russian, going back to religion. In light of that, anti-Semitism really blossomed, unfortunately. Gradually my parents got scared enough for me and my sister that they decided to emigrate.

Coming to the United States at age 19, what was the most difficult thing to adapt to?

There was this great sense of alienation. We came to Pittsburgh, and there was a pretty big Russian community there, and you end up kind of hemmed in there. You’re in this big country where all sorts of people live, but you don’t necessarily know how to connect to them, how to become part of that world. It took me quite a few years to figure out how to embrace it [and] how to make new connections… It was incredibly difficult for my parents. They came from Russia, where they were well-educated, well-read people, and they suddenly found themselves in a new country and they can’t express themselves. They’re not seen as the intellectuals that they were back in Russia. To some degree, that was true for me, as well. The self-esteem, the confidence, takes quite a beating when you come.

Did your relationship to Judaism change from you being in the United States?

I don’t think so. I’m still not a religious person. My idea of what it is to be Jewish was still very much formed growing up.

What is your idea of being Jewish?

Such a tricky question at this point… Back in Russia, you define yourself in opposition to whatever forces that see you as inferior, or see you as the enemy of some sort. Here there is no opposition, at least not nearly to the degree that it was — and I think still is — in Russia. It’s much easier to be a Jewish person here; you don’t feel the stigma. In Russia, when people hear that your last name is Litman, they know that you are a Jew, because no Russian person would have a name like that… Without that sense of opposition, it goes back to the culture: The literature, the idea of education, of learning — I think that’s what remains for me being Jewish.

This interview has been edited for style and length.

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