An agonizing dance

Boris Fishman’s memoir ‘Savage Feasts’ provides insight into the immigrant struggles of a Soviet Jewish family.

‘HE GOES home angry and filled with self-loathing; a feeling that has been his companion for longer than he cares to remember.’ (photo credit: REBECCA HALL/SAN JOSE MERCURY NEWS)
‘HE GOES home angry and filled with self-loathing; a feeling that has been his companion for longer than he cares to remember.’
Boris Fishman knows firsthand what it feels like to feel a fierce attachment toward a family who threaten to swallow him whole. His strained journey toward adulthood, under the strong hand of his domineering mother, brokenhearted father and tough-minded grandfather was filled with toxic strains of love, hate and bitterness, combined with smothered dreams.
Fishman, 39, came to America with his family from Belarus at the age of nine and served as his family’s ambassador to the strange new world they all found in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn and eventually, the placid suburbs of New Jersey. His extraordinary, compelling new memoir, Savage Feasts: Three Generations, Two Continents, and a Dinner Table, shows us a secular Jewish family who settle into chronic despair. Fishman chronicles for us with great imaginative flair his own journey toward independence, an awkward and agonizing dance.
The book begins with Fishman describing his mother’s request that he come to a family gathering.
“I can argue my mother out of almost anything,” he writes. “Except the several days on the calendar when she needs everyone at the table... on Passover, Rosh Hashanah, birthdays, anniversaries and Thanksgiving, we have to please come together.”
“Together” is probably the wrong word for these tense gatherings, which are really little more than a practiced repetition of family slights that leave almost everyone desolate, particularly Fishman, who gorges himself and drinks too much. He harbors fanciful childhood dreams that he can actually open up to those who claim to love him so much, without having his head torn off.
He goes home angry, filled with self-loathing, a feeling that is his constant companion for longer than he cares to remember. As a small boy, Fishman’s anxiety developed into a series of tics. He would often block his bedroom door with chairs, for reasons he has yet to decipher. He had always been exquisitely sensitive to his mother’s nagging demands and his father’s brokenness. Nothing has really changed since his boyhood.
But Fishman surprises us and veers off in a wondrously unexpected direction. Her name is Oksana, hired by his 78-year-old grandfather as a home aide. Fishman chronicles his usually reticent and cranky grandfather’s instant connection to Oksana on their first day together. They spend hours talking, sharing tsuris, going shopping, and laughing. He proudly shows her off around his neighborhood, and she cooks him an incredible meal that is reminiscent of home. When she is preparing to leave that first day, he notices her crying. She explains being flattered by the attention he showed her and they’re off to a rollicking start.
Fishman is at first surprised by their connection. Oksana is 44, a non-Jew from Ukraine, with a husband back home who drinks too much and an adult son who has trouble motivating himself. Fishman watches his grandfather soften, mesmerized by Oksana’s way with him.
One day he witnesses his grandfather twirl Oksana around in a fumbling attempt at the tango that leaves them both hilariously chuckling. When the family is called to one of the family gatherings Fishman dreads, there is a new lightness of being in the air that seems orchestrated by Oksana. To Fishman, she seems to be a Zen master of sorts; able to use small quiet gestures and soft comments to spread good cheer to this beleaguered Jewish family before they pounce on one another.
Perhaps, most importantly, she provides the family with the foods they love: tsimmes, matza, bobka, potato latkes, and kasha varnishkes, all made with the finest ingredients. Fishman remembers feeling a tremendous surge of love for Oksana on a night when the dinner party didn’t disintegrate into ugly chaos and her creativity allowed “the old, well-grooved grievances to occasionally make room for something else.” It was nothing short of sheer magic!
Fishman begins visiting his grandfather more often and finds him more willing to speak about the past; a subject he had always avoided. He hears the horror stories about went on back home; the denigration of the Jews both before, during, and after the war with Nazis. He learns about his grandfather’s brother who died fighting the Germans; a brother his grandfather had loved dearly who was gentler than he was. As for his grandfather, he finagled his way out of army service until the danger had passed, and after the war worked as a barber and scavenged the landscape for food and other essentials. He was a born hustler, able to fight back and defend himself – fearless against the antisemitic thugs who attacked him.
During his visits, Fishman becomes closer with Oksana, who seems to serve as a maternal figure for him. After a particularly devastating break-up, one of many he has endured, he runs to Oksana for comfort. He asks her if she will teach him how to cook, and she agrees to share her secrets. He finds their days together surprisingly soothing; the repetition of learning her tricks, combined with her gentle guidance, become a tonic for him, as are their silences that are comfortable and nurturing.
“In Oksana’s kitchen, I figured out how chicken liver alchemizes into a crepe,” he said. “When the time came to flip, Oksana ‘drew’ around the edge of the crepe with a thin wooden skewer, as if she were crossing something out, until it began to separate from the pan; then in a lightning motion, slid her fingers under the crepe and flipped it onto its backside.... I learned to baby the rabbit in sour cream, tenderer than chicken and less forgiving of distraction, as well as the banosh the way the Italians did polenta.... I learned patience for the pumpkin preserves – stir gently to avoid turning the cubes into puree.”
At the end of many chapters, Fishman presents Oksana’s recipes, and they are nothing short of love letters of a sort to her. Soon enough, a new woman appears in his life, one who seems to intuitively grasp the longings of his heart.
It took Fishman years to break free of his family trauma and it has left lasting scars. He has learned, finally, how to pick himself up and swim away.