A remarkable memoir

by | Feb 28, 2014 | Book Reviews

Jewish Luck
A True Story of Friendship, Deception, and Risky Business
Leslie Levine Adler
and Meryll Levine Page
Salt Mine Books, 2013, 380 pages
ISBN: 978-0-9897356-5-0

Disclosures first: Leslie Levine Adler is our own Sally Adler’s daughterin- law, and Meryll Levine Page is her sister. The whole mishpocha is involved— Sally’s granddaughter, Maya Adler, provided the photographic input.

In Sally’s own words, Jewish Luck “is the true story of Leslie, a Russian studies major, and her trip to Leningrad [1976]. It is there that she meets…two young women. The story is about their lasting friendship and the paths they take to freedom.”

Following the break-up of the Soviet Union, Operation Exodus was launched in 1990 to fund and manage the emigration of more than a million Jews. An article was published in the Jewish News entitled, “The Russians are coming! The Russians are coming!” Inasmuch as The United Jewish Federation of Tidewater was mounting a community-wide program to receive, resettle and absorb many Russian families, it was considered only fair to warn the community that our new Jewish immigrants might not always be easy to deal with. We were roundly criticized—but events partially vindicated us.

Yes, Jews who had struggled for seven decades under a brutal regime that treated even its non-Jewish citizens like dirt, had learned to ‘game the system’ in every way possible. Every potential advantage was grasped, mainly out of desperation— including furnishing private services to someone in a position to help with food, housing, medical care, or even military status. For 70 years Jews in the Soviet Union had survived by seeking out and taking advantage of every weakness in the state system. And, as was anticipated, when they arrived in Tidewater they initially felt compelled to do the same. But they succeeded; they managed; they prevailed.

With the aid of an excellent resettlement program not one of our immigrant families had to seek public welfare.

All this is by way of explaining just what Leslie Adler and Meryll Page have accomplished in their remarkable memoir:

For seven decades of the twentieth century, the Soviet Union followed the path mapped out by Lenin. It became a military superpower feared by the rest of the world, and it built a mighty technological industrial military and scientific economy. But it failed to make its people either happy or free. Dimitri Volkogonov

In the authors’ own words, “this is the story of two women who were determined to be both.”

Somehow Vera (names have been changed to shield the families and individuals involved), an English speaking 20-year-old, found the courage to speak to a pair of American college students touring Leningrad in 1976. Thus began a friendship that continues to the present.

But there is an older friendship that is the heart of Jewish Luck. That is the friendship of Vera and Alisa (Alla), two Jewish girls, born in Leningrad in the mid 1950’s. Their grandparents, born at the turn of the 20th century, left the province of Vitebsk in the Pale of Settlement to create what was then the largest enclave of Jewish life outside the Pale. The efforts of their parents to ‘make it’ in the Soviet environment particularly resonated with this reviewer as Vera and Alla are about the same age as my own children. Their parents sacrificed everything to make it possible for the two girls to go to a university—but, of course, Jews were ‘restricted’ as to which degree programs they were permitted to pursue. We follow their struggles to create a life, to achieve financial security, build a family life, and claim victory of sorts over the sordid reality of Soviet and post-Soviet existence.

Alla made her way to Sweden and from cosmetician and floor cleaner worked her way to executive status in business. Vera remained in Leningrad (now once again St. Petersburg) and emerges as a true survivor, after being victimized by the system and the Russian mafia. But it is in their capture of the details of the journey of these young women that authors Adler and Page deserve the most credit.

The story of Leslie, Meryll, Vera, and Alla (Alisa) continues in real time. There may be many chapters to come.

—Hal Sacks is a retired Jewish communal worker who has reviewed books for Jewish News for more than 30 years.