Natasha and Other Stories, the debut work by David Bezmozgis, is composed of seven short stories that follow the lives of several members of the Berman family. Mark Berman, the central character throughout this collection, emigrated from Russia to Canada with his family in 1980 when he was six years old. These stories track his adventures from the first grade until the death of his grandmother, several decades later. Each story recounts a deeply personal time in Marks life. Through these tales, the reader is able to gain a deeper understanding of the recent immigrant experience, as a small boy grows into manhood.
The first story takes place shortly after the Bermans arrive in Toronto. Mark and his seven-year-old cousin Jana agree to look after the dog of another Russian immigrant family. They both love the little dog, Tapka, and enjoy playing with her during lunch and after school. One afternoon, things get out of control and Tapka is hit by a car. The two youngsters take her to a clinic where they await the arrival of their parents and the irate owners of the dog.
1. Why would the loss of Tapka be particularly devastating for the Nahumovskys?
2. Why did calling Tapka derogatory names upset Mark, even though Mark and Jana called each other the same names? Where did they learn these names? Why is this significant? (page 10)
3. Marks teacher asks each student her or his nationality. Why does one little girl respond that her nationality is Jewish? What does the teachers reply to this statement tell us? (page 4)
Roman Berman, Massage Therapist
The second story occurs in 1983, three years after the Bermans settled in Toronto. Although Roman, Marks father, has begun to adjust to life in Canada, he still faces difficulties establishing his career and works in a factory while trying to start his own massage business. After the first influx of customers who are friends, neighbors, and former clients from the Italian Community Center, business slows significantly. Roman begins to advertise, following the suggestion of a rabbi he consulted. After receiving Romans flyers, Dr. Kornblum, a wealthy Jewish doctor, contacts him. The Bermans are invited to have dinner with the Kornblums, where they share tales of their past trials and tribulations in Russia. The doctor then offers to refer his clients to Roman whenever possible.
1. Mark explains that his parents involve him in all discussions, even those that revolve around financial and business matters. He states, They were strangers in the country, and they recognized that the place was less strange to me, even though I was only a boy (page 24). Did, in fact, Canada seem less strange to Mark? If so, how did this enable Mark to assist his parents with important business decisions?
2. Throughout this story, the plight of Russian Jewry is discussed and the sympathy that could be gained as refugees is debated. Were the Bermans comfortable using their immigrant status to their advantage?
3. Mark comments upon his mothers decision to bring apple cake to dinner at the Kornblums. Why had his mother stopped baking apple cakes except on rare occasions, even though she thought apple cake still meant Jewish? (page 30).
4. At the end of this story, what did Mark mean when he wondered, . . . t was unclear whether nothing or everything had changed? (page 36).
The Second Strongest Man
In this tale, Roman Berman serves as a judge for the International Weightlifting Championship. While in Russia, Roman had worked with many weightlifting champions and discovered one of the most famous athletes of his time, Sergei Federenko. At one point Sergei held three world records, but during this competition Sergei finished second. To Mark this defeat was tragic because his childhood hero had fallen, not only in the sporting arena, but in life as well. Sergei had failed, and he knew he would soon be forced to leave the team and work for the Soviet bureaucracy.
1. Why was Roman so tense in the presence of the KGB agent who attended the competition? Why did he say to Mark, This is why we left. So you never have to know people like him? (page 52). What kind of a threat did this agent pose to the Bermans in Canada?
2. Why did Sergei want to buy shirts for Mark and Roman?
3. Why was Sergei so upset about the probability of losing his spot on the team?
An Animal to the Memory
Mark Berman is now a seventh grader attending a Jewish day school; unfortunately, he despises his school and has become a troublemaker who seeks out fights in the hopes of being transferred to a public school. However, on Holocaust Remembrance Day, he begins to accept who he is.
1. Why did Marks mother want him to remain in the Jewish school?
2. On page 68, Mark recounts being called a dirty Russian by his fellow classmates. Why did this animosity exist, even between Jewish children? Why do you think it existed in Canada?
3. After being pushed by a fellow student, Mark starts a fight in the schools Holocaust museum. He is detained by the schools rabbi and is forced to yell, I am a Jew(page 77). Why does the rabbi say that Mark now understands what it means to be a Jew? Do you think Mark actually understands?
Now a troubled sixteen-year-old, Mark spends most of his time using drugs and hanging out in his parents basement. During the summer, Marks uncle agrees to a semi-arranged marriage to Zina, a Russian woman. When Zina and her fourteen-year-old daughter Natasha move to Toronto to live with Marks uncle, Mark agrees to help Natasha adjust to life in Canada. The two become close very quickly and begin an intimate relationship. Natasha also becomes close to Marks parents and spends more time at their house than at her own. She despises her mother and pities Marks uncle for marrying her. Eventually the family discovers the nature of Mark and Natashas relationship, and they forbid them to see each another.
1. Why was Mark so attracted to Natasha? Did he long for her precisely because she was forbidden?
2. Why did Natasha integration into the Bermans household make their relationship seem more acceptable to Mark?
3. Natasha tried to persuade Marks uncle to leave her mother. She said, He was a coward. So I gave him a cowards reason to leave. Its funny. Other men would have felt the opposite way. They would have taken it as a reason to stay (page 105).
Did she want the uncle to leave or stay? What about Natashas past experiences would lead her to make this statement?
4. Why did Mark decide to transform himself after he found Natasha at Rufuss house? Was this a life-altering moment for Mark? Why?
This story details two simultaneous and parallel events: the death of Marks grandmother and his search for Joe Choynski, Americas first great fighting Jew (page 114). Charley Davis was the only person who knew anything about Joe Choynski, the man known as the greatest heavyweight never to win a title. While Mark was learning from Charley about everything he knew about Choynski, the health of Marks was deteriorating; at the same time, Charley suffered a massive stroke and was hospitalized. Lying in the hospital bed, Charley requested that Mark contact his son, a devout Christian. Before he died, Charley asked Mark to take care of his most prized possessions, his boxing memorabilia.
1. Why was Mark so fascinated by Choynski?
2. Why did Mark want to bury his grandmothers new dentures?
After Marks grandmother died, his grandfather decided to find a new apartment. He applied for subsidized housing and was placed on an ever-expanding waiting list. Luckily, Marks grandfather was granted housing at the Bnai Brith building, where he dutifully attended services and helped to make a minyan at the onsite, sparsely attended synagogue. As Mark often accompanied his grandfather to services, he got to know a few of the other tenants. The story focuses on two elderly gentlemen, also minyan regulars, who most residents assumed to be lovers. One of them, Itzik, died and people began to vie for his apartment. In the end, Zalman the synagogue administrator must make a choice, to either evict Herschel, Itziks alleged lover or to continue the certainty of an ongoing minyan.
1. What did Mark mean when he said, Most of the old Jews came [to synagogue] because they were drawn by the nostalgia for ancient cadences. I came because I was drawn by the nostalgia for old Jews. In each case, the motivation was not tradition but history (page 134).
2. After the Holocaust there were two types of people. There were those who felt a responsibility to ensure the future of the Jewish people, and then there were those. . . who had been convinced that the world was irrefutably evil. (page 140). Do you think this statement is true? Why?
3. Did Zalman the building administrator make the right decision? Was his rationale and motive just?
4. Why do you think it was so difficult to assemble a minyan in a building full of Jews?
Amy Siglock serves as the administrator of the Union for Reform Judaisms Department of Lifelong Jewish Learning. She recently earned a Masters degree in Middle Eastern Studies from the University of Texas.