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Lowell Series Speaker on Judaism, Vodka, and Creative Writing

On Wednesday night, Lev Golinkin, BC ’04, described his experience as a Jewish, Eastern Ukrainian refugee attending a Catholic, American college.

“It sucked,” Golinkin said. “I didn’t have an identity.”

The journalist and author was invited to speak as the eighth guest in the Lowell Humanities Series this year. Since 1957, the Series has invited various well-known personalities to Boston College to share their knowledge about their respective fields, whether scholarship or art.

The event, held in Gasson 100, included a lecture as well as  time for questions and a book signing. Golinkin spent a fair amount of the lecture itself discussing his journey as an undergraduate at BC.

“The important thing about Boston College is that this is a place that empowers people,” Golinkin said. “This school is the antithesis of being powerless.”

– Lev Golinkin, BC ’04

Golinkin recounted a meeting that he had in his senior year with a professor who he considered to be his mentor. He voiced his concern that he did not have a future. To his surprise, the professor agreed.

“You don’t have a future because you don’t have a past,” Golinkin said. “You’re a Jewish kid who’s hiding in a Catholic college.”

This inspired Golinkin to think more deeply about his past, and what it meant for who he was. He continued to share with the audience anecdotes from his childhood in the Eastern Ukraine. At the age of seven years old he began to realize how different his family was from the other families in his community. He said he recognized their common use of the terms “us” and “them,” as if the rest of the world were somehow against him and his parents.

Golinkin’s parents taught him early on to be very careful with the word for ‘synagogue,’ as it would give away the fact that he was Jewish. This was dangerous information at the time, which he said he understood completely when he soon found himself prohibited from attending school.

At this time, Golinkin briefly paused in his story, and explained that about six months ago, he was giving a talk to a group of children in middle school. He acknowledged that the wonderful thing about children is that they ask simple, smart questions.

“Why didn’t you move?” was the question that Golinkin repeated.

He then took the opportunity to clarify. He described the Soviet Union as a prison the size of a continent, explaining that the one thing keeping it together was that no one left. Even once the government began to fall apart, his parents did not take the decision lightly because one of the rules was that you had to leave all possessions behind.

Thus, this rule was part of his inspiration to write. A Backpack, A Bear, and Eight Crates of Vodka is the title of his memoir, as well as a list of the objects he brought with him while escaping Ukraine.

The vodka, he told the audience, was used for bribing anyone and everyone his family encountered on their trip to the train station in Vienna. This was where they found assistance from people who felt morally responsible for their safety. His family was sent to the United States, where American Jews adopted them.

Presenting himself as a Jew who does not practice the religion, he described the disillusionment that he, and so many others, brought to American Jews. A student in the audience asked about this label. He explained that, as the child of Soviet Jewish refugee parents, he also considers himself Jewish although he does not practice the religion. He further disclosed that his friends never quite understand how that could work. In response, Golinkin pointed out that he believes there is a difference between being ethnically Jewish and religiously Jewish.

Overseas, around Christmas time, each household would bring a tree inside, Golinkin said. Similar to the idea of a Christmas tree, this was a New Year’s tradition in which people of all religions took part. When Golinkin’s family came to the U.S., they were told that Jewish people did not do such things, and they were handed a menorah. Golinkin said that those candles meant nothing to them, though. Once his father got a job and they were living on their own, Golinkin said his family discarded the menorah and obtained a tree. Golinkin told the audience that he does not need to practice the religion to consider himself Jewish.

“I feel the most Jewish when I am building another house for Habitat for Humanity,” he said.

This was one of the many activities that molded his identity while he attended BC.

“The important thing about Boston College is that this is a place that empowers people,” Golinkin said. “This school is the antithesis of being powerless.”

He then charged the listeners to try something. He told them that on a colder day in the middle of winter, they should try walking around Boston with just a light shirt on. He then explained that that is what it felt like for families such as his in the Ukraine.

When asked about why he wrote his memoir, he gave a short response.

“I wanted to write a book about someone who is still a work in progress,” he said, “and that’s okay.”

Featured Image by Lucius Xuan / Heights Staff

January 27, 2016

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