The story of a Russian family that finds itself suddenly part of the wave of Jewish immigration to Israel in the aftermath of the fall of communism, Jerusalem As A Second Language has all the hallmarks of the best kind of coming of age story. As the Zelinikov family learns to navigate their new country, and the new religious, political, economic, and social relationships that go along with it, author Rochelle Distelheim brings imagination to their struggle to reclaim their identities and what matters most in their lives.
Distelheim gives each of the Zelinikovs – main protagonist Manya, her husband Yuri, and their teen-aged daughter Galina – a distinct voice and the freedom to experience their journey as new immigrants on their own terms. The author’s facility with Russian and Israeli culture, multiple languages, and sense of place, provides the diverse cast of characters and the strong foundation the narrative needs to thrive. It is a testament to Distelheim’s experience as an author of short stories that she is able to weave so many different threads together, and in this, her second novel, the parts do all add together to a greater whole.
For those who are less familiar with the experience of Russian olim in Israel, this book provides the necessary background information so readers will not get lost in the details. Distelheim strikes the difficult balance between the particular characteristics of the community and individual character’s backgrounds without allowing them to become stereotypes. This is true for the other communities and individuals the Zelinikovs interact with as well. Furthermore, Distelheim should be complimented for the lightness and humor that permeates the novel, without losing sight of the underlying seriousness of the challenges the family faces. There’s plenty in this book’s narrative and characters for readers to sink their teeth into, as well as potential book club conversations. For readers who have been spending more time at home in 2020, Jerusalem As A Second Language may not provide an escape from 2020, but they will enjoy joining the Zelinikovs on their international and more introspective journeys.