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Waiting for America

A Story of Emigration

by Maxim Shrayer

Publication Year: 2012

In 1987 a young Jewish man, the central figure in this captivating book, leaves Moscow for good with his parents. They celebrate their freedom in opulent Vienna and spend two months in Rome and the coastal resort of Ladispoli. While waiting in Europe for a U.S. refugee visa, the book’s twenty-year-old poet quenches his thirst for sexual and cultural discovery. Through his colorful Austrian and Italian misadventures, he experiences the shock, thrill, and anonymity of encountering Western democracies, running into European roadblocks while shedding Soviet social taboos. As he anticipates entering a new life in America, he movingly describes the baggage that exiles bring with them, from the inescapable family traps and ties to the sweet cargo of memory. An emigration story, Waiting for America explores the rapid expansion of identity at the cusp of a new, American life. Told in a revelatory first-person narrative, Waiting for America is also a vibrant love story in which the romantic main character is torn between Russian and Western women. Filled with poignant humor and reinforced by hope and idealism, the author’s confessional voice carries the reader in the same way one is carried through literary memoirs like Tolstoy’s Childhood, Boyhood, Youth, Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast, or Nabokov’s Speak, Memory. Babel, Sebald, and Singer—all transcultural masters of identity writing—are the coordinates that help to locate Waiting for America on the greater map of literature.

Published by: Syracuse University Press


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pp. c-ii

Title Page, Copyright

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pp. iii-vi


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pp. vii-viii

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pp. ix-x

I started this book in Boston, in 1996, and resumed working on it in 2001, after a hiatus of four years. A portion of it was completed in November and December 2002 at the Rockefeller Foundation’s Study and Conference Center in Bellagio, Italy, and I thank the foundation for its support. A fellowship from the Bogliasco Foundation and the staff of...

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pp. xi-xiv

In our time, when the critical climate of U.S. culture encourages readers and publishers to engage in vicarious scrutiny of the relationship between the raw material of so-called “real life” and the final literary product, I feel it necessary to make several advance observations about my book and the story it tells....

Part One | Flight

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1 Wienerwald

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pp. 3-35

In early June 1987, two days after I turned twenty, my family left the Soviet Union for good. We’d been trying to emigrate for nine years, struggling, losing hope, and regaining hope. I was ten when my parents decided to emigrate, and I was a junior in college by the time we were finally leaving....

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2 The Manchurian Trunk

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pp. 36-51

The middle of June, 1987. We were leaving Vienna by the night express. The entire train had been chartered by JIAS to transport a group of about 150 Soviet refugees to Rome, the next station on our journey. Vienna had been our entrance to the West, a perfect place to experience a culture shock, especially if you were twenty, as I was at the time,...

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3Rome, Open City

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pp. 52-72

My parents and I sometimes laugh about it the way one laughs about surviving a shipwreck in trepid, alien waters. I still don’t know for sure why they fought during our stay in Rome. It’s been almost twenty years, and I’m still afraid to ask. Instead, I get up from my desk, walk across the striped carpet to my “Russian” bookcases, and pick up Isaac Babel’s...

Part Two | Ladispoli

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4 Notes from a Life in Transit

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pp. 75-104

In Etruscan Places, first published in 1932, D. H. Lawrence briefly mentions Ladispoli in the chapter titled “Cerveteri”: “We arrive at Palo, a station in nowhere, and ask if there is a bus to Cerveteri. No! An ancient sort of wagon with an ancient white horse stands outside. Where does that go? To Ladispoli. We know we don’t want to go to Ladispoli,...

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5Raffaella’s Rusty Mustang

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pp. 105-124

The narrative currents are gathering on the coast of Ladispoli, and I can feel the winds of storytelling in my sails. I’m ready to describe my adventures with Raffaella. She belonged to the group of Italian students I met in Ladispoli that summer—Leonardo, Sylvio, Tomasso, Bianca Marini, and others. Behind her back, the Italians, men especially,...

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Interlude The Roubenis of Esfahan

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pp. 125-132

There was also a small number of Iranian Jews waiting in Ladispoli that summer. Less than two weeks after we’d arrived, my father—amateur ethnographer that he was—made the acquaintance of a Jewish family from Esfahan. One evening on the main promenade he separated himself from us and walked up to a group consisting of three...

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6 The Rabbi and the Pastor

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pp. 133-154

Two faiths—and two missions—competed for the hearts and souls of the Jewish refugees from the Soviet Union, many of whom had not been exposed to religious practice. Upon arrival in Ladispoli my parents and I immediately heard of the American Center and the Wednesday night movie screenings. We were only getting our bearings....

Part Three | Baggage

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7 Napoleon at San Marino

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pp. 157-177

The summer when we first came to the West from the Soviet Union, we were poor and thirsty to see the world. And we were not living according to our means. In Ladispoli my parents and I were renting a perfectly middle-class apartment with a view of the sea while entire refugee families shared tiny airless rooms that opened onto dusty...

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Interlude Literature is Love

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pp. 178-185

Soon after arriving in Ladispoli, we discovered a Russian lending library at the local Jewish refugee center, which wasn’t really a refugee center but a suite of catacombic rooms outfitted with two or three file cabinets, a fax machine, and a copier. Two Iranian Jews in aviator sunglasses took over the rooms and used them in the manner of a...

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8 Uncle Pinya, Visiting

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pp. 186-207

One memory-melting afternoon during the first week of August I returned to Ladispoli from Rome with the usual market booty of turkey and acromegalic vegetables burdening my shopping bag, only to find my Israeli great-uncle Pinya sitting in our kitchen and having tea with toast, jam, and ricotta cheese. He got up to kiss and hug me, the pliers...

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Interlude La Famiglia Soloveitchik

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pp. 208-214

A tall, hefty woman with a double bun of russet hair came up to us at the beach and introduced herself. We had spread our towels over by the water’s edge, right next to her family’s beach encampment with its multiple tote bags, piles of clothes anchoring the corners of a fl oral bed sheet, and an assortment of beach toys and flippers. In her right...

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9Refuge in Paradise

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pp. 215-226

We arrived in America at the end of August 1987, on board the now-extinct Trans-World Airlines. It was a plane full of immigrants— from the Soviet Union, from India, from Pakistan, from Egypt—and we all applauded when the plane touched down on a runway at Kennedy Airport. Ahead lay our new lives in the New World. When I...

Back Cover

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p. bc-bc

E-ISBN-13: 9780815651802
E-ISBN-10: 0815651805
Print-ISBN-13: 9780815609971
Print-ISBN-10: 0815609973

Page Count: 240
Publication Year: 2012