5: Graphic novel excerpt, Anya Ulinich’s "Lena Finkle’s Magic Barrel," 2014.
These panels from Anya Ulinich’s Lena Finkle’s Magic Barrel speak to the narrator’s memories of her life in the USSR and her early days as an immigrant to the U.S. In the second page excerpt, Lena Finkle’s mother shows off Lena’s "gold medal" from the Soviet Union—a sign of rare accomplishment awarded only to straight-A students, which secured various privileges for the recipient, such as getting admitted to university without entrance exams. The medals, not actually made of gold, had a profile of Vladimir Lenin embossed on one of their sides. Soviet Jewish lore had it that it was particularly difficult for Jewish students to obtain gold medals, due to antisemitism among teachers.
Suggested Activity: Examine the graphic novel excerpt with students. Then discuss: why does Lena’s mother bring up the gold medal in this conversation? How is she trying to represent her family to members of the local Jewish community? What does the object of the gold medal mean to Lena’s mother, and is she able to communicate that meaning to her audience? Why or why not? Ask students to look for and discuss passages in Bezmozgis’s story when the Berman family is trying to represent themselves in a particular light to American Jews. Why do the Bermans dress up the way they do when they go to see a rabbi with questions about how to promote Roman’s massage therapy business? What goes through their minds as they dress for the Friday night dinner at Jerry Kornblum’s? How do Soviet Jewish immigrants expect to be seen by local Jews in Toronto, and how do they try to counteract that?
Source: Anya Ulinich, Lena Finkle’s Magic Barrel (New York: Penguin Books, 2014), 4-5.