Goldfinch was flapping clotheslines, a tenement delirious with striving. 6030 Bathurst: insomniac scheming Odessa. Cedarcroft: reeking borscht in the hallways.
These were the first lines of my first book, a collection of stories. It was set in a Russian neighborhood in Toronto which, for lack of a better name, locals call Bathurst and Steeles, after one of its main intersections. When I came with my parents to Canada in 1980, this was where we settled. It’s where most Soviet immigrants to Toronto got their start. I grew up here, an immigrant kid among immigrant kids.
I watched my parents struggle their peculiar immigrant struggles. In the streets and in the parks, the language was Russian, sometimes Yiddish. The talk could be about mundane things, but also about Hitler, the Germans, the War or some ludicrous aspect of Soviet life. People opened delicatessens, bakeries, bookstores, medical clinics. For entertainment there were restaurants and nightclubs, with live music and dancing, ornate, campy floorshows, tables groaning with food, vodka flowing like water, and the occasional fistfight.
This past fall, my mother sold the house she’d been living in for the past twenty years—severing my last practical connection to the neighborhood. By now, of course, the neighborhood had changed. Even in 2004, when my book came out, the changes were palpable. Writing is a retrospective act. If you’re writing about something, it is probably already halfway gone.
A Russian family bought my mother’s house, which was consistent with the changes. “It’s mostly Russians now,” my mother said, by which she meant that the ranks of the Russian Jews were dwindling. Before the collapse of the Soviet Union you could hardly be a Russian-speaker in Toronto without also being a Jew, but after the collapse, as immigration patterns changed, it was no longer so.
It’s an odd change to witness, at once subtle and stark. Superficially, it doesn’t look like the neighborhood has changed very much. The bakeries and the delicatessens are still there, and so are the bookstores, the medical clinics and the restaurants. And Russian remains the primary language you hear on the streets and at the playgrounds. But for those who know the neighborhood, the change is unmistakable.
In a way, I’m slightly embarrassed to even remark on it. There’s something unseemly about my discomfort over the change. Why should it matter to me if the Russian speakers of Bathurst and Steeles are no longer predominantly Jewish? After all, my mother tongue is Russian, and both Russian and Jewish culture permeated my childhood home. But the reason is atavistic: it has to do with the deeply ingrained Jewish fear of Russian anti-Semitism and the usual tribal biases. It’s the sort of thinking I’ve tried to resist my whole life. Us vs. Them. The Jews vs. the goyim. And yet when I made a reconnaissance mission to my grandparents’ old apartment building, it saddened me to discover that of the twelve doorposts, only two still bore mezuzahs. The others had nail holes where the mezuzahs used to be.
Still, if I asked myself: Would I rather the neighborhood changed more drastically? Would I prefer if tomorrow it became Chinese or Filipino, as in time it might? The answer is no. And yet I can’t deny that, in a significant way, I now feel less at home in the place where I once felt most at home.
That’s a hard admission for anyone to make, harder for a writer who has identified himself so closely with a specific place. It feels like a double loss. The personal loss anyone would feel, but also the loss of the elusive, intimate material.
This year I will turn forty. Sometimes I look at my reflection and deceive myself into thinking that I haven’t changed very much, that I am little distinguishable from the person I was fifteen years ago, when I was in my twenties, in the prime of life. In a favorable light, I think that I might even be able to deceive others into thinking the same. But at heart, I know that I have changed. I can see and feel the changes. And it occurred to me that in this way I am like my old neighborhood. We are both balancing between here and gone. But the course of things is unavoidable, it moves implacably in one direction. I’ve always known it. It’s why I started to write in the first place. To leave a record of something that will eventually cease to be.
Hear David's story on The Sunday Edition