Arts and Culture | Religion & Jewish Life

Gary Shteyngart’s super sad true Schechter school story

 NEW YORK (JTA) — If it is true that there is no such thing as bad publicity, then Gary Shteyngart may be one of the best things to happen to the Conservative movement’s at-times-beleaguered Schechter Day School Network.

Shteyngart, the Soviet Jewish immigrant writer known for acclaimed comic novels like “Absurdistan” and “Super Sad True Love Story,” devoted an entire chapter in his best-selling new book to his experience at his alma mater, the Solomon Schechter School of Queens.

The problem is, none of what he has to say in “Little Failure” — a tragicomic memoir — is particularly flattering toward the school he attended for eight years. His classmates are designer-clothes-wearing, “noisy, undisciplined” bullies, the coursework unchallenging, the school rabbi “large” and “sweaty,” the building “a gray piece of modern architecture liberally inlaid with panes of tinted glass.”

The school was an “unhappy, alien place” for a Russian boy new to the country. When he first enrolled, Shteyngart relates, he sat alone in the cafeteria, unable to speak English, unfamiliar with the Hebrew prayers, ashamed to speak in class and mocked by his fellow students.

On the other hand, Schechter is hardly the only institution that Shteyngart skewers in the book, and his descriptions of virtually everyone, including himself and his parents, are also frequently unflattering.

The Solomon Schechter School of Queens, or SSSQ, is currently featuring Shteyngart in the “Spotlight on Alumni” section on its website, which promotes his books and describes him as an “award winning author” but neglects to mention the school’s featured role in “Little Failure.”

“I do believe the insights of a brilliant, articulate graduate offer a rare gift of understanding into the nuanced impact a school can have on a child,” Rabbi Shira Leibowitz, SSSQ’s current head, told JTA via e-mail. “While The Solomon Schechter School of Queens has changed since the time Gary Shteyngart attended, he offers important perspective relevant today in a school with a very large immigrant population.”

In recent years, the Queens school’s student body has been roughly one-third from Russian-speaking households, one-third Israeli and one-third American Jews whose families have been in the United States for multiple generations.

In an email interview with JTA, Shteyngart said his feelings about SSSQ, which he attended from first through eighth grade are “mixed.”

Would Shteyngart, who spoke almost no English when his parents enrolled him at Schechter, have fared any better at a public school? (It was an option that his parents avoided, he writes in his book, because “we are scared of blacks.”)

“During my book tour, I’ve met many people my age who emigrated around the same time who were pulled out of Schechters by their parent and sent to public school, and they found the diversity there to be a lot more welcoming,” he explained. “I’m sure there are people who’ve had the opposite experience also.”

However, he said that his alma mater seems to have improved since his time there in the 1980s.

“I think there are tons more kids from the former Soviet Union in SSSQ and there’s much more of an effort to integrate them,” he wrote. “This is very positive.”

Rabbi David Fine, a classmate of Shteyngart’s (described as the “Mighty Khan Caesar” in the book), recommended “Little Failure” in a post on a listserv for Conservative rabbis, noting, “while it, like everything else, is not spared his biting satire and critique, and while Shteyngart does not come out of the Movement identifying as a Conservative Jew … nevertheless the publication of this book will probably bring the name ‘Solomon Schechter’ to more people than ever before. This marks an important ‘mainstreaming’ moment, even as presented through the immigrant experience of a satirical humorist.”

For its part, the Schechter network — which a few years ago launched a “re-branding” effort, but has nonetheless shrunk considerably in the past decade, as several of its schools have closed or become pluralistic “community” Jewish schools rather than specifically Conservative-affiliated schools — does not profess concern about the negative PR from one of its most famous graduates.

Elaine Cohen, executive director of the Schechter Network, told JTA she has not yet read “Little Failure,” but said she does not believe “parents will make a day school choice based on the comments of an acerbic, idiosyncratic comic writer.”

Asked if he would consider sending his own children to a Jewish day school, Shteyngart said he plans to send his child, a boy born last fall, to a “progressive, nondenominational” school.

Despite his critiques of his day school — which he refers to in his memoir as a “Hebrew school” — Shteyngart has made small donations to it, earmarking his dollars for students from the former Soviet Union.

Did he gain anything from his years there?

“Well, I learned a lot about the religion which is certainly useful for my work and for writing about other religions and cultural experiences,” he responded. “There were at least two wonderful teachers there, a substitute teacher who encouraged me to write and had me read my stuff out to kids at the end of English period and a social studies teacher who began chipping away at the insanely conservative person I was. Furthermore, I don’t think there are too many writers who enjoyed their early schooling, else they would have become productive members of society.”

Ultimately, perhaps the Leningrad-born author best sums up the complicated Shteyngart-Schechter relationship towards the end of the book, as he describes attending SSSQ’s 25th reunion.

“And as I glance around at my former classmates, a thought occurs to me. This is a community. These people know one another, understand one another, came of age with one another,” he writes. “They were tied by kin and outlook, as were their parents before them. Moms making rugelach in advanced baking ovens, dads talking mileage on their new Lincolns, the drowsy, hypnotic hum of cantors and rabbis on Saturday mornings.”

The issue, as he explains it, was that he was an outsider to this tight-knit American Jewish milieu.

“What happened here, this was nobody’s fault,” he continues. “We Soviet Jews were simply invited to the wrong party. And then we were too frightened to leave. Because we didn’t know who we were. In this book, I’m trying to say who we were.”