The small, worn briefcase inside a display case at New York’s Museum of Jewish Heritage held an odd collection of thick, glass, hemispherical jars. Called “banki” in Russian, these suction cups belonged, according to the exhibit on immigration, to a new arrival from the Pale of Settlement at the turn of the 20th century. The caption noted that a lit match would be placed inside the opening to create suction. Then the jars would be applied to the bare back of an ailing person. The Yiddish expression “Es helft, vi a toytn bankes” — “It’d help as much as suction cups would heal a corpse” — seems to suggest, in its own morbid way, that suction cups may have been a reliable cure as long as a patient was still breathing.
I had come to America from Russia two years earlier, a good decade before “cupping” became a fashionable alternative treatment. What astonished me was that the banki were displayed as quaint old objects from a bygone time. I grew up in the USSR in the 1980s. The frightening flame, the burning pain, the rattling of a dozen little glass cups stuck to the bare back, and the purple welts on the skin after each treatment: These were all part of my own childhood treatments for flu or bouts of common cold. It was as if my own pre-immigrant self were on display with the banki. I, too, was suddenly from the “Old Country.”
In his memoir Little Failure, Gary Shteyngart recalls the suction cups of his Soviet Jewish immigrant narrative. An asthmatic kid in cold and damp Leningrad, little Gary endured his banki treatments as a combination of physical pain and psychological anxiety. When they left the USSR, the Shteyngarts first landed in Vienna, where a doctor examined his “black-and-blue-bruised back” and was ready “to call the Austrian police forces with a fresh report of child abuse.” Upon explanation about the cupping treatment, the doctor prescribed Gary an asthma inhaler. “For the first time in my life,” writes Shteyngart of his feelings at that moment, “I will enjoy the realization that I do not have to choke to death every night.”
American Jewish readers might be compelled to see their cultural superiority and sophistication confirmed as they revel in the achievements of Western progress that saved a small Soviet Jewish child from the near-lethal backwardness of the Old World. The sickly Gary is literally “saved” when his family is allowed out of the Soviet Union in 1979 as a result of the pressure from the American Jewish community: He is a kind of poster boy for what Jews in the West were rooting for as a community when they marched, protested, and lobbied to “save Soviet Jewry.”
But to conclude that moving to the West would have been akin to a magical panacea oversimplifies deeper repercussions. Gary’s parents were not abusing their son. They were doing their best to help and nurture their child given their circumstances and abilities. Little Failure is less an account of how wonderful the transition to life in America was, but more a difficult love letter to his parents upon the distance that had grown between them on account of immigration. “Unless I am telling you otherwise,” Shteyngart notes at the beginning of Little Failure, “I am completely in love with everyone around me for the rest of this book.”
Shteyngart became a writer who dwells on the chasms that open where closely knit families fracture along the lines of complicated historical experience. His work is full of clutter that demands analysis: Discrete objects become conduits for stories of migration and new cultural contexts. Lugged in immigrants’ suitcases, carried through ports of transit, displayed and bandied about to impress unwitting hosts upon reaching termini, these items become focal points in the fresh literature of the émigré author. The scrutiny of rich, layered details is an exercise in empathy that can add much-needed nuance to accepted — and frequently misleading — communal narratives.
Reading the literature of the Soviet Jewish — or any other — immigrant experience is an exercise in renegotiating personal and collective histories and memories. A few years after seeing those century-old suction cups at the museum, I came across old-fashioned Soviet-era banki at a flea market in Vilnius, Lithuania, where I was studying Yiddish. I bought six — far fewer than needed for medical treatment. I keep them in my freezer and offer them as shot glasses for vodka to unsuspecting dinner guests. Because of their hemispherical shape, my banki cannot be put down: My guests have to drink the whole shot if they want to have their hands free. The unpleasant childhood memories that haunt Shteyngart, me, and a growing cohort of Russian Jewish émigré authors, are never far off — but we’ve been endeavoring to imbue them with more layers of meaning.