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Local man helps HIAS tell its many stories
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Local man helps HIAS tell its many stories

Anniversary volume includes Alex Matlin’s tale of leaving Russia

A visit by two CIA operatives would strike fear into the hearts of most people, but Alex Matlin — massaging a few of the facts — turned such an experience into a hilarious tale of vodka-fueled camaraderie.

The men arrived on the doorstep of his home in the Midwest, he wrote, soon after his arrival from the USSR. Rather than panic, he took it as an intoxicating sign of his potential importance to his new country. The problem was that as much as he wanted to share crucial secret information with them, he couldn’t think of any.

“It’s partly true,” the Russian-born engineer, now a resident of Westfield and avid writer of satirical fiction, told NJ Jewish News. “The one CIA guy did become a good friend of ours.”

His story, “My Absolut Importance,” is one of the 30 stories featured, together with one poem, in a new volume published by HIAS, the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, in celebration of its 130 years of service.

Titled HIAS@130: 1+30, the best of myStory, the book comprises works selected from HIAS’s social networking site. Established two years ago, the site was designed to give immigrants from the former Soviet Union an on-line venue for sharing their experiences as newcomers. It has attracted hundreds of essays, poems, and anecdotes — some poignant, many dramatic, and most spiced with a characteristically Russian deadpan humor.

Telling jokes, Matlin said, was a means of survival under the Soviet regime. “There was a very different level of satire there,” he said.

The book’s publication will be celebrated at a party on Sunday afternoon, April 22, at the Center for Jewish History in Manhattan. The program will include some authors reading from the book and performances by singer Rebecca Branovan and pianist Elina Akselrud, the recipient of a HIAS scholarship.

Founded in 1881, HIAS has helped more than 4.5 million Jews and non-Jews — half a million from the former Soviet Union — resettle in the United States and elsewhere. In recent years it has focused on non-Jewish immigrants, including — locally, since last fall — 16 Darfuris, through partner agency Jewish Vocational Service of MetroWest. They are expecting to settle another 19 in the Essex and Morris County area before the end of this September.

Roberta Elliott of South Orange, vice president for media and communications at HIAS, and her coeditors, Jolie Solomon of South Orange and Marina Belotserkovsky of Edison, selected contributions from hundreds posted on myStory. They worked with Alla Meikson of Livingston, the project manager of the myStory website.

“There was so much great material, it was very difficult” to limit the contributions to 31, Elliott said.

‘Walking a thin line’

Despite Soviet restrictions on emigration, Matlin and his wife, Emma, managed to get an exit visa and left Moscow in 1974 with their first child. They linked up with HIAS in Austria. The agency “played a big part,” he said, in helping them get to the United States and find their footing in their new homeland.

After an initial stay in Los Angeles, Matlin found a job in Milwaukee, where the couple had a second child. The family moved to Westfield a few years later, joined the Summit Jewish Community Center, and got involved with the Jewish Federation of Central New Jersey. Now semi-retired, Matlin still helps out at the federation’s Super Sunday fund-raiser each year, a way of “giving back.”

The hardest part about emigrating, Matlin said, was leaving his mother and father. His brother had departed the year before, and his parents “had no glimmer of hope of ever seeing us again.” They were lucky, though. Four years later, the elder Matlins were able to get out too and came to the United States. For his father, a scientist in the Soviet Union, the adjustment to life in America was tough, but for his mother, said their son, “it was beautiful — a miracle.”

As for his story in the HIAS book, it was written in Russian and translated into English by his daughter. As a young professional in Moscow, Matlin published a number of stories in the prestigious magazine Krokodil. Though “I was just a little Jewish guy,” he said, he was able to wield a lot of power against those he regarded as corrupt. But it was risky. “We walked a thin line,” he recalled.

Last year, a book of his stories, Drinks with Spooks, was published in Russia, with illustrations by fellow HIAS client Mikhail Belominsky of New York.

Elliott described Matlin’s story as one of her favorites in the book. Among his fellow contributors to HIAS@130 are a number of writers who have already made a name for themselves here. They include Gary Shteyngart, Irina Reyn, Lara Vapnyar, Alexander Genis, Maxim Shrayer, and Margie Gelbwasser.

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