It was spring and I was all set to graduate from college, if I could just find a humanities course. It’s odd to write this now, but back then I avoided humanities classes as if the experience might prove fatal. Still, I needed that humanities credit, and so I signed up for a class called Russian Civilization. The Cold War was still raging. I was well aware of the plight of Soviet Jewry. Why not learn a little something about the enemy?
The professor’s name was Lev Loseff. I liked him immediately, first because he had a great accent to go with a wry sense of humor, and second, because he liked getting out of the classroom. Not that we didn’t work. His class introduced me to Russian literature — a vital experience — and the long and twisted history of the country. I still remember his stories of being a child in Russia during World War II. In his class we also did things like go to Alexandr Solzhenitsyn’s Russian Orthodox church (this was deep in the New England woods) and talk with the great man’s priest, who, in long robe and beard, looked exactly as if he’d stepped off the steppe a hundred years before. At this point in my life I’d considered all Christianity pretty much alike, but clearly this was something I would need to rethink.
Indeed, Loseff made me think. And he instilled in me an abiding love for the humanities — especially literature — that has never left me and never will.
Loseff was a dissident poet. He made clear he’d escaped the USSR. He showed us the ultra-thin, crammed pages of manuscripts that had been smuggled out of the country. I found it all fascinating, so one day after class I asked him how he’d escaped. “Oh,” he said, “the Soviet Union sells Jews. Someone bought me.”
So he was Jewish. Did he seem Jewish? Well, now that I thought about it, maybe he did: there was that sense of humor. But he also seemed very Russian. He was the first person I’d ever met who’d been raised in Russia — other than my grandparents, of course. “Okay,” I asked. “Who bought you, exactly?”
“A city,” he said. “Oak Park, Michigan.”
I had to steady myself, lest I burst from pride. “I’m from Oak Park,” I said. Oak Park! I thought. No shit!
I should mention here that by the time I left for college I didn’t leave from Oak Park. My mother remarried in the middle of my upbringing, and we moved out to the northwest burbs. But Bloomfield Hills, to the best of my knowledge, never bought any Jews, at least not back then.
Thanks to Loseff, I graduated. A few years later, I got a letter from him. He needed a recommendation for tenure. I told the school it would be foolish not to give the man tenure, and the school was not foolish.
A couple decades went by. I read more Russian literature, started publishing myself, and then came across a book review in the New Yorker of the definitive biography of Joseph Brodsky, the Nobel Laureate poet. The biographer? Lev Loseff. I really should send him a note, I thought; I owed him more thanks than just a tenure recommendation. And then I came to the paragraph that mentioned his untimely death, leaving me with sadness, regret, and an abiding pride in Oak Park.
Scott Lasser is the author of the novels Battle Creek, All I Could Get, The Year That Follows and Say Nice Things About Detroit. His non-fiction has appeared in the New Yorker and New York Times; he co-wrote two episodes of HBO's True Detective. A alumnus of Dartmouth College, the University of Michigan, the Wharton School and Lehman Brothers, Scott lives with his family in Aspen, Colorado.
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