Sister Authors of Jewish Luck

Sisters and now co-authors, Leslie Levine Adler, left, and Meryll Levine Page.
In telling the true story of two Russian friends, Leslie Adler and Meryll Page deepened their own sister story.
Sisters and now co-authors, Leslie Levine Adler, left, and Meryll Levine Page.

The Idea

It was a chance meeting on a Leningrad street corner in 1976 that became the first chapter of a story that continues to this day. Leslie Levine (now Adler), a University of Michigan student attending Leningrad State University, was standing with a classmate trying to find a bus stop. The pair was approached by a young Russian woman, Vera, who spoke English and offered to help. In the climate of Leningrad at the time, even such a simple offer was a risky step: talking to Americans without contacting what was known as the KGB’s First Department for permission could have caused Vera problems.

The symbolism of finding one’s direction is a predominant theme throughout Jewish Luck: A True Story of Friendship, Deception and Risky Business by Adler and her older sister Meryll Levine Page. The book, published last fall, offers a personal and revealing look into Communist Russia in the 1960s, ’70s and mid-’80s, as well as the last years of the USSR and then the fall of the Soviet State on into Putin’s era, told through the stories of Vera, a bright and determined woman trying to succeed in business in the face of a restrictive environment, and Alla (also known as Alisa), equally smart, and determined to leave Russia and start a new life in Sweden. The Russian women, who grew as close as sisters, despite some periods of estrangement, first met as college students registering for Leningrad State University.

This is the first book written by Adler, who now lives in Minneapolis, and Page, a St. Louis Park resident and a longtime teacher at St. Louis Park High School. Page retired in 2010 to spend more time with family, which includes her three children, daughter-in-law and two grandchildren. Adler is a psychologist and mother of two.

Leslie Adler grew exceptionally close to Vera during her time in Russia, even visiting again a year after returning to the States. Each time Adler left, Vera pleaded with her American friend, “Don’t forget us.” Not only did Adler not forget, but their friendship continues today. Through the process of writing Jewish Luck, Page also developed friendships with Alisa and Vera, finally getting to know the two in 2011 when she and Adler traveled to St. Petersburg (formerly Leningrad) to do research for the book.

It was a reunion in the Cayman Islands in 2010 that led Adler to consider writing the book in the first place. This was where Vera and husband Alexei, who together ended up building several successful businesses (including a construction company, restaurant and temp agency) in Russia had relocated and were hosting the wedding of their only son Lev and his bride Lauren, who, in fact, now live in Minneapolis. Alisa had traveled to the event after spending some time in Israel.

“We were on this luxurious beach, following the gorgeous wedding, and I found myself thinking, ‘How did we get here?’ ” Adler says, recalling their friendship and the various trials that Vera and Alisa, in particular, had endured over the years.

After sitting with the idea for a while, Adler approached her sister with the notion to collaborate on a book. For Page, the timing was good, as she had been teaching a course on the history of the USSR as a single party and the breakdown of the communist state, and was intrigued by the project.

“When Leslie presented the idea, I felt a little like I was intruding because Vera and Alisa were her friends that I had heard about over the years,” Page says. “So I thought about the book as a history treatise, while Leslie saw that the better, truer book would tell the story of what these women felt and lived through and she was right.”

Jewish Luck
alternates chapters between the personal stories of Vera and Alisa (Vera’s name, along with the names of several of her family members, were changed at her request), even following both through a period of estrangement when Alisa left for Sweden without telling Vera. Stories of the hardship of life in the Soviet Union during that period are woven through their individual experiences, including Vera and Alisa’s early first marriages and struggles to find their way in the world personally and professionally. While Vera and Alexei succeeded in business in Russia, with some setbacks, it took Alisa a bit longer to find her footing in Stockholm before eventually landing a high-level position in the field of telecommunications, marrying and giving birth at the age of 38 to her daughter Daniella.

Another dimension of the story has to do with Jewish life: Vera, although from a Jewish family, was raised without Jewish rituals in her home because no religious faith was permitted in the USSR. Alisa, also Jewish, was committed to following as many Jewish rituals as she was able to without arrest, and in the course of the book, fulfills a lifelong dream to travel to Israel. The grandmothers of Alisa and Vera were born in Belarus, near the large town of Vitebsk, and lived outside the Jewish Pale of Settlement in the early 1900s. Vera would say to Adler that if her own grandmother had emigrated to the United States, as Adler’s had, “I could be you and you could be me.”

nesting dolls

The Process

The sisters had never written a book (“I do write a mean psychological report,” Adler says with a smile), but they took a deep dive, learning about the process of interviewing, researching and writing a creative non-fiction work. Page joined an OLLI (Osher Lifelong Learning Institute) writing group, sponsored by the University of Minnesota, which met regularly at the Franklin Library. The pair attended workshops through the Hennepin County Library on writing and publishing. They also consider themselves fortunate to have worked with a development editor, Patricia Weaver Francisco, a writing professor at Hamline University and the author of TELLING: A Memoir of Rape and Recovery, which won a 1999 Minnesota Book Award.

“Leslie and Meryll should write a book about how they wrote this book,” Francisco says. “They were tireless and joyful through many revisions. Lots of fascinating material was cut, lots of strategies tried and discarded. Writing this book required discipline, commitment and hard work from each of them, as well as the ability to collaborate with one another and with the women who were their subjects. They wanted to bring the remarkable stories of these women to the world.”

Adler recalls how much Francisco’s encouragement meant. “One of her early comments was ‘Of course you can write,’ which I repeated to myself about 10 times,” Adler says.

Page, with her background in history, tackled the footnotes and bibliography as well as the history chapters, interspersed with the stories of Vera and Alisa, to give a sense of the country through its changing government. They split the stories of the women—Page wrote about Alisa and Adler about Vera. “We actually sat next to each other to write the story of how the girls originally met,” Page says, who adds that organizing the flow of the text, chapter by chapter, was a challenge.

Adler says that while they worked on a common Google document, writing the book, which took more than three years, was also a bit of a “leapfrog process.” Page wrote during the week; she observes Shabbat and doesn’t use electronic devices from Friday at sundown to Saturday at sundown. Adler does not, so “Friday and Saturday were my breathing days, when I could get caught up on my writing,” she says.

Jewish Luck

The Relationship

The trip to St. Petersburg in 2011 was a turning point for the sisters, both in their own relationship and in their relationships with Vera and Alisa. “We learned a lot about the country, but we were firm in not wanting to generalize. We were telling the stories of these two women,” Page says.

According to Adler, there were revelations between Vera and Alisa during many of the interviews and conversations, which also included visits to their old childhood neighborhoods. For Vera, it was a sobering reminder of a hard life, but for Alisa, the nostalgia generated by her family home was comforting, especially since her mother was very ill and would die several months later.

Page and Adler, who arrived for the interview in matching pink shirts that read, “I can’t remember if I’m the good sister or the evil one,” say writing a book together was gratifying in many ways.

“We had to break out of family patterns of older sister-younger sister,” says Page. (Patricia Francisco had the two journal back and forth to one another about their relationship as part of their writing process).

“[Meryll] wanted to change words,” Adler says. “I learned how to shut up,” Page adds, as both laugh. “We definitely got closer as we wrote the book. We had such a good time with it.”

For Francisco, the give and take between the sisters adds richness to their book. “They enjoy and value one another, including valuing honest feedback and respectful disagreement,” she says. “Leslie and Meryll really bring humor, vivid storytelling and their rare experience with deep understanding of Russian history to what I see as a love story.”

Since publishing Jewish Luck, the sisters have done several speaking engagements and launched a blog on their website, morejewishluck.com, which also includes suggested reading, recipes from their Bubbie Rae (“Bubbie” means “grandma” in Yiddish) and heartfelt tributes to good friends and family they have lost over the years. “We’ve been reconnected to every person we’ve known in this world,” says Adler. “This story has become a story to elicit other stories from people.”

Excerpt from Jewish Luck

"I sensed a change in Vera from her letters of 1976 and 1977. Crafted in eloquent Russian, her distress calls and descriptions of heartbreak arrived on thin, crackling paper. It would take days for me to decode her innuendos and then construct my answer. Due to the Soviet censors, a month might be required to complete the circle of communication."

"Our lives were a study in contrasts. I wrote to Vera that I had chosen to move to Minneapolis to be closer to Meryll and her family. She was appalled by my post-college “career” of temping as a Kelly girl, serving as a copy boy for the Minneapolis Star newspaper, and as a baker. To my good, Soviet-raised friend, it was déclassé. To me, it was fascinating. I was never trapped by a job but, rather, was given a new perspective that would be helpful to me later as a psychologist."

Jewish Luck: A True Story of Friendship, Deception and Risky Business (Salt Mine Press, 386 pages, $18). Available at Magers & Quinn Booksellers in Minneapolis and at Amazon.com. A Kindle version is also available. More information on upcoming speaking events and author appearances at morejewishluck.com.