Zhanna Slor, a 34-year-old Soviet émigré, is far from being religious, as are many contemporary Russian Jews. Yet she writes about a spectrum of Russian-Jewish identity in her new Milwaukee-set book: “At the End of the World, Turn Left.”
The book is a literary mystery set during the 2008 recession. It weaves together the tale of two immigrant sisters with very different ideas of home.
Masha remembers her childhood in the former USSR, but found her life and heart in Israel’s Orthodox community. Anna, a young artist and student, was only an infant when her family left, but still yearns to find her roots. When Anna is contacted by a stranger from their hometown and then disappears, Masha is called back to Wisconsin to find her, and this search changes the family forever.
An NPR reviewer praised Slor’s novel: “It’s rare to find a debut mystery crafted with such elegance and authenticity, let alone in a place that has been so neglected as a literary location.”
Slor, who lives in Milwaukee, didn’t intend on writing a mystery, but her publisher specialized in them, so her focus changed. The first publisher she connected with produced Jewish titles and that led her to an early draft of exploring modern Jewish identity. “I really wanted to write about this huge variation of people that grew up with no religion at all, that couldn’t find a community for themselves in America, that would move to Israel and become really religious.”
Slor set the book in Riverwest, where she lived while attending University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. “They really don’t have many Jews there or Russians. It’s mostly musicians and artists and hipsters, a culture I really identified with at one point in my life.”
Books about Russian-Jewish immigrants tend to take place in Brooklyn, where they have their own culture, Slor said. “In Milwaukee, you kind of have to adapt because there aren’t that many Russian Jews. So, I wanted to write about all these weird intersections plus Riverwest is also strange. If you don’t feel at home anywhere, I feel that that’s a relatable thing in our modern culture with everybody moving around so much. So, I really wanted to explore these ideas.”
The younger sister Anna is based on herself at age 19, Slor said. “I didn’t have any of the criminal experiences that are mentioned in the book — the plot is totally fiction. But I was a lot like her in college — an artist who didn’t really fit in with her family.”
A mother and wife of an Israeli musician, Slor said she always wanted to be a writer, talking it up as early as the first grade. She attended grad school at DePaul University in Chicago, where she took her love of writing more seriously than at UWM. “At the End of the World, Turn Left” is her third book. The first and second were good practice, she said.
Though she is not religious, Slor said, “I really respect the culture. It’s kind of cool to look at it from afar and I really respect the history. Not looking down upon religion is one of the themes of my book.”