Jewish marchers during a May Day demonstration in Russia in 1919. Via Jewish Museum and Tolerance Center.
When thirteen-year-old Wolfgang Leonhard—later a prominent East German official, a defector to Tito’s Yugoslavia, and then a professor of Soviet studies at Yale—emigrated with his Communist mother from Germany to the USSR in 1935, they had difficulty finding their way around Moscow. Believe it or not, no current maps were available. Leonhard’s mother still kept a map from her 1924 visit, but so much had changed that it was almost worthless. They were therefore “all the more delighted when suddenly town plans of Moscow began to appear in all the book shops; but it was a disappointment to find that these plans on sale in July 1935 were dated 1945.”
“We had no idea what to make of this,” Leonhard recalled. “‘What’s the use of a town plan for 1945 when I want to find my way about Moscow in 1935?’ my mother asked in amazement.” The incident disclosed something important about the Soviet experience. The observable, flawed present was to be overlooked. Only those who had not properly absorbed Bolshevik ideology focused on empirical reality; to do so was “bourgeois objectivism.” The true Bolshevik saw the guaranteed future, what official literature called “reality in its revolutionary development.”
In his new study How the Soviet Jew Was Made, Sasha Senderovich describes a similar mentality shaping accounts of Birobidzhan, the Godforsaken far-eastern land on the tributaries of the Amur river designated as the future Jewish homeland. There Jews were expected to transform this Siberian region into a land of milk and kvas while themselves being transformed from traditional Jews—with their shtetl values, religious traditions, and bourgeois attitudes—into muscular exemplars of humanity’s ideal, the New Soviet Man. The gap between the paradise envisaged in official propaganda and the existing wasteland tested even the most adept practitioners of Soviet optimism.
In 1929, two Soviet Jewish writers, Viktor Fink and Semyon Gekht, accompanied a group from the United States, headed by the Brigham Young University president Franklin S. Harris, in a weekslong expedition to the future Jewish utopia. The expedition was sponsored by the Organization for Jewish Colonization in Russia (IKOR), formed by American Communists to raise funds to help Soviet Jews take up agriculture. Although it was filled with optimistic statistics about local conditions and Jewish demographic projections for the region, Senderovich notes, IKOR’s 1930 report was notably lacking in descriptions of actual accomplishments.
Read carefully, Fink’s Jews in the Taiga (1930) and Gekht’s A Ship Sails to Jaffa and Back (1936) describe absence—what had only been promised but not achieved—and, as Senderovich puts the point, “contributed to shaping the figure of the Soviet Jew through narratives of non-arrival.” Both writers tacitly exposed “tensions between Birobidzhan as an observable place and Birobidzhan as a regnant but potentially unachievable metaphor for the end of Jewish wanderings.”
Over a hundred pages into Jews in the Taiga, Fink addresses those who wonder why the author has still not discussed the book’s ostensible topic. “The reader expected a book about Jews,” he concedes, but instead has so far perused “all these many pages already and he is still reading about some Cossacks, hunters, local primitives, about poachers who shoot deer, and almost nothing about the Jews in the taiga. Why?” Fink lamely answers that he is providing “context,” but it does not take much acumen to guess that “the near absence of Jews in Fink’s text” reflects “their overall near-invisibility in Birobidzhan.”
Those local Cossacks, it turns out, had been relocated there after the tsars acquired the region in 1858, and had suffered horrible deprivation. Many remembered cannibalism. We are told by Fink and Gekht how glad they are to welcome the Jews, but one can’t help wondering whether sinners in hell welcome new arrivals with the same sadistic glee.
Instead of describing Birobidzhan’s successes, Fink and Gekht focus on failures earlier and elsewhere. As Fink “substitutes the figure of the Amur Cossack for that of the Jewish colonist,” Gekht’s novel “replaces Birobidzhan with Palestine and Zionist settlements.” Alexander Gordon, the Zionist hero of A Ship Sails to Jaffa and Back, has emigrated from Odessa to Palestine, which turns out to be a corrupt outpost of British imperialism. Returning to (now Soviet) Odessa, he decides to go to the new, true Zion on the Amur. Only in the novel’s final paragraph do we get a glimpse of Birobidzhan after Gordon’s return in the 1930s of the novel’s present:
And Birobidzhan has gone a long way from what it was when I saw it in 1929. In this taiga settlement the lights are shining, the factories are productive, highways have been built through the taiga. . . . Finally, there is the Jewish Theatre. . . . Alexander Gordon works there as a set designer. But of Alexander Gordon’s second life I will tell you in my next book.
And that’s it. Specifics are always elsewhere or to come, invisible except on a map of the future.
How were Jews of the Pale of Settlement to be remade into proper Soviet citizens? Senderovich begins his book not in Birobidzhan, but in the fictional town of Golikhove, located on the Soviet-Polish border. Golikhove is a creation of Dovid Bergelson, who differs from Fink and Gekht in two regards: first, he wrote in Yiddish while they wrote in Russian; and second, while hardly a household name, Bergelson is considered one of the great Yiddish authors of the 20th century, while Fink and Gekht are minor figures known only to specialists. Set in 1920, Bergelson’s novel Judgment depicts a shtetl where all authority rests in the hands of the dedicated and ruthless Cheka (secret police) agent, Filipov, who has set up his headquarters in nearby Kamino-Balke, a former monastery that, for the author, becomes a source of creepy Gothic paraphernalia. Still haunted by the memories of pogroms, the Jews also find themselves without their usual source of livelihood due to Bolshevik economic dictates. Later called “war Communism”—as if the measures had always been intended as temporary—Lenin’s policy called for an immediate transition to a wholly communist economy, run by central planning and functioning without money. When the Bolsheviks condemned “speculation,” they did not mean overcharging or gambling on the markets, but any exchange not mandated by government decree.
Theoretically, the Bolsheviks opposed anti-Semitism and, although they sometimes engaged in pogroms, officially condemned them. But Bergelson’s novel makes clear, without directly stating, that Bolshevik hostility to traditional Jewish ways of earning a living—manufacturing, small artisanal activity, and shopkeeping—simply gave anti-Semitism a new basis in class warfare. The whole Jewish way of life was to be extirpated.
With their usual activities restricted or proscribed, the Jews of Golikhovke earn their living by smuggling or shielding smugglers. Several plot lines focus on the border and the conflicts among Filipov and almost everyone else. A group of Socialist Revolutionaries—members of a non-Marxist party that had conduced mass terrorism against the tsarist regime but also opposed the Bolshevik coup—plans an uprising. To do so, the SRs rely on an old pogromshchik, which gives their Jewish supporters something to think about. There is also a particularly noxious character, a seductive woman named simply “the blonde,” who wears a crucifix between her breasts, prays, and supports the Whites. At moments, one wonders if Bergelson is trying to justify his sympathies for old-fashioned Jews with an especially nasty form of anti-Christian sentiment. Filipov manages to bring some Jews to his side and, as the book ends, dies almost pointlessly, but gloriously.
The best passages in Judgment concern responsibility for evil. Bergelson’s contemporary, the Russian philosopher Mikhail Bakhtin, pointed out how people displace responsibility for unspeakable cruelty onto some abstraction—the party, History, destiny—and thereby claim an “alibi.” But “there is no alibi” for individual responsibility, Bakhtin memorably insists.
In fact, people claimed such alibis all the time, and the best Soviet writers—including Alexander Solzhenitsyn and Vasily Grossman—explored the dangerous appeal exercised by such moral reasoning. When Klara, a character in Solzhenitsyn’s 1968 novel In the First Circle, questions Ernst about Bolshevik cruelty, he replies “gently but firmly . . . ‘Who is doing these things? Who wants to do them? It is History. History does what it wants.’” Klara finds this argument convincing.
Bergelson’s novel, set a quarter century earlier than In the First Circle, already explores this way of thinking. At one point, a doctor is summoned to treat Filipov’s infected neck:
It seemed to the doctor that Filipov was sick with a strange illness that nobody had ever heard of. This was an illness that could infect only a man like Filipov. When he ordered someone’s death, when he gave the command, “Shoot”—there was no wisdom that could dissuade him, because it wasn’t Filipov who was giving the orders. It was History. . . . “And who has fallen ill, hmmm? . . . The ambassador of History!”
To appreciate how Soviet citizens were taught to think, one must set aside the view that history is the sum total of events, or a record of them. For the Soviets, it is itself a force, an agent with its own will: not history, but History. It is not we who are acting; it is History. Bergelson’s interesting twist on this facet of Bolshevik thinking was to show it was not all that new. When the Jewish tannery owner Aaron Lemberger is condemned to be shot for speculation, he does not only deny his own agency. The man who has condemned him is, in Lemberger’s view, also nothing more than a powerless messenger of God’s judgment:
Here, down on earth, a man wouldn’t even be able to hurt his own finger if it weren’t deemed appropriate in heaven above, as is written: “There are four means of punishment: fire, stoning, decapitation, and strangulation.” In the Talmud, Rabbi Shimon says: “By fire, by stoning, by strangulation, by decapitation” because decapitation is the easiest way to die. And “they”—the Bolsheviks—are no more than messengers.
This idea of judgment, which apparently gives the book its title, prompts us to question the logic of any alibi, whether offered by “History” or, no less conveniently, by Divine Judgment. In the original Yiddish, the book’s title is Midas hadin, literally, “the attribute of judgment,” a rabbinic term for God’s harsh and exacting aspect, traditionally contrasted with the forgiving and compassionate “attribute of mercy.” When stripped of any sense of compassion or human sympathy, both the idea of Divine Justice and that of History render us puppets, remove all individual responsibility, and justify anything.
For those familiar with early Soviet Jewish literature, Senderovich’s most interesting chapter concerns the use that Isaac Babel made of traditional stories about the 18th-century ḥasidic trickster, Hershele Ostropoler. Given their ambivalent identity, aspiring to be Soviet but marked by their inescapable traditional Jewishness, Jews themselves could be viewed as tricksters, as Babel’s stories show and Senderovich’s study illustrates. Babel’s 1918 tale “Shabos-Nakhamu,” which is subtitled “From the Hershele Cycle,” transplants the hero into Bolshevik Russia. Senderovich is especially good on how Babel’s Russian, which allows a Yiddish “original” to shine through, exploits grammatical aspects of Russian that do not exist in Yiddish. In Senderovich’s view, which I find persuasive, this trickster figure recurs in Babel’s oeuvre without being named as such. In Babel’s masterpiece, the cycle of stories known in English as Red Cavalry, the Jewish Bolshevik narrator encounters the pious, old-fashioned Jew Gedali. The cycle’s next, apparently unrelated story, “My First Goose,” in which the narrator wins the approval of his Cossack comrades by demonstrating his capacity for un-Jewish cruelty, is followed by “The Rebbe,” which takes up where “Gedali” ends. Why sandwich “My First Goose” between the other two narratives in this way?
Senderovich suggests that we read “My First Goose” as a story that Babel narrates to the Jews of the other two tales. Understood this way, it becomes not just a violent initiation story, as it has always been seen, but also another trickster tale. I have read these three narratives countless times, but had never noticed the possibility of such an interpretation. Some may call it a case of over-reading, a gratuitous imposition of the critic’s own obsessions onto a helpless text, but in my view, Senderovich’s interpretation cannot be so easily dismissed. As a person and a writer, Babel was indeed a trickster and fond of tricksters. If not wholly convincing, Senderovich’s reading is at least plausible—which is the most one can ask of a new, imaginative interpretation.
How the Soviet Jew Was Made, although written well enough, does not make easy reading for non-specialists. Apart from the Babel stories, everything discussed will be familiar only to a narrow group of Yiddish scholars. To make sense of Senderovich’s analysis of Judgment, I had to read it (in the translation he did with Harriet Murav).
There is a special skill to writing about works like this in a way that makes them interesting to non-specialists. If one is analyzing Hamlet or Crime and Punishment, one can presume that readers are not only familiar with the work but also know why it is worth attentive consideration. One cannot make that assumption with books like Judgment, let alone Jews in the Taiga.
Without boring specialists, the critic of such works must convey a sense of the experience of reading them. Plot summary is only a start. Senderovich has difficulty imagining the audience of literate readers for whom these works are new, and so he winds up presenting his intelligent observations about them in a way obscure to non-specialists. But those willing to put in the effort will get a lot out of How the Soviet Jew Was Made.
As for those who won’t read the book, but still wish to understand better the making of the Soviet Jew, it’s best to return to Bergelson himself. Born in Ukraine in 1884, he was one of many Jewish writers and intellectuals who fled Russia just after the Bolshevik takeover, in the period in which Judgment is set. But he began writing this novel after 1926, when had an abrupt change of heart and began to look favorably upon the Soviet experiment. He returned to the USSR in 1934, five years after the publication of Judgment, and became something of a literary celebrity. In 1952, after a secret trial, he was shot by Filipov’s real-life heirs, along with other prominent Jewish cultural figures. Unlike Filipov, there was nothing glorious about his death.