Five novels of a lost era
Having written recently about The Slaughterman’s Daughter, a unique novel set in the shtetls of Imperial Russia, I set out to find more stories of Russian Jewish life before the Bolshevik Revolution. Happily, an article in Russia Beyond came to my aid, listing five important novels about that lost era. An abridged version follows.
Russian literature has benefited from the creative minds of the country’s many different national groups. It was enriched by Jewish authors, some writing in Russian, others in Yiddish.
“Many believe that the language determines the national literature, and in most cases that’s true,” says Moscow-born Jewish author Semyon Reznik, now a US citizen who still writes in Russian. “Pasternak was a Jew, but he considered himself a Russian writer. The same for Mandelstam and many others.”
At the end of the 18th century, the Russian Empire acquired most of the world’s Jewish population with the annexation of Polish lands. While the Jews simultaneously prospered and faced persecution in 19th century Russia, few were active as Russian language writers. Prominent Tsarist-era Jewish authors, such as Sholem Aleichem, usually wrote in their native Yiddish. Later, in the Soviet period, Jewish writers almost exclusively wrote in Russian.
Russian-Jewish literature’s founder is Lev Nevakhovich (1778-1831), who in 1803 wrote a book, in Russian, titled The Cry of the Daughter of the Jews, which was intended as a defence of the Jews. Nevakhovich is considered one of the first Jewish writers to master the Russian language. A Jewish patriot, he wanted to show the Tsar that the Jews were upstanding and reliable citizens. The Cry of the Daughter of the Jews («Вопль дщери иудейской») was a sort of appeal to the Russian people, calling them to show tolerance and brotherly love toward Jews.
Nevakhovich wrote: “For centuries, the Jews have been accused by the peoples of the earth… accused of witchcraft, of irreligion, of superstition... All their actions were interpreted to their disadvantage and whenever they were discovered to be innocent, their accusers raised against them new accusations... I swear that the Jew who preserves his religion undefiled can be neither a bad man nor a bad citizen.”
The next books on the list is The Fixer by Bernard Malamud (1914-1986), published in English in the US in 1966. A fictional account of a Jewish man in Imperial Russia, it depicts how Jews lived in a highly anti-Semitic society. The book’s inspiration is the true-life story of Menahem Mendel Beilis, unjustly accused and jailed in what became known as the infamous Beilis trial of 1913.
Beilis, from Kiev, was accused in 1911 of murdering a Christian boy to use his blood in making Passover matzah. He was jailed for over two years awaiting trial, but resisted pressure to admit that he and other Jews were guilty. In 1913, an all-Christian jury acquitted Beilis.
Later, Beilis’ son David complained that Malamud plagiarised from his father’s memoir, a bold accusation considering that The Fixer had won a Pulitzer Prize for best novel, and that he had besmirched his father’s memory. Malamud’s main character, Yakov Bok, is “an angry, foul-mouthed, cuckolded, friendless, childless blasphemer”. The son countered that his father was “a dignified, respectful, well-liked, fairly religious family man with a faithful wife”. (Blood Libel: The Life and Memory of Mendel Beilis; editors Jay Beilis, Jeremy Garber and Mark Stein, 2011). While Malamud denied the accusations, historian Albert Lindemann lamented: “By the late twentieth century, memory of the Beilis case came to be inextricably fused (and confused) with... The Fixer.”
The only book on this list familiar to me is Tevye and His Daughters by Sholem Aleichem (1859-1916). The most popular of all Yiddish writers, Aleichem was born in a Jewish village near Pereyaslav, Ukraine. He wrote with humour and warmth about the Yiddish-speaking Jews of the Russian Empire and is sometimes considered a ‘Jewish Mark Twain’. Tevye and His Daughters is set in Imperial Russia in the late 19th century, but it’s better known today as the American musical Fiddler on the Roof, and the cinema version gave the world such famous songs as ‘If I were a Rich Man’ and ‘Sunrise, Sunset’.
Tevye the dairyman is one of the most vivid characters in the Jewish literary tradition. In the novel, he’s baffled that God gave him seven daughters, but no sons. Tevye loves them all dearly, and the daughters love him back, but as they grow up in a rapidly changing world, the family is confronted by various generational dilemmas that are familiar even today. Anti-Semitism and pogroms eventually lead to a final dissolution of their world. Tevye, along with some of his family and neighbours, emigrates to the US, as did Aleichem himself, who is buried in New York.
The next book on the list is The Road Slips Away into the Distance by Aleksandra Brushtein (1884-1968), written in the Soviet Union in 1956, in Russian and later translated into Hebrew. This autobiographical trilogy set in Vilnius during the Russian Empire is barely known outside the Russian-speaking world. It is considered an adventurous coming-of-age story, as well as a historical and social tale.
“With biting humour, abundant self-irony and a deep appreciation of her past, Brushtein tells the story of her childhood and adolescence in Vilna at the turn of the 20th century,” wrote one reviewer in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz in October 2019.
The story’s main hero, Sasha Yanovskaya, confronts the quota system limiting Jewish enrolment to educational institutions, but nevertheless, finds a way to get admitted to a prestigious school for girls. She encounters dozens of fascinating characters, including the family’s servant, Yozefa, a pious Polish woman, as well as Hannah, an elderly Jewish pretzel vendor. As a teenager in the second book, Sasha witnesses the anti-Semitic trial of Jewish peasants falsely accused of making human sacrifices.
“It is hard to overstate just how much Aleksandra Brushtein’s autobiographical novel about Aleksandra (Sasha) Yanovskaya, a young Jewish girl growing up in Vilna at the turn of the century, was beloved by generations of Soviet children,” according to critic Yelena Furman. “In the Soviet Union, where it ran through many editions of tens of thousands of copies each, the trilogy achieved cult status.”
Chaim-and-Maria by Semyon Reznik (born 1938) is the final book on the list. Written in Russian in the 1970s and published in English this year, it is based on an anti-Jewish pogrom in the Russia Empire in the 1820s. The novel is full of wit and sarcasm, and even its title is a play of the name of the flower Ivan-da-Maria (Иван-да-Марья), which symbolises Love.
During the Soviet era, Reznik was better known as the author of several books on scientists, including the “ideologically harmful” biography of Soviet biologists, such as Nikolay Vavilov, who was murdered under the rule of Joseph Stalin. He emigrated to the US in 1982.
Like The Fixer, the novel has a blood libel trial as its subject. The Velizh case was one of the largest of nearly 200 blood libel cases against Jews in 19th century Europe. In April 1823, three-year-old Fedor, a Russian boy, was found murdered in a field outside Velizh, a small city in Vitebsk Province. More than 40 Jews were wrongly accused of the murder and arrested. Many died in prison; others survived, but their lives were destroyed.
“The prejudices and persecution of the Jews in Russia was not so much a Jewish problem, but rather a Russian problem. It damaged the Russian spirit, culture and statehood,” said Reznik. “It’s too trivial to demonstrate that the Jews are suffering when they are persecuted. But what about the persecutors? That is why I tried to represent all layers of Russian society, from top to bottom.”
The full article can be found here https://www.rbth.com/arts/332714-jewish-authors-imperial-russia
A tale from the Pale
One of the most original and unusual books I’ve read in a long time is The Slaughterman’s Daughter by Yaniv Iczkovits, a recent release, translated from the Hebrew, from the always impressive MacLehose Press – a UK publisher that specialises in works in translation. Set in the Pale of Settlement of Imperial Russia at the end of the 1800s, it tells the story of Fanny Keismann, the eponymous daughter of a kosher butcher, who goes in search of her brother-in-law, Zvi-Meir, after he abandons her sister and their two children.
Fanny’s journey to Minsk – now the capital of Belarus and recently in the news for mass protests against its tinpot dictator Alexander Lukashenko who refuses to give up power – is fraught with danger. Fanny’s talent with a butcher’s knife stands her in good stead to quell her foes, but it also sets in train a fantastical series of events that spiral out of control and, unsurprisingly, get her into trouble with the law.
Like the stories of Sholem Aleichem, this book and its cast of motley characters evokes a nostalgia for the shtetls of Belarus, Ukraine and elsewhere in the region before the Russian Revolution, and a way of life that was already beginning to unravel when this novel was set. Hundreds of thousands of Jews had begun to emigrate to the west (mostly the United States) in search of an escape from discrimination, anti-Semitic violence and economic hardship from the 1880s onwards. Later, of course, during the Nazi occupation of 1941-44, the shtetls were destroyed altogether, their inhabitants murdered or, in the case of a lucky few, forced to flee eastwards in a bid for survival.
It is impossible not to feel a deep regret for the disappearance of these vibrant communities where our ancestors lived for generations, settlements that were extinguished so brutally. I for one am fascinated by stories and images of the lost Jewish world of Eastern Europe. But the shtetls were home to a way of life that was tough and unenviable, as this novel demonstrates. They were generally poor, miserable places, where, “The Jews have huddled so close to each other that they have not left themselves any space to breathe”. And where Jew and Goy often distrust one another absolutely.
For most of us with origins in the kinds of places that Iczkovits writes about, when we think of this period of history what we remember are the pogroms – the brutal anti-Semitic violence that broke out periodically in Russia in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. This book, filled with black humour and deep affection, but also gritty realism, provides a wonderful illustration that there was much more to this time and place.
The author describes a way of life where, outdoors, “The market is a-bustle with the clamour of man and beast, wooden houses quaking on either side of the parched street. The cattle are on edge and the geese stretch their necks, ready to snap at anyone who might come near them. An east wind regurgitates a stench of foul breath. The townsfolk add weight to their words with gestures and gesticulations. Deals are struck: one earns, another pays, while envy and resentment thrive on the seething tension. Such is the way of the world.” Meanwhile, indoors, mothers share a bed with their multiple children and face continual curses and criticism from their in-laws in the next room, who treat them like servants.
Yaniv Iczkovits is an Israeli born of Holocaust survivors. “What I wanted to do was to bring these forgotten memories of this lost world into 21st century Israel, and to present the richness of a culture that is now gone, but is still a major part of who we were and what we are,” he says.
Keeping stories alive
This blog aims to discuss historical events relating to the Jewish communities of Ukraine, and of Eastern Europe more widely. As a storyteller, I hope to keep alive stories of the past and remember those who told or experienced them. Like so many others, I am deeply troubled by the war in Ukraine and for the foreseeable future, most articles published here will focus on the war, with an emphasis on parallels with other tumultuous periods in Ukraine's tragic history.