Soviet Jewish Writing


Donald Weber reviews a new book about postrevolutionary Russian and Yiddish literature and film.

In How the Soviet Jew Was Made, Sasha Senderovich maps a fascinating landscape of Jewish literary expression in Eastern Europe between the Russian Revolution and the emergence of the Soviet Union. The ongoing horrific violence in Ukraine and – for perhaps many Jews today – our limited knowledge of the vital Jewish presence in that region following the Soviet disbanding of the Pale of Settlement after 1917, renders Senderovich’s study indispensable for understanding this rich ZONE of Jewish creativity. How the Soviet Jew Was Made charts how a generation of Jewish writers and filmmakers explored and sought to demystify the meaning of “becoming Soviet” in response to an emergent Soviet empire demanding ideological consensus among its newly emancipated, de-territorialized Jewish citizens.   

Senderovich sees the political and psychological transformation among Jews during this transitional period as fraught.  The traumas of shtetl life, above all the memories of pogroms and daily indignities, remained alive: shtetl baggage carried into the new Soviet era.  The Soviet Jew wandered as a haunted figure, suspended in time, flooded by ambivalence, displaced between old and new worlds.  The “Soviet Jew,” Senderovich observes, “is thus a figure of indeterminacy that emerged from within the Soviet project”. The book demonstrates how this manifests in the literary response to rupture and upheaval during a crucial period of modern Jewish intellectual history.

For both avid students and professional scholars of Jewish literary history, How the Soviet Jew Was Made makes a compelling case for the importance of under-read, under-appreciated early twentieth-century Yiddish novelists like David Bergelson and Moyshe Kulbak.  Senderovich’s deep readings of their respective major novels, Bergelson’s Judgment (1929) and Kulbak’s two-volume Zelmenyaner (1931, 1935), reveal how the authors negotiate the tension between the claims of the shtetl life and the Soviet dream of a proletariat paradise. 

Senderovich argues that Judgment’s Jewish characters, in transition between a shtetl past and a re-modelled Bolshevik self, are transformed into “spectral remnants” haunted by memories of unspeakable pogroms.  Dislodged from an imagined organic Jewish past, they look anxiously ahead to an uncertain future, a new world marked by both long-nourished, indelible anti-Semitism and the ideological expectations of embracing Soviet citizenship.

Kulbak’s sprawling family epic Zelmenyaner comes across as an even richer example of a Yiddish writer’s ability to draw on the residual power of memory to undermine, via the subversive mode of parody, the emergent vision of the new Soviet Jew as modelled by the Soviet state.  In Senderovich’s reading, Kulbak’s patriarch Reb Zelmele and his family’s historically fluid “courtyard” acquires a meta-like aspect.  It becomes a train station yet also recalls a sukkah – “a kind of composite, montage image”. If Bolshevik ideology sought to erase memories of the Jewish past as a necessary act in the modernizing process, Kulbak’s vision of the family’s courtyard as a “liminal space” conjures “the memory of displacement in Jewish culture”.  If “Soviet social science…  saw the demise of the shtetl as a necessary condition for Sovietizing the Jews of the former Pale”, Senderovich explains,

Then Kulbak’s novel highlights the latent power of Jewish memory. In the end judgement, Sendervoich imagines the courtyard as a site of resistance, challenging the Soviet state’s aim to repress memories of a brutalized Jewish past.  Writing in Yiddish thus enabled authors like Bergelson and Kulbak, despite their subsequent embrace of the new Soviet regime, to subvert the Soviet State via the residual power of Jewish memory. Both writers, it turns out, were ultimately deemed enemies of Stalinism and its prescribed Communist vision. Each underwent the ordeal of a show trial and was summarily executed:  Kulbak in 1937, Bergelson, on his 68th birthday, in August 1952.

Subsequent chapters of How the Soviet Jew Was Made continue to chart a fascinating range of figures and genres. They outline an even richer and more varied map of the Jewish imaginative response to a new Soviet identity in the decades leading up to World War II. Among the more striking examples are the relatively unknown authors Viktor Fink and Semyon Gekht, whose novels explore the strange, indeed seemingly comic Soviet enterprise, spawned in the 1930s, of creating an autonomous Jewish homeland in the virtually unpopulated rural East in Birobidzhan, on the Russian-Chinese border. (For a history of the fascinating story of this would-be Russian Zion, constructed as a counter to Palestine, see Masha Gessen’s Where the Jews Aren’t.)

Perhaps the most interesting cultural artefact is the relatively obscure film The Return of Neitan Bekker (1932, in Yiddish). Neitan repatriates to his Belarussian homeland from New York, after years of “laying bricks for Rockefeller”, accompanied by black fellow labourer Jim. Together their presence in the new Russia implicitly exposes the failures of US capitalism and the false promises of American assimilation. The true welcoming, multi-ethnic country, the film heralds, is the Soviet state.

For Senderovich, however, Neitan remains a “vestigial” figure “caught between two eras”; HE IS uncannily linked to the world of the shtetl via the soulful tones of a wordless “niggun”, the haunting religious melody chanted by his father, Tsale.  An old shtetl Jew, Tsale teaches the niggun to Jim, modelling the chant’s requisite hand and body gesticulations.  At the end of the film, Neitan himself channels his father’s deeply affecting Jewish melody. The re-voicing amounts to an act of filial rededication and an aural gesture of resistance through archaic yet recoverable communal Jewish rituals.  Senderovich argues that as a returning émigré Neitan can “never be fully made over” in the new Soviet collectivist image; the Jewish voice, embodying Jewish memory, “calls into question the transformative power of the Soviet project”. (In an unsettling footnote, Senderovich tells us that Solomon Mikhoels, the Yiddish actor who plays Tsale, was murdered in 1948, a victim of antisemitic violence.)

Senderovitch concludes How the Soviet Jew Was Made with the figure of Isaac Babel, whose various trickster stories draw on the traditions of Yiddish folklore.  Babel’s trickster is a “marker of instability, indirection, and manipulation”, a figure of “merriment” whose ludic office helps readers soothe the pain and “horror” of Jewish life in early twentieth-century Bolshevik Russia. Babel is Senderovitch’s literary hero: the writer as a “wandering entertainer”, both insider and outsider, “learning to navigate the Soviet project”.  In this respect, Babel, and the cohort of figures analysed in How the Soviet Was Made, exemplify how the Jewish writer resists the power imposed by the state – any state – through a tradition of Jewish indirection and demystification.  

How the Soviet Jew Was Made by Sasha Senderovich is published by Harvard University Press, priced at £34.95.


Donald Weber writes on Jewish American literature and popular culture.  His current project is a book on OTD cultural expression titled "On and Off the Derech: A Family Story."  He divides his time between Mohegan Lake, NY and Brooklyn.
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