Interview'How did the Soviet Jew become this unique figure?'

‘How the Soviet Jew Was Made’: A tale of wandering, oppression, language and lore

In his award-winning book, Prof. Sasha Senderovich mixes a rich, centuries-old body of Yiddish folklore with early 20th-century events to define a notoriously nebulous Jewish group

'How the Soviet Jew Was Made' by Sasha Senderovich. (Courtesy)
Detail from the cover of 'How the Soviet Jew Was Made' by Sasha Senderovich. (Courtesy)

Between the end of the 18th century and the demise of the Russian monarchy in February 1917, Jews in the Russian Empire were by law limited to residing in the western borderlands, known as the Pale of Settlement. Jews were also barred from most larger cities inside the Pale with some exceptions: Odesa — the Black Sea port at the Pale’s southern end in today’s Ukraine — and Vilna, now known as Vilnius, not far from the coast of the Baltic Sea in modern-day Lithuania.

The Pale of Settlement reached “from the Black Sea to parts of the Baltic states, running largely through what is now Ukraine and Belarus,” said Sasha Senderovich, author of “How the Soviet Jew Was Made” in a recent conversation with The Times of Israel.

In the book’s opening pages, Senderovich, an assistant professor in the Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures and the Jackson School of International Studies at the University of Washington, writes that when the Pale was abolished in 1917 after the February Revolution, Jews were suddenly granted an unprecedented ability to wander.

“The figure of the Soviet Jew was a product of this broader mobility of the postrevolutionary era,” Senderovich writes.

His newest book, a finalist for the National Jewish Book Awards on January 19, describes how the typical Soviet Jew gleaned many of their cultural attributes from a rich body of Jewish folklore that had existed for centuries in the area of the former Pale. This folklore was mostly shaped by Yiddish, and the Jewish language continued to exert its linguistic pull even as Russian became the dominant tongue of the USSR’s Jews.

The process by which the somewhat nebulous contours of the Soviet Jew came into focus is a central theme of Senderovich’s book. Elsewhere, the narrative traces multiple literary and cinematic protagonists whose journeys shed light on the experience of Ashkenazi Jews in the former Pale of Settlement during the first two decades of the Soviet era.

Western borderlands of USSR, 1922-1939. Shaded area indicates pre-1917 Imperial Russia’s Pale of Settlement. Ukrainian and Belarusian place names are indicated by their Soviet-era Russified spellings. (Courtesy: Sasha Senderovich)

The book also touches on the various Jewish migrations within the Soviet Union, as Jews became Soviet citizens in a rapidly modernizing and industrializing society. Some Jews moved about within expanding Soviet metropolises, which swallowed up Jewish enclaves as public transit networks and electric grids proliferated. Others, meanwhile, went much farther away to Birobidzhan, a distant corner of Siberia set aside by Joseph Stalin’s government for Jewish settlement in a failed attempt to transform the Jews there from shtetl middlemen and small-scale traders to agriculturalists.

The timeline of Senderovich’s latest book covers a period of two decades, beginning in 1917 and concluding at the end of the 1930s, when Jews still residing in the geographic area of the former Pale faced another upheaval as the Soviet Army occupied parts of Poland and the Baltic countries of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia, incorporating them into the USSR.

Senderovich notes that some Jews sought and found positions of influence within the Soviet government, military, civil service and cultural scene. But most did not.

The author argues that the figure of the Soviet Jew is not defined by biography and ethnic origin, but rather is a cultural type “whose distinctive markings are more elusive and harder to track.”

Sasha Senderovich, author of ‘How the Soviet Jew Was Made.’ (Courtesy)

“These features are visible through issues of translation, displacement, memory, and language within novels, literary sketches, and films,” Senderovich writes.

The Times of Israel caught up with Senderovich via Zoom from his home in Seattle. The conversation has been edited for clarity.

The Times of Israel: Can you succinctly define the term “Soviet Jew”?

Sasha Senderovich: We are essentially talking about [Jews] who lived in the territories that had been in the former Pale of Settlement, which then later became incorporated into the new Bolshevik state and the Soviet Union. I refer to these people as Soviet Jews.

Russian Jew is not an appropriate term because that confers an identity on people who, for the most part, never identified themselves as Russian — namely, Jews who were living in areas that are today Ukraine and Belarus.

Russian Jewish is not an appropriate term for this period for another reason: Yiddish was just as much of an important cultural-political presence [for Jews] in these lands as Russian was.

My story focuses on how Jews living in this area became Soviet, and how the Soviet Jew is this unique figure.

Dovid Bergelson with his son Lev in Berlin, 1922. (Courtesy: Lubov Bergelson)

The Yiddish writer David Bergelson is an important figure in this book. Can you talk about his biography and work?

Sure. Bergelson was born in 1884 in the shtetl of Okhrimovo in Ukraine. He spent time in a number of cities, including Warsaw, where he launched his career in Yiddish literature in 1909. He also lived in Kyiv, where he founded the avant-garde Yiddish literary and artistic organization Kulturlige (the Culture League) just after the [Bolshevik Revolution]. Bergelson lived in Moscow briefly, too.

He moved to Berlin in 1921, where he wrote several short stories, most of which focused on Jewish refugees in the city. Bergelson stayed living in Berlin for 12 years and was part of a flourishing Yiddish literary culture that was happening in Berlin during the 1920s, which was then a major hub of Jewish immigrants/refugees from the former Russian empire.

You spend one chapter discussing the work of Belarusian-Jewish writer Moyshe Kulbak, specifically his Yiddish-language novel “The Zelmenyaners.” What drew you to this novel?

“The Zelmenyaners” is a fantastic text. It’s set in Minsk in the late 1920s/early 1930s, at this very pivotal moment in Soviet history, when Joseph Stalin had solidified power and launched a cultural and industrial revolution in the Soviet Union where collectivization played a central role. The novel reflects all that history.

What is the novel about?

It begins in a courtyard located in Minsk. In this common shared space, multiple families live, neighbors meet and talk to each other, and laundry hangs on the clothesline. Kulbak then creates a parody of the family novel where multiple generations coexist on top of one another at the same time. They have different ideological aspirations, though.

The older generation are ambivalent about the Soviet project, while the younger generation are more enthusiastic. As the novel develops, the courtyard becomes incorporated into this growing Soviet city with the help of various Soviet modernization projects like electricity, radio and movies. Eventually, the family becomes embedded in the Soviet city. That space of the courtyard becomes a kind of laboratory for the Soviet Jew. The novel itself, meanwhile, becomes this textual space that is the equivalent to the physical space that it describes.

In the final chapter of your book, you examine the work of Odesa writer Isaac Babel. He has been acclaimed as “the greatest prose writer of Russian Jewry.” You explore how Babel drew heavily from Yiddish folklore to create stories that exemplified what you call “the Soviet Jewish experience.”

Right. Babel for me is a very healthy example of a writer who was thinking in both Yiddish and Russian. If you read Babel closely, you begin to see that in [both his fiction and journalism], he is [subtly translating] Yiddish expressions into Russian.

Title page of ‘The Joyous Hershele Ostropoler’ (Dos freylikhe Hershele Ostropolier), published by Odesa’s Bletnitsky brothers and printed in Warsaw (1895). The imprint of the Bletnitsky brothers, with reference to their location in Odessa, in Russian, Hebrew, and German is on the page facing the title page. (Courtesy)

You also claim Babel had an obsession with the figure of Yiddish jester and trickster Hershele Ostropoler. Can you speak about how Babel incorporated this into his work?

On March 16, 1918, five months after the Bolshevik Revolution, Babel’s short story “Shabos-nakhamu” was published in Petrograd’s daily, The Evening Star. The work was an adaptation of a tale about Hershele Ostropoler. The story’s subtitle, “From the Hershele Cycle,” presented the story as an installment in a series. A vestige of folkloric culture from the former Pale of Settlement, Babel’s Hershele brought a set of Jewish references that helped the writer make sense of the new reality, which was beginning to shape the figure of the Soviet Jew after the [Russian] Revolution of 1917.

Many other scholars try to essentialize Babel’s Jewishness as uniquely manifesting his concerns about Jews in particular. Conversely, I explore how the figure of the Yiddish trickster, Hershele Ostropoler, helped Babel think about what the Soviet experience meant. Crucially, though, those key moments of Soviet history Babel wrote about didn’t only concern Jews.

Isaac Babel in 1915. (Courtesy of the Odesa Literary Museum)

Could you cite an example?

In 1918 and 1920, Babel produced both journalistic accounts and literary fiction about Petrograd and the Bolsheviks’ war with Poland. In his writing, Babel also empathized with Ukrainian peasants who were herded into collective farms during the 1930s. Babel stood as a witness to the genocidal violence that historians now understand as the Holodomor — but he did not manage to produce any nonfictional texts about what he had seen in Ukraine in 1930. Nevertheless, the short story “Karl-Yankel,” published in 1931, [can be seen as a critique of how the Soviet state] sought to strip away specific ethnocultural markers that threatened its rhetoric about workers and peasants of all ethnicities equally striving toward a shared state. “Karl-Yankel” sketches the figure of the Soviet Jew as a trickster, who picks apart some of these aspirations and illuminates their broader inconsistencies.

During the interwar period, the Yiddish language, along with Russian, was central to the cultural output by Jewish writers and intellectuals in the Soviet Union. Most Yiddish speakers across Europe were killed in the Holocaust. Did Yiddish as a language and culture dimmish after this?

After the Holocaust Yiddish continued, including in the Soviet Union. The number of Yiddish speakers obviously diminished after World War II, but Yiddish did not die. The language and culture continues today.

Bergelson’s ‘Judgment,’ or ‘Mides-Hadin’ in Yiddish, was published in Kyiv, USSR, in 1929. The spelling of the novel’s title follows the orthographic conventions of Soviet Yiddish, which require phonetic renderings of Hebrew-origin words. (Courtesy of the Yiddish Book Center)

Why was there not more of a concerted effort in Israel to revive the Yiddish language and Yiddish culture more broadly?

In Zionist Palestine, Yiddish was associated with the Diaspora and stigmatized. Then after WWII, Yiddish was associated with the victimhood of the Holocaust. These [ideas] were anathema to the Zionist ethos. Once the State of Israel was established, there was a general trend that moved towards making a clean break from the diasporic [narrative] of weakness and victimhood. Yiddish was one of many diasporic languages that were pushed out in Israel.

Has that changed in recent years?

Yes. In the last couple of decades, there has been a resurgence of interest in Yiddish. There is also a similar movement happening in Arabic, from Jews who have come to Israel from various countries in the Middle East, like Iraq and Yemen, for example. Yiddish is still spoken by hundreds of thousands of ultra-Orthodox Jews, who live in all manner of places. But most of these ultra-Orthodox Jews don’t participate in secular culture.

Among scholars, however, there is a huge interest in Yiddish, especially in Poland and Ukraine. In historical/literary research circles, there is now a realization that Yiddish is an important language and an important part of Jewish history. But it’s also an interesting story in the history of borderlands. So Polish scholars, for example, who are interested in Yiddish are also interested in Polish culture.

As a scholar and a translator, you are committed to making Yiddish literature available to English language readers. Can you speak about some of this translation work you are involved in?

I’m currently working with Harriet Murav, with whom I previously translated David Bergelson’s novel “Judgment.” Our forthcoming book will be called “In the Shadow of the Holocaust: Short Fiction by Jewish Writers from the Soviet Union.” These were stories published after WWII in the Soviet Union. Some were published in Yiddish, some in Russian.

‘How the Soviet Jew Was Made’ by Sasha Senderovich. (Courtesy)

Three major Jewish literary figures you write about in “How the Soviet Jew Was Made” were murdered by the Soviet state. Can you speak about the details of their respective deaths?

Isaac Babel was arrested in 1939 and executed in 1940. There is some speculation that he was killed because he had been romantically involved with Yevgenia Yezhova, the wife of Nikolai Yezhov, who was the head of the Soviet secret police, the NKVD.

David Bergelson was executed in August 1952. He was killed along with several other Jewish cultural figures who were part of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee.

Moyshe Kulbak was killed in October 1937, on the same day as a number of cultural figures in Belarus. Kulbak was a Yiddish writer. But he was also very much part of the landscape of Belarusian and Soviet/Russian literature during the 1930s. He was living in Minsk at the time. But he had spent a significant amount of time in Wilno, [which was then part of] Poland. Any individuals who had a cultural affiliation with Poland at this time were treated with political suspicion by the authorities in the Soviet Union.

The historical trauma of the Holocaust looms large over much of the history you write about in this book. Does that inevitably make us view the history of Soviet Jews differently, especially given what we know with the benefit of historical hindsight?

I think so. What I try to do in the book is to look at the period [from] 1917 to 1939 and work with the contextual reality in which many of the texts I’m looking at were written. I do not look at them retrospectively or retroactively, mainly because we now know that most of the stories that I’m looking at in the book end in death — namely, the Holocaust and political executions. But if we start this story about Soviet Jews with these details, it blindsides us and it doesn’t allow us to fully engage with the story that was developing and coming into being.

Put simply: I don’t want to look at this story as a predetermined history.

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