FEBRUARY 8, 2019
IN THE SECOND EPISODE of Shtisel, a Netflix drama that explores the lives of members of an ultra-Orthodox Jewish community in Israel, one character says of the concept of waiting that it means “to expect something that will never happen.” Nowhere has this idea been more dramatically crystallized than in the plight of the Jewish refuseniks of the Soviet Union, a plight revealed in excruciating detail in David Shrayer-Petrov’s novel Doctor Levitin, written secretly in Soviet Russia and now translated into English by Arna B. Bronstein, Aleksandra I. Fleszar, and Maxim D. Shrayer. Following the death of Joseph Stalin in 1953, Soviet Jews began to seek permission to emigrate to Israel. For while certainly the situation for these Jews was not quite as dire in the absence of Stalin, who had launched an antisemitic campaign after the end of World War II, Jewish religious and cultural life in the Soviet Union continued to be suppressed in both direct and indirect ways, and dreams of emigrating to Israel gave Jews hope.
But in many, if not most, cases, this hope was futile until around 1990, when the Free Soviet Jewry movement, which had worked for decades to place Western pressure on Soviet leaders in an effort to release Soviet Jews from oppression, finally resulted in an easing of the restrictions on emigration that had held so many hostage. Although some Soviet Jews were able to emigrate beginning in the late 1950s and 1960s, thousands of applications for exit visas were denied. On occasion, Jews were given reasons for the denial. Perhaps it was a lack of family members who could receive them in Israel. Or maybe it was because they had at some point allegedly had access to confidential secrets of the state; this was usually untrue. But in many other instances there was no reason given — applications were simply denied with no explanation. Many refusenik families spent years resubmitting their applications only to be denied repeatedly. And in the meantime, they were usually shunned by their Soviet counterparts who no longer saw their Jewish neighbors as friends and colleagues, but as betrayers of their loyalty, ingrates who cared nothing for the homeland that had cared for them, albeit grudgingly and with little support or admiration. Indeed, Jews were used to living as second-class citizens in the Soviet Union, but once they declared intentions to emigrate to Israel, they became little more than pariahs, forced to wait in a holding tank that grew smaller and colder each day.
Waiting, in this context, takes on a whole new dimension of meaning. In Shrayer-Petrov’s Doctor Levitin, the reader experiences along with the Levitin family the tragic toll that such waiting takes on a family. It is, oddly enough, a novel about emigration, despite the fact that the family at its center — professor and doctor Herbert Anatolyevich Levitin, his non-Jewish Russian wife Tatyana Vasilyevna, their son Anatoly, and Grandfather Vasily Matveyevich (Tatyana’s father) — never actually emigrates successfully from Russia. In fact, their dreams of emigrating become, literally and figuratively, the death of them all. But it is 1979, and in this moment such was the fate of countless Soviet Jews.
The Levitin family, like so many others of their kind, is not identifiably Jewish in the ways one might expect. Certainly they are nothing like the Jews who once inhabited pre-Holocaust shtetls, conspicuously different in their religious garb — their long black coats and shtreimels (fur hats), their kippot (skull caps) and tzitzit (knotted fringes), their women’s heads covered with wigs and every inch of skin obscured by colorless clothing. For the most part, among Soviet Jews, including the fictional Levitin family, kippot, synagogue attendance, and other traditional telltale signs of Jewishness were little more than the residue of dreams deferred. One would think that for this reason alone Soviet Jews would have been able to fly under the radar more successfully. But one would be wrong. To their dismay, the Soviet regime had a remarkable penchant for sniffing out Jewishness even when it was hardly discernible. “We know we are Russians; You consider us Jews,” writes Shrayer-Petrov in the prologue — and later, in the narrative’s first line: “My Slavic soul in a Jewish wrapping.” The latter reflection is also the first line of one of Shrayer-Petrov’s most well-known poems, “Moya slavyanskaya dusha” (“My Slavic Soul”), in which the “Slavic soul” of a Soviet Jew abandons his body, his “Jewish wrapping,” and hides in a hayloft.
The hyphenated identity that both characterizes and haunts the existence of the Levitin family becomes further complicated when, after being refused exit visas, they officially become refuseniks. For the place of the refusenik is to be without a place, to float and drift through a space one used to call home — wants to call home — but now realizes was always something else. “What was left?” writes Shrayer-Petrov, “To transform themselves into a totally new existence, the existence of refuseniks?” And yet at the same time, becoming a refusenik ushered one into another welcoming, if eternally discouraged, fold: “Thank God, even here, the Levitins weren’t alone and starting from scratch […] such forms of existence, antithetical to normal life, had already been discovered by their misfortunate precursors, the older refuseniks.”
The voice of Shrayer-Petrov, whose own experience as a refusenik no doubt informs this fictional narrative, seems to break through the story at many points, often suggesting the author’s own ambivalence with regard to his homeland, Soviet Russia: “Those leaving for good — and those seeing them off — had found themselves alone with Moscow: the mother that was weaning her children.” One of the book’s translators, Maxim D. Shrayer (the author’s son and an established writer and scholar of Russian, English, and Jewish Studies), provides important context for the story in an afterword. In January 1979, Shrayer-Petrov and his family applied for exit visas. Upon doing so, he and his wife Emilia Shrayer lost their academic jobs. Shrayer-Petrov was additionally expelled from the Soviet Writers’ Union and blacklisted.
The family would exist as refuseniks for eight more years, until they finally emigrated in 1987. But in the first years of this tragic new existence, Shrayer-Petrov began to imagine the story of the Levitins. He completed the manuscript of Doctor Levitin in the fall of 1980, and over the next three years he completed the second novel in the trilogy: Cursed Be You, Just Don’t Die. Of course, publishing fiction in the Soviet Union at that time, especially a story of this scandalous nature, would have been impossible. But in 1984 photographs of the manuscript were smuggled to the West and in 1985 the publication of the novel was announced in Israel, resulting in a substantial intensification of the persecution of Shrayer-Petrov by the KGB. Finally, in 1992, with the dissolution of the USSR, the first two novels were published in Russia in a single volume entitled Herbert and Nelly. The first print run of 50,000 copies sold out quickly. The final novel in the trilogy, The Third Life, was published in 2009.
Doctor Levitin is fairly chronological, with memory flashbacks throughout. But the most conspicuous disruptions to the narrative are the numerous authorial reflections placed throughout the text. In some cases they are direct commentary on the text, and in others they are philosophical musings that deepen the overall narrative. Just a few pages into the story, the first interjection, only one line, appears: “Why do I write about somebody else and not about myself?” There is something deeply painful about the idea of wanting to write one’s own story, but choosing instead — or being forced to choose? — to write the story of someone else. And yet it is also true that fiction can be more real than real, and it is not a stretch to suggest that in this novel Shrayer-Petrov has, through the Levitin family, illuminated his own struggles more effectively than he could have done through standard nonfiction. Many of the reflections articulate the difficulty of ripping himself away from Russia, and some reveal to the reader that the darkness of 1979 is not a new one. Rather, it is one that Herbert was born into, that his ancestors were born into. It is predetermined by his ethnicity, was present even when he was a child, and is inescapable — a generational curse that he intuitively understands will be visited on his children and grandchildren.
Doctor Levitin reveals the dark side of dreaming of a better life and of taking steps to make that dream a reality. It is not simply the agony of “tearing away from the placenta,” from the motherland, that is at stake. The cost, as we see in the novel, is unbearably high and the losses are profound. Herbert Anatolyevich, a physician and full professor of medicine, loses his professorship and is ultimately reduced to making house calls for those who will still see him. His non-Jewish wife, Tatyana, born in a rural Russian village, also pays heavily for marrying a Jew and for expressing the forbidden desire to exchange her homeland for a life in Israel with her family. In fact, one might argue that it is she who pays most dearly. Their son Anatoly, the product of a mixed marriage, is seen only as a Jew whose family wants to leave, and is refused entrance into medical school, putting him at risk of being drafted into the military, another fear that haunts the family throughout the story. And Grandfather Vasily meets his own dark fate even though he, of pure Russian descent, is merely guilty by association, and had never cared for his Jewish son-in-law anyway.
One gets the sense that Jewishness is contagious in Soviet Russia. But hasn’t it always been? Herbert’s colleagues distance themselves from him; Tatyana watches as even the mail carrier grows cold in their interactions; Grandfather Vasily is demeaned by authorities for allowing his daughter to marry beneath her heritage. While these experiences are painful to absorb, haven’t we seen them before? The novel’s vague references to the Holocaust are subtle reminders that this is a longstanding darkness. Its tentacles reach backward into history, forward into the future. For the Levitin family, daily life carries this reminder. Shrayer-Petrov suggests in the prologue that over the course of the two years accounted for in this story, even the air “scraped the soul with something akin to the barbed wire of concentration camps: hopelessness.” He describes the family’s year as all “anxiety and pain, as if […] somebody kept dragging them through chinks in camp barbed wire.” As in all authentic narratives of trauma, there is no happy ending. Near the end of the novel, we learn that everything is “divided into leaving and not-leaving; and life itself was divided in half: before emigration and after emigration.” This too is an echo of the way many Holocaust survivors refer to the two different lives that coexist following an extended trauma: before and after.
It’s not the Holocaust, but what the Levitins endure is certainly a trauma of devastating proportions. And at the end of the story, when we leave them, the trauma is ongoing. Those who are left are still waiting. It is a quintessentially Jewish tale that transcends boundaries of time and place. It is like a Kafkaesque twist on the old Jewish parable about the man who asks his rabbi when the messiah will come, to which the rabbi responds: when he is no longer necessary. In the parable, waiting is productive; it inspires people to work toward creating a world worthy of a messiah. But in Doctor Levitin the waiting is toxic and destructive: there is no messiah in sight.
Shrayer-Petrov’s novel may have been written nearly 40 years ago, but it is perhaps more timely now than ever. In an era when Americans are inundated by both real and fake news regarding immigrants crossing our borders, it might be easy to suppose that emigration is simple, that one can in fact leave his or her country of origin any time he or she wants to. One might be tempted to believe that the hardest part is crossing the border of the new country, of getting in. Doctor Levitin reminds us that the act of leaving, of transgressing one’s own national borders, carries with it great, abiding pain, and is undertaken only by the brave.