Somewhat Nebulous Contours: On Sasha Senderovich’s “How the Soviet Jew Was Made”

January 15, 2023   •   By Yelena Furman

How the Soviet Jew Was Made

Sasha Senderovich

IN HIS NEW BOOK How the Soviet Jew Was Made, Sasha Senderovich, a professor of Slavic languages and literatures at the University of Washington, discusses the “process by which the somewhat nebulous contours of the Soviet Jew came into focus.” The seminal period for this process was between the beginning of the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917 and the 1930s (i.e., from the breakup of the Pale of Settlement through the ascendency of Stalinism), and he devotes each of his five chapters to writers or filmmakers whose works reflected and shaped this image. Despite the difference-eliding use of the term “Soviet Jew” throughout the monograph, the analyses Senderovich offers are highly nuanced and attuned to the specificities of each work under discussion.

A further strength of the book is Senderovich’s inclination to spotlight writers who are little known, even to those well versed in Russian/Soviet literature. Unsurprisingly, given the subject matter and the immediate post-shtetl time period, Senderovich includes some novels written in Yiddish rather than Russian, noting that the “figure of the Soviet Jew that emerged as a result of geographic and cultural displacements after the revolution existed at a point of Russian-Yiddish linguistic interaction.” While he does not explicitly pursue such issues of hybridity, the book directly complicates the standard yet inaccurate classification of writers based solely on location and language. How the Soviet Jew Was Made makes an eloquent case for Yiddish-language works being part of Russian/Soviet literature.

The first chapter analyzes David Bergelson’s Yiddish-language novel Judgment (1929), which was translated into English by Senderovich and Harriet Murav. In Judgment, anti-Bolshevik forces in Ukraine during the Russian Civil War plot an attack on the Cheka (Lenin’s secret police), in whose cause they recruit Ushak, a well-known “pogromist” responsible for anti-Jewish violence in this former area of the Pale. By placing Bergelson’s novel alongside a body of works by early Soviet Jewish writers, Senderovich demonstrates how the pogroms “marked the emergent Soviet Jew with barely articulable traces of personal and historical trauma.” Through adroit close readings, he reconstructs the ways in which this trauma marks Jewish characters in texts filled with “omissions, evasions, and repetitions.” Intriguingly, Senderovich suggests that, in their fear of a return of the past, novels like Bergelson’s Judgment have ties to the markedly different genre of gothic novels.

The second chapter focuses on Moyshe Kulbak’s Yiddish-language The Zelmenyaners, published between 1929 and 1935, about the Sovietization of a Jewish family in Minsk, whose courtyard is transformed into a Soviet factory. While its subject matter presupposes that this novel is a hymn to remaking the Pale’s Jews into Soviet citizens, the resistance some characters exhibit to the changes indicates that the “Soviet Jew who emerges in these circumstances is […] marked both by transformation and by the inability to transform.” Despite Kulbak’s attempts to appease critics by aligning later installments of the novel with socialist-realist precepts, his modernist-influenced technique “juxtaposes conflicting elements that do not end up harmoniously resolved.” Thus, The Zelmenyaners leaves unanswered the question of whether heredity trumps the much-vaunted Soviet project of remaking people into new specimens. Rather, Senderovich views Kulbak’s novel as a variant of “salvage ethnography,” which made its way to the Soviet Union from the West, whose non-Indigenous practitioners produced works that tried, problematically, to preserve what to them was the purity of Indigenous cultures that were being destroyed by modernity. In the Soviet Union, such ethnographic projects extended to the former Pale, whose inhabitants were encouraged to, as the title of a Jewish Sector pamphlet proclaimed, Research Your Shtetl! In detailing the experiences of several generations of shtetl Jews, The Zelmenyaners salvages Jewish life in the early Soviet years, both through a character’s literal preservation of family artifacts and, more broadly, through the way it “preserves the very process of a Jewish family’s transition to Soviet modernity and offers a parody of the process.” Despite Kulbak’s intentions, his novel shows Soviet Jews as only partially willing, and indeed only somewhat able, to be remolded according to state demands.

Switching to Russian-language writers, the third chapter analyzes works about Birobidzhan, a place designated by Stalin to resettle Jews — who, unlike other “nationalities” in the Soviet Union, lacked their own territory — in order to make them economically productive members of the new state after the breakup of the Pale. But Stalin’s choice of location in the Far East, with its harsh climate inhospitable to human habitation, made it literally impossible for writers to depict a glorious Soviet Jewish homeland. Thus, in Semyon Gekht’s novel A Ship Sails to Jaffa and Back (1936) and Viktor Fink’s series of sketches Jews in the Taiga (1930), Birobidzhan emerges “as a space where the Soviet Jew perpetually fails to arrive” because it is a homeland that has failed to materialize. Instead, discussions of Jewish Birobidzhan occur through “rhetorical replacements.” Gekht’s novel focuses on the protagonist’s time in the actual Jewish homeland, substituting that narrative line for one about Birobidzhan. While Fink does depict Birobidzhan, he largely replaces a discussion of Jews with a depiction of the Cossacks who were forcibly moved there during the Russian Empire (as Senderovich notes about the image of the two groups dancing together in the book, the “very placement of ‘Cossacks’ and ‘Jews’ in a single sentence was sensational given the frightening image of Cossacks in Jewish culture”). This plot strand about the forced relocation of the Cossacks inadvertently creates “a counternarrative that becomes a thinly veiled warning” to Jews about the disastrous consequences of being resettled in Birobidzhan. The Birobidzhan texts chronicle a failure to transform from shtetl Jews to Soviet Jews because the Soviet Zion is elusive in both life and literature.

The fourth chapter makes another switch, from literature to film, exploring how the Soviet film industry arose simultaneously with the return of a large number of Jews who had left the Pale for the West. The Return of Neitan Bekker (1932) is representative of this genre of films about Jewish repatriates who become converted to the Soviet cause, viewing the country as a beacon of hope for Jews and other minorities oppressed in the capitalist West. Yet, as Senderovich shows through a focus on the Jewish body, which is found wanting compared to the Soviet one, the film undercuts “the possibility that the Soviet Jew and the New Soviet Man could ever be one and the same.” Jewish integration into Soviet society could never be complete, and despite Jews’ voluntary return to the land of their birth, “the figure of the Soviet Jew retained tinges of the Wandering Jew whose eternal peregrinations could never be over.”

The last chapter discusses Isaac Babel, arguably the most famous Russian-language Jewish writer, while highlighting his less famous short story, “Shabos-nakhamu” (1918), about “Hershele Ostropoler, a trickster from Yiddish folklore.” Through a deft analysis that takes stock of Babel’s oeuvre more broadly, Senderovich asserts that “Babel transposes the figure of Hershele […] into the realm of Russian literature as a model for the figure of the Soviet Jew,” who “becomes […] a trickster learning to navigate the Soviet project writ large.” Moving between the Jewish and Soviet worlds, the trickster is able to bring the former to bear on the latter. Senderovich maintains that this is what Babel himself does in his work, such as by referencing “traditional Jewish tropes of destruction” to depict Civil War–era Petrograd. The trickster constantly negotiating between two worlds can therefore be read as a metaphor for Babel’s role as a Jewish writer producing Russian literature and a hesitant fellow traveler of the revolution.

In his epilogue, Senderovich acknowledges that Jewish identity in the Soviet Union was reshaped by the Holocaust and ensuing state antisemitism along more tragic lines, with which it is associated to this day. Yet, he asserts that Soviet Jewish identity should be seen in its entirety, given the “far more polyvalent circumstances” in which it developed during the early Soviet years. He also suggests that the post-Soviet period opens up space for a new Jewish identity, briefly analyzing a contemporary short story by Margarita Khemlin, whose female protagonist living in the now-former Soviet Union refuses to pass on the Soviet Jewish narrative of trauma to her children. Senderovich offers this analysis as a contemporary corrective to the all-male discussion in the book, noting that, in the literature of the 1920s and ’30s, women “are present […] but they do not get to tell their own stories.”

Yet here lies the one concerning issue with this otherwise rich volume, whose title would be less misleading if it contained the qualifier “male” before “Soviet Jew.” In his introduction, Senderovich asserts that the “figure of the Soviet Jew […] in this book was consistently depicted as male,” while promising to discuss gender as and when the texts allow. The fact that the promised discussion doesn’t materialize in any substantive way could be explained, if grudgingly, by the male characters’ dominating roles. What cannot be explained is why Senderovich does not interrogate the reasons for women’s erasure beyond stating it as a fact or why he does not discuss whether texts by or about Soviet Jewish women from the time period even exist. Given that the early Soviet state was highly invested in the woman question, often in very regressive ways, it is puzzling that the book does not explore how gender manifested in terms of fashioning Soviet Jews.

How the Soviet Jew Was Made is a deeply researched work, with insightful, often brilliant analyses, but it shuts women out of the discussion; those turning to the book to learn more about their own Soviet Jewish identity can do so only if they are of the chosen gender. One hopes another writer will take up what this book leaves out.

¤


Yelena Furman teaches Russian language and literature at UCLA. Her research interests include contemporary Russian women’s literature, Russian American literature, and Anton Chekhov.