Thursday, December 5, 2013

Three Books and a Fourth

All my readers know that I read a lot. How I choose what I read is less easy to say, however. Sometimes people recommend
books to me. Sometimes I read a book review and become curious about the book under discussion. Other times I am the recipient of books as gifts. And still other times I myself develop an interest in a specific author or kind of literature and read until I feel that I’ve adequately gotten the picture. Reading in such a disorganized way has its own rewards, however, because sometimes the specific pattern of books that I end up reading itself becomes meaningful to me. In other words, it sometimes happens that the arbitrary order of books I find myself working through brings me to understand some specific book differently than I would have had I read it before and after two different books than the ones that actually did precede and follow it on my reading schedule.

This is all a long way to getting around to telling you that I’ve just finished three remarkable books…and that all three feel different to me now that I have embarked on a fourth book, the widely-reviewed and best-selling book by Ari Shavit, My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel, published just last month by Spiegel and Grau, and already on the New York Times’ bestsellers’ list.  I’m only about a third of the way through the book, or maybe not even that far, but I’m already mesmerized and convinced that this is a book we are all going to want to read and discuss in detail. I look forward to writing to you about it in far more detail once I’m done reading.

Shavit has a lot to say. But the specific experience I want to write about today is not specifically about his book, but about the light his book is casting on the three books I mentioned above that I just completed the other day. All three were published by Yale University Press, but, contrary to what one might expect from an academic press, all three are novels. Moyshe Kulbak’s book, The Zelmenyaners: A Family Saga was published just this last October in Hillel Halkin’s very felicitous translation from the original Yiddish. Yehoshue Perle’s novel, Everyday Jews: Scenes from a Vanished Life came out a while ago, in 2007, in an equally skilled translation by Margaret Birstein and Maier DeshellAnd David Bergelson’s The End of Everything, translated by Joseph Sherman, was also published in 2007. All three came out in the press’s New Yiddish Library Series, a joint project of the Fund for the Translation of Jewish Literature and the National Yiddish Book Center.  So far, there are six books in the series and I intend to read the other three as well as soon as some space on my night table presents itself. (For my younger readers, let me explain that before everybody read everything on e-readers, people used to stack up books they were planning to read on the little tables next to their beds.  And, yes, the pile used occasionally to fall over, or at least mine did.)

All three are exceptional books. And all are linked by intrinsic and extrinsic details. All three were originally written in Yiddish. And all three books’ authors were murdered: Perle at Auschwitz, and Kulbak and Bergelson by Stalin after show trials, in 1937 and 1952 respectively, in which they were denounced as enemies of the state and summarily executed. (In a non-Jewish/non-twentieth-century context that would seem more remarkable than I suspect it does to most of my readers.) Also, all three—although for this, regretfully, I cannot vouch personally—all three were apparently written in a kind of particularly rich, evocative, eloquent Yiddish that has almost entirely disappeared from the world. I want to describe these three books to you and, I hope, to whet your appetite to sample them for yourselves. And then I want to say what it’s been like wading into Shavit’s book with these three still so clear in my memory.

I read Perle’s book first. At first reading slightly like a shtetl-based Catcher in the Rye, Everyday Jews is a portrait of life in Poland in the years between the world wars that is—like life itself, I suppose—alternately grim and amusing, occasionally tragic and always deeply involving. The book was widely condemned when it was published as presenting an essentially negative picture of Jewish life, but I didn’t see it that way. Yes, it’s true that the author dared write about things more famous (and more commercially successful) authors tended to ignore. And it is true that there is a certain bleakness hanging over the entire narrative. But it’s also true that the book rings true and ends up presenting a portrait of life that is at least as appealing as it is dingy. Everyday Jews is a boy’s story, the story of a boy’s life as he stands on the threshold of adolescence. His parents’ wholly dysfunctional marriage is described in detail. His eventual seduction by an older woman is also part of the story, as are his friendships with various other boys, Jewish and Gentile, to whom he relates in complicated, always interesting ways. Perhaps the most compelling passage is the one in which Mendel—we only hear his name once or twice in the book—almost dies in a snowstorm that he is attempting to negotiate simply because of the undeniable need to distance himself from his parents’ home.

The whole book is about life in the context of tension: the tension between the sexes, the tension between Jews and Gentiles, between parents and children, between traditional ways and the modern world. In the end, I found the book far more compelling than off-putting, and I recommend it to you. The town in the book is not Anatevka, not the shtetl of Sholom Aleichem’s stories and novels and certainly not the fictitious town’s Broadway version. This, for better or worse, is the real world…the one my own ancestors fled gladly when the opportunity presented itself and the one in which almost everyone they left behind eventually perished. Perle’s own story is grim enough—he survived the mass deportations from the Warsaw ghetto and lived long enough to compose a chronicle, still unpublished in English, of life in hell, only to be shipped off anyway, first to Bergen-Belsen and then eventually to Auschwitz—but even he could not have imagined his own fate when he was busy writing this novel in 1935. And yet…there is something intensely interesting about this portrait of a world unaware of how soon it would vanish, of these people trying to invent themselves in a new world in which—although no one knows it yet—none will die of old age.

The next book I read was David Bergelson’s The End of Everything. If Everyday Jews is the Jewish Catcher in the Rye, then The End of Everything is the Jewish Madame Bovary. This is the story of Mirel Hurvitz, a kind of proto-feminist in a man’s world who cannot quite decide what she wants from life. The book was first published in 1913, a long time ago. (Bergelson was born in 1884, just four years before Perle. The more famous Yiddish authors of their era were considerably older: Sholom Aleichem was born in 1859, Y.L. Peretz was born in 1852, and Mendele Moykher Sforim, born in 1836, was older than either of them.) The Second World War was unimaginable, but this was all even before twentieth-century modernity itself had come fully to Kiev, clearly (although it wouldn’t have been to me personally) the city in which the book is set. (Joseph Sherman’s lengthy introduction to the novel is excellent and fills in all sorts of details contemporary readers either won’t know or may easily miss.)

Mirel is twenty-one when the book opens just after she has broken off her engagement to Velvel Burnes, a pleasant, well-meaning local, for reasons she herself seems unable clearly to articulate. As she moves along in the months and years that follow—the book begins in 1905—we see in her the story of Eastern European Jewry itself attempting to grapple with modernity. She is, to say the least, independent. She has at least one extramarital affair. (She has several non-extra-marital ones with men of various sorts as well, six in total.) In one of the most powerful scenes of the book, she undergoes an abortion. She is at once wholly self-centered and fully focused on the search for…something. When she finally agrees to marry Shmulik Zaydenovski, it’s hard to decide if she is growing up or giving up. (The details of their intimate life, offered delicately but also clearly, only make it more, not less, difficult to answer that question.) Shmulik himself is a very provocatively drawn character. At once her most ardent admirer and her doormat, he seems unaware that he is behaving pathetically…and yet I found myself not only sympathizing with him but also liking him as a character. When he finally agrees to a divorce, it is just one more kindness he is willing to bestow on Mirel in exchange for…nothing at all.

Bergelson’s Kiev too is not Anatevka. These are modern, in some ways post-modern, people we are reading about. They are happy and miserable at the same time. They are grappling with forces they neither understand nor even fully perceive. They are on the cusp of…something. But even they have no clear idea what that something is or how their Jewishness—drawn here in such sharp lines it almost feels like the author was wielding a knife rather than a pen—is going to fit into the future they imagine for themselves. Nor, needless to say, do they have any inkling that it’s all a dream, that they have no future at all, that almost all their descendants who fail to emigrate will be murdered within their children’s lifetimes.

The third book in the series that I read was Moyshe Kulbak’s The Zelmenyaners. The book suffers a bit—but not terminally—from the fact that it appeared in serial form in the Yiddish-language Soviet monthly, Shtern, from 1929 to 1935 so the author has to assume that his readers will have forgotten all sorts of details from installment to installment. Still, the novel is rich and satisfying. Set in a rundown neighborhood in Minsk in the various homes that surround a single courtyard, all of which are inhabited by the descendants of one Zalman Khvost (and primarily his widow Bashe and his sons Itshe, Folye, Yuda and Zishe and their families), the novel—the title is the collective name used in the book to label all of Reb Zalman’s descendants—is about Jewish people trying to negotiate strange new terrain as Stalin’s specific version of communism takes hold in what was then the Byelorussian Soviet Socialist Republic, now Belarus, in the late 1920s and early 1930s. The novel is very funny, far more so—at least overtly—than the other two. There are a lot of jokes and the literary equivalent of sight-gags, and the people in the book are presented both lovingly and sharply critically as only someone writing from the inside could possibly manage to do successfully and convincingly. The annihilation of the Jews of Minsk is one of the most horrific of all Shoah stories—the specifics of the barbarism the Germans brought to bear in their effort to murder every single one of the 850,000 Jews who were eventually crammed into the ghetto are so horrifying as truly to be unimaginable—but, of course, that is unknown to the characters in the book. And so here too is a work of people unaware of the precipice at the edge of which they are all standing…and so instead trying merely to live their lives in something like a normal way.

I liked all three books. All three are intelligent, thoughtful works about a world that exists no more. They would be worth reading in that light alone, but since the world they depict is the world from which I myself, and so many of my readers, come…and since we, as opposed to the characters in these books or their authors, know the indescribable horrors that are about to descend on the Jews not only of Minsk, Kiev, and Radom (the city on which the shtetl in Perle’s book is apparently modelled), but on all European Jewry, the experience of entering into these people’s homes and their lives is that much more poignant and moving.

And then I began Shavit’s book.  Am I the only person who opened My Promised Land after reading the three novels I’ve just written about? Possibly I am!  But whether I am or not, the point is that approaching the story Shavit has to tell—and his sober, thought-provoking way of intertwining the glorious history of the Zionist enterprise with its darker side, which he describes in almost shocking detail and without pulling any punches at all—approaching Shavit with the understanding these three novels collectively offer of the reasons that political Zionism, when all was said and done, grew directly out of the untenable situation that the Jews of Europe, and particularly Eastern Europe, found themselves in as the twentieth century dawned. And that, of course, is without knowing what horrors awaited them all.  I want to finish reading My Promised Land before I write to you about it, so I won’t say more here. But the three books I have finished are all available easily for all in print and as e-books, and I recommend them to you all wholeheartedly.

Despite the fact that I hadn’t heard of any of these books, each was a bestseller in its day. And although they are set in different places and slightly different times, they can be taken together both as a kind of triptych depicting a vanished world and also as a mirror into which any may peer who wish to see the face of twenty-first century Jewry looking back.

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