The Yid: A Novel
Paul Goldberg’s debut novel takes place over several long Russian winter days spanning February 24 to March 5, 1953, set against the frigid milieu of Joseph Stalin’s “Final Solution” plans to purge all the Jews from Russia.
Three government agents start their nightly routine of arrests in Moscow. They knock on the door of Solomon Shimonovich Levinson, a marginal Yiddish actor from a closed Yiddish State Theater company, unexpectedly setting off a Kafkaesque path of no return to the bleak countryside accompanied by a bizarre cast of friends and acquaintances.
The retinue includes Frederich Lewis, a black American who left life under racist oppression in Nebraska to work in the remote Communist steel mills of the USSR; Aleksandr Kogan, a disillusioned surgeon who served as a machine gunner from Levinson’s old Red Army unit, now threatened by wild antisemitic rumors circulating about a “Jewish doctors’ plot” of killing high-ranking Soviet officers and officials with poison-laced syringes; and Kima Petrova, a beautiful girl with nothing but revenge on her mind. Together they devise a simple plan: kill the mad King Stalin before his “Final Solution” operation is realized.
Filled with large literary doses of Shakespeare, Gogol, and Sophocles, Goldberg’s historical novel boasts flashes of brilliance, including a Passover play based on the idea “that God did not stop Abraham’s hand, and human sacrifice flourished,” staged at Stalin’s private dacha. The Yid is a well-written, darkly comedic novel of historical fiction, with memorable characters and a delectable touch of the absurd.
Reading Group Guide
JBC Book Clubs has created a book club kit for The Yid that includes discussion questions, historical information and a glossary of cultural references, recommended reads, and recipes. Download your copy here.
Read the first two chapters of The Yid, excerpted in arrangement with Picador Books.
In the early morning of March 1, 1953, when Iosif Stalin collapsed at his dacha, he was preparing to solve Russia’s Jewish Question definitively. Military units and enthusiastic civilians stood poised to begin a pogrom, and thousands of cattle cars were brought to the major cities to deport the survivors of the purportedly spontaneous outbursts of murder, rape, and looting. Stalin intended his holocaust to coincide with the biggest purge Russia had seen.
The West would have to choose between standing by and watching these monstrous events or taking the risk of triggering a world war fought with atom and hydrogen bombs. Stalin’s death was announced on March 5, the day his pogrom was scheduled to begin.
At 2:37 a.m. on Tuesday, February 24, 1953, Narsultan Sadykov’s Black Maria enters the courtyard of 1/4 Chkalov Street.
A Black Maria is a distinctive piece of urban transport, chernyy voron, a vehicle that collects its passengers for reasons not necessarily political. The Russian people gave this ominous carriage a diminutive name: voronok, a little raven, a fledgling.
At night, Moscow is the czardom of black cats and Black Marias. The former dart between snowbanks in search of mice and companionship. The latter emerge from the improbably tall, castle-like gates of Lubyanka, to return laden with enemies of the people.
The arrest of Solomon Shimonovich Levinson, an actor from the defunct State Jewish Theater, is routine. An old, likely decrepit Yid, Levinson lives alone in a communal flat at 1/4 Chkalov Street. Apartment 40. No hand-wringing wife. No hysterical children. No farewells. No one to hand the old man a toothbrush through the bars of a departing Black Maria.