How the Sovi­et Jew Was Made

By – August 15, 2022

In How the Sovi­et Jew Was Made, Sasha Senderovich maps a fas­ci­nat­ing land­scape of Jew­ish lit­er­ary expres­sion in East­ern Euro­pean Jew­ish life dur­ing the peri­od between the Russ­ian Rev­o­lu­tion and the emer­gence, over the next few decades, of the Sovi­et Union. In light of the ongo­ing vio­lence in Ukraine, and many Amer­i­can Jews’ lim­it­ed knowl­edge of the his­to­ry of the vital Jew­ish pres­ence in the wake of the Sovi­et dis­band­ing of the Pale of Set­tle­ment after 1917, Senderovich’s study is indis­pens­able for under­stand­ing this rich seg­ment of Jew­ish cre­ativ­i­ty. The book charts how a gen­er­a­tion of Jew­ish writ­ers and film­mak­ers explored, and sought to demys­ti­fy, the mean­ing of becom­ing Sovi­et” in response to an emer­gent Sovi­et empire demand­ing ide­o­log­i­cal con­sen­sus among its new­ly eman­ci­pat­ed, deter­ri­to­ri­al­ized Jew­ish citizens.

The polit­i­cal and psy­cho­log­i­cal trans­for­ma­tion among Jews dur­ing this tran­si­tion­al peri­od was fraught. For the thou­sands upon thou­sands of Jews uproot­ed from the Pale, the trau­mas of shtetl life became bag­gage that they car­ried into the new Sovi­et era. In Senderovich’s account, the Sovi­et Jew wan­dered as a haunt­ed lim­i­nal fig­ure, sus­pend­ed in time, flood­ed by ambiva­lence, dis­placed between old and new worlds. The Sovi­et Jew,” he observes, is thus a fig­ure of inde­ter­mi­na­cy that emerged from with­in the Sovi­et project.”

For both avid stu­dents and pro­fes­sion­al schol­ars of Jew­ish lit­er­ary his­to­ry, How the Sovi­et Jew Was Made makes a com­pelling case for the impor­tance of still under­read, under­ap­pre­ci­at­ed ear­ly twen­ti­eth-cen­tu­ry Yid­dish nov­el­ists like David Bergel­son and Moyshe Kul­bak. Senderovich’s deep read­ings of their major nov­els — Bergelson’s Judg­ment (1929) and Kulbak’s two vol­ume Zel­menyan­er (1931, 1935) — reveal how these works nego­ti­ate the ten­sion between the claims of shtetl life and the Sovi­et dream of a pro­le­tari­at par­adise. In Judg­ment, Senderovich argues that its Jew­ish char­ac­ters, in tran­si­tion between a shtetl past and a remod­eled Bol­she­vik self, are trans­formed into spec­tral rem­nants.” Bergelson’s Sovi­et Jews loom as ghost­ly fig­ures, tor­ment­ed by mem­o­ries of unspeak­able pogroms. Dis­lodged from an imag­ined organ­ic Jew­ish past, they look anx­ious­ly ahead to an uncer­tain future, a new world marked by a long-nour­ished anti­semitism and the expec­ta­tion to embrace Sovi­et citizenship.

The exam­ple of Kulbak’s sprawl­ing fam­i­ly epic Zel­menyan­er comes across as an even rich­er exam­ple of a Yid­dish writer’s abil­i­ty to draw on the resid­ual pow­er of mem­o­ry to under­mine — via the sub­ver­sive mode of par­o­dy — the emer­gent vision of the Sovi­et Jew, as mod­eled by the Sovi­et state. In Senderovich’s read­ing, the protagonist’s court­yard serves a flu­id pur­pose. It becomes a train sta­tion, yet it also recalls a sukkah — a kind of com­pos­ite, mon­tage image.” If Bol­she­vik ide­ol­o­gy sought to erase mem­o­ries of the Jew­ish past as a nec­es­sary act in the mod­ern­iz­ing process, Kulbak’s vision of the court­yard as a lim­i­nal space” con­jures the mem­o­ry of dis­place­ment in Jew­ish cul­ture.” And if Sovi­et social science…saw the demise of the shtetl as a nec­es­sary con­di­tion for Sovi­etiz­ing the Jews of the for­mer Pale,” Kulbak’s nov­el, draw­ing on Jew­ish rit­u­als, imag­ines a site of resis­tance to the pow­er of the State to repress the mem­o­ry of a bru­tal­ized Jew­ish past. Did writ­ing in Yid­dish enable Jew­ish authors like Bergel­son and Kul­bak, despite their sub­se­quent embrace of the new Sovi­et regime, to sub­vert the Sovi­et state via the pow­er of Jew­ish mem­o­ry? (Or, as in the case of Kul­bak, via the trans­gres­sive pow­er of par­o­dy?) Both writ­ers, it turns out, were ulti­mate­ly deemed ene­mies of Stal­in­ism and its pre­scribed Com­mu­nist vision; each was sum­mar­i­ly exe­cut­ed by the Sovi­et State.

Sub­se­quent chap­ters of How the Sovi­et Jew Was Made look after a range of fig­ures and gen­res, out­lin­ing an even rich­er map of the Jew­ish imag­i­na­tive response to a new Sovi­et iden­ti­tyPe­r­haps the most inter­est­ing cul­tur­al arti­fact is the rel­a­tive­ly obscure film The Return of Nei­tan Bekker (1932), about a Jew­ish brick­lay­er who repa­tri­ates to his Belaruss­ian home­land from New York. Nei­tan is accom­pa­nied by his fel­low labor­er Jim, a Black man. Togeth­er, their pres­ence in the new Rus­sia implic­it­ly expos­es the fail­ures of US cap­i­tal­ism and the false promis­es of Amer­i­can assim­i­la­tion. The true wel­com­ing, mul­ti-eth­nic coun­try, the film her­alds, is the Sovi­et state.

For Senderovich, how­ev­er, Nei­tan remains a ves­ti­gial” fig­ure caught between two eras,” uncan­ni­ly linked to the shtetl via the soul­ful tones of a word­less nigun, a reli­gious melody chant­ed by Neitan’s father. At the end of the film, Nei­tan chan­nels this melody, a revoic­ing that trans­lates as an act of fil­ial reded­i­ca­tion and a ges­ture of Jew­ish resis­tance. Nei­tan, who can nev­er be ful­ly made over” in the new Sovi­et col­lec­tivist image, calls into ques­tion the trans­for­ma­tive pow­er of the Sovi­et project.”

Senderovich con­cludes with the fig­ure of Isaac Babel, whose var­i­ous trick­ster sto­ries draw on the tra­di­tions of Yid­dish folk­lore. Babel’s pro­tag­o­nist is a mark­er of insta­bil­i­ty, indi­rec­tion, and manip­u­la­tion,” a fig­ure of mer­ri­ment” whose ludic office helped Jew­ish read­ers in ear­ly twen­ti­eth-cen­tu­ry Bol­she­vik Rus­sia sur­vive the hor­rors of life. Babel is Senderovitch’s lit­er­ary hero: the writer as wan­der­ing enter­tain­er,” both insid­er and out­sider, learn­ing to nav­i­gate” a new land­scape. In this respect Babel, and the cohort of fig­ures ana­lyzed in How the Sovi­et Was Made, exem­pli­fies how the Jew­ish writer resists the pow­er imposed by the state — any state — through a tra­di­tion of Jew­ish indi­rec­tion and demystification.

Don­ald Weber writes about Jew­ish Amer­i­can lit­er­a­ture and pop­u­lar cul­ture. He divides his time between Brook­lyn and Mohe­gan Lake, NY.

Discussion Questions

Draw­ing on his deep exper­tise and broad under­stand­ing of Yid­dish and Russ­ian lit­er­a­ture and film, Sasha Sanderovich explores the trans­for­ma­tion of Russ­ian Jews fol­low­ing the 1917 Russ­ian Rev­o­lu­tion. The author traces the sto­ries of var­i­ous lit­er­ary char­ac­ters who took advan­tage of the open­ness that came in the wake of the Russ­ian Rev­o­lu­tion, allow­ing Jews to live out­side of the Pale of Set­tle­ment to seek their for­tune else­where. In so doing, he is able to clear­ly demon­strate the unique and ambiva­lent space of the new Sovi­et Jew, who simul­ta­ne­ous­ly embraced the new pos­si­bil­i­ties of free­dom and moder­ni­ty and yet was reluc­tant to entire­ly dis­card the cus­toms of the past. This ten­sion, between past and future, is at the heart of the image of the Sovi­et Jew that Sanderovich presents in this cre­ative and com­pelling book.