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.