Love Like Water, Love Like Fire

Mikhail Ios­sel

  • Review
By – May 3, 2021

In this col­lec­tion of short pieces, Russ­ian Amer­i­can writer Mikhail Ios­sel brings his warm, gen­tly iron­ic autho­r­i­al voice to bear on the cru­el and often sur­re­al lives of Jews in the Sovi­et Union. Fac­ing hatred from non-Jew­ish Rus­sians, and per­se­cu­tion and humil­i­a­tion from the state, even as a child, Ios­sel knew the bit­ter facts of Sovi­et life for Jews.

Despite the Bol­she­vik Rev­o­lu­tion and its promise of eman­ci­pa­tion from the shtetl, Sovi­et Jews exist­ed in a per­pet­u­al state of dis­e­qui­lib­ri­um. Sup­pos­ed­ly enjoy­ing all the rights of any oth­er Sovi­et cit­i­zen, Jews were marked as out­siders from birth — on their offi­cial pass­ports, their nation­al­i­ty was defined, not as Russ­ian, or Sovi­et, but with that lit­tle word, Jew.” And yet, Sovi­et Jews were Jews in des­ig­na­tion only… hard­ly any one of us knew the first thing about Jew­ish his­to­ry or a sin­gle word of Hebrew… (which)… was banned… under penal­ty of law.”

Iossel’s nar­ra­tors are reluc­tant Sovi­et cit­i­zens who, like so many immi­grants, yearn for the place that they know best, even if that place is one of total­i­tar­i­an cru­el­ty. Whether they’re an immi­grant to the Unit­ed States, or a teacher in Mon­tre­al, the nar­ra­tors are always melan­choly observers, for­ev­er engaged in bemused dia­logue with Russ­ian drunks, Cana­di­an cab dri­vers, and Amer­i­can bor­der officials.

The most impact­ful piece in this col­lec­tion is the title sto­ry, Love Like Water, Love Like Fire.”

The sto­ry fol­lows Iossel’s grand­par­ents dur­ing a trau­mat­ic raid on their Leningrad apart­ment build­ing in the 1930s. The night­mar­ish three minute episode cap­tures the eter­nal dual­i­ty of Jew­ish exis­tence. Iossel’s grand­moth­er pic­tures the out­comes for her­self and her fam­i­ly if the boots of the NKVD agents on the stairs are indeed com­ing for them — tor­ture and a mass grave for her hus­band, a slow death in the gulag for her, and a state orphan­age for their daugh­ter. There is only so much hor­ror the human heart and mind can take,” she thinks, and some­times just one extra drop of it could kill one on the spot.”

There is love like fire, and there is love like water,” say the Hasidic mas­ters, and Iossel’s col­lec­tion explores that dichoto­my. Water may soothe, but it can also drown, just a fire may warm, but can just as eas­i­ly destroy. In Deuteron­o­my, G‑d is described as a con­sum­ing fire, but, for the Jews of the Sovi­et Union, that fire has always car­ried the poten­tial for hor­rif­ic consequences.

Angus Smith is a retired Cana­di­an intel­li­gence offi­cial, writer and Jew­ish edu­ca­tor who lives in rur­al Nova Scotia.

Discussion Questions