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.