Shad­ows of Berlin

Dovid Bergel­son; Joachim Neu­groschel, trans.
  • Review
By – August 10, 2012

Rab­bi Zadok was a fail­ure, and con­trary to grownups, all lit­tle chil­dren usu­al­ly side with peo­ple who fail,” mus­es Bergel­son. He builds his sto­ries around an assort­ment of eclec­tic washouts in a fas­ci­nat­ing, indeed child­like man­ner and, at the same time, pep­pers their per­tur­ba­tions with exquis­ite dark humor that must be at least 4,000 years old. A sui­ci­dal Jew­ish ter­ror­ist, a guilt-rid­den tzadik, a dis­en­chant­ed house­wife stalk­ing an invalid, a no-name shtetl poet roam­ing the dark streets of a for­eign metrop­o­lis: such is the world of the Shad­ows of Berlin,” a gem of a short sto­ry col­lec­tion by Dovid Bergel­son, a major Sovi­et Yid­dishist. There is much that is dear and rec­og­niz­able in these sto­ries as well as eerie metaphors of every­day exis­ten­tial trau­mas, rem­i­nis­cent of Kaf­ka; noir anti-cli­mac­tic nar­ra­tive devo­lu­tions à la Bernard Mala­mud; ten­der shtetl mem­o­ries mixed with unabashed sex­u­al­i­ty, not unlike the work of I.B. Singer. At the same time, the­mat­i­cal­ly, these sto­ries focus on a unique moment and pop­u­lace, deal­ing large­ly with the Russ­ian Jew­ish emi­grés of 1928’s Berlin, their iso­la­tion and exile, the com­plex­i­ties and side-effects of the shocks of the pre­ced­ing Great War and the heavy pogroms. 

One of the most pow­er­ful aspects of the col­lec­tion is its his­tor­i­cal con­text. Berlin,” says Bergelson’s char­ac­ter was like Nin­eveh in the days of the prophet Jon­ah.” He would have liked to hope so: after all, the inhab­i­tants of Nin­eveh repent­ed, and pre­served them­selves and their city. Berlin, at that point, was less than two decades away from World War II. The author, of course, did not know this. How­ev­er luck­less Bergelson’s char­ac­ters may be, there is a tinge of hope puls­ing every­where in the book. The author could not know of the impend­ing Shoah, and nei­ther could he know about his return to the Sovi­et Union in the ear­ly 50’s and death in Stalin’s camps. These doomed hopes leave today’s read­er intox­i­cat­ed with sad­ness, and yet, some­how, laugh­ing at the fab­u­lous mishap char­ac­ters, so awk­ward, so vin­tage shtetl and at the same time so exquis­ite­ly mod­ern: Uncle Fritz was too sim­ple of a man to grasp the mind of a poet, who, when plung­ing his feet into some­one else’s galosh­es, was mere­ly return­ing, for a moment, to his ear­ly, child­hood memories.” 

Jake Marmer is a poet, per­former, and edu­ca­tor. He is the author of three poet­ry col­lec­tions: Cos­mic Dias­po­ra (Sta­tion Hill Press, 2020), as well as The Neigh­bor Out of Sound (2018) and Jazz Tal­mud (2012), both from The Sheep Mead­ow Press. He also released two klez-jazz-poet­ry records: Pur­ple Ten­ta­cles of Thought and Desire (2020, with Cos­mic Dias­po­ra Trio), and Hermeneu­tic Stomp (Blue Fringe Music, 2013). Jake is the poet­ry crit­ic for Tablet Mag­a­zine. Born in the provin­cial steppes of Ukraine, in a city that was renamed four times in the past 100 years, Jake lives in the Bay Area.

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