The Fam­i­ly Mashber

Der Nis­ter; Leonard Wolf, trans.; David Mal­ouf, intro.

By – November 10, 2011

The fall of the pow­er­ful House of Mash­ber pro­vides a micro­scop­ic view of late 19th cen­tu­ry shtetl life even as it is van­ish­ing. In this nov­el, jux­ta­posed mod­ern and archa­ic descrip­tions of the every­day sug­gest a medieval theme, but the spir­i­tu­al and reli­gious life call to mind South Amer­i­can mag­i­cal realism.

With sting­ing insight that is as rel­e­vant today as in the peri­od described, the nov­el­ist spares no one; ridi­cul­ing and exam­in­ing busi­ness prac­tices, usury, pet­ty pol­i­tics, class and nobil­i­ty, reli­gious fanati­cism, and, worst of all, big­otry by Jews toward Jews. 

The intro­duc­tions to the Eng­lish lan­guage edi­tion by David Mal­ouf and Leonard Wolf pro­vide back­ground on the events, milieu, the his­tor­i­cal fig­ure Rab­bi Nakhman of Brat­slav, and the author. Der Nis­ter (Pin­has Kahanovitch), writ­ing under the thumb of Stal­in, care­ful­ly dis­tances his sto­ry by set­ting it in an imag­i­nary town called N.” in the 1870’s. But his work still earned him prison. The Fam­i­ly Mash­ber is an epic masterpiece. 

Sydelle Shamah has been lead­ing book club dis­cus­sions for many years, and is a pub­lished sci­ence fic­tion writer. She was pres­i­dent of the Ruth Hyman Jew­ish Com­mu­ni­ty Cen­ter of Mon­mouth Coun­ty, NJ.

Discussion Questions

Cour­tesy of New York Review Books

  • The Fam­i­ly Mash­ber can be read in many dif­fer­ent con­texts: as a Russ­ian nov­el (Dos­to­evsky, Tol­stoy), a Jew­ish nov­el (Saul Bel­low, Sholem Ale­ichem), a fam­i­ly nov­el (The Cor­rec­tionsBud­den­brooks, One Hun­dred Years of Soli­tude), a big mod­ernist nov­el (Ulysses, The Man With­out Qual­i­ties, The U.S.A. Tril­o­gy). What kind of book did you have in mind when you start­ed read­ing The Fam­i­ly Mash­ber? Did Der Nister’s nov­el change your sense of what that genre could do? 

  • There is a mar­ket­place at the very cen­ter of the city of N., and the book opens with a long descrip­tion of buy­ing, sell­ing, schem­ing, and oth­er busi­ness. Lat­er, var­i­ous char­ac­ters argue that busi­ness is wrong, to explain Moshe’s down­fall (for exam­ple, Moshe him­self on p. 513); do you think Der Nis­ter believes what these char­ac­ters say, or that he put those posi­tions into the book to pla­cate the Sovi­et author­i­ties? Do you believe it your self? Is it basi­cal­ly a reli­gious argu­ment, like Luzi’s, or a social argu­ment, like Yossele’s (page 569)? What about Sruli Gol’s prophe­cies” against the rich (page 138) — are they Marx­ist or mystical? 

  • When a loco­mo­tive sud­den­ly appears on p. 71, it’s a shock: sud­den­ly the time­less, folk­loric world of the Jew­ish city is locat­ed at a spe­cif­ic moment in his­to­ry (the 1870s, accord­ing to p. 229). Why do you think Der Nis­ter does that at this par­tic­u­lar moment in the book, when Moshe is choos­ing a gravesite? What about the image of the caw­ing young crow in the sun-filled, expan­sive morn­ing” which makes Moshe turn around and see the train?

  • Here’s what one child remem­bers,” at the start of the fam­i­ly chron­i­cle, fore­shad­ows the excep­tion­al­ly sen­si­tive May­erl, who the nar­ra­tor says will be our theme” and who takes over the nar­ra­tive at the end of the book, slow­ly and solemn­ly and with an epic, bib­li­cal tone” (page 60, 131, 683). Do you think the narrator’s voice in the book as a whole is like Mayerl’s? What do you think would have become of May­erl if Der Nis­ter had been able to fin­ish his trilogy?

  • When Alter is intro­duced, the nar­ra­tor apol­o­gizes, because it may be that this is not the place for him, and it may be that gen­er­al­ly speak­ing there ought not to be a place here for some­one like him who does not — who can­not — take an active part in the nar­ra­tive, and we might sim­ply have passed him over or men­tioned him only occa­sion­al­ly here and there. But we have not done that” (page 127). Why not? What role does Alter play in the sto­ry? What do you think of his mar­riage to Gnessye, and his near-dis­ap­pear­ance from the book afterwards?

  • Right after the first scene with all three broth­ers (page 132), we meet Sruli Gol, and the chap­ter that brings the four main char­ac­ters togeth­er — with Alter’s seizure, Sruli Gol’s arrival, and the defin­ing con­flict of the fam­i­ly between Moshe and Luzi — is one of the pin­na­cles of the book’s nar­ra­tive con­struc­tion (V, The Quar­rel Between the Broth­ers,” 147 – 185). How does Der Nis­ter put that chap­ter togeth­er? What new infor­ma­tion do we learn, and how does he show us what lies under­neath what we knew already?

  • Sruli Gol is per­haps the book’s most remark­able char­ac­ter. Is he plau­si­ble, or is he not sup­posed to be plau­si­ble? How do his dif­fer­ent sides fit togeth­er? Do you think of him as a per­son, or more like a force or spir­it in the book? Is he basi­cal­ly good? 

  • What do you think of the female char­ac­ters in the book? Are they minor char­ac­ters, or do Gitl and Gnessye and Malke-Rive and Esther-Rokhl, the Leather Saint,” feel like ful­ly real­ized, deeply imag­ined women? In the world of N. that Der Nis­ter describes, what oth­er kind of female char­ac­ters would have been possible?

  • Sruli has a dyb­buk or ghost dou­ble (page 216); some­one is speak­ing through” Gitl when the mob invades her house (page 505); and Luzi prays about trad­ing places with his fel­low crea­tures, because every per­son must regard him­self as a shar­er with every­one else” (page 419). Per­haps sur­pris­ing­ly, it is the appar­ent­ly sol­id Moshe who is most often dou­bled with some­one else: he is like Saul (page 339), he trades places with Alter (page 311, 331 – 32, 374), Sruli wears Moshe’s head on his shoul­ders” (page 411), Moshe spins face-to-face with Luzi as they dance togeth­er (page 473), and some­one seems to have been sub­sti­tut­ed for him” upon his return (page 631). Why do you think Der Nis­ter made imagery of dou­bling and blurred iden­ti­ty so cen­tral to the book? 

  • Why would Der Nis­ter, writ­ing in the 1930s and 1940s, choose to make the final vio­lence come at the hands of a Jew­ish mob, not an anti-Semit­ic one (page 607 ff.)? In gen­er­al, what do you think of Der Nister’s use of stereo­types that would typ­i­cal­ly be called anti-Semit­ic,” such as all the cheat­ing and thieving?

  • The book ends with a descrip­tion of Luzi wan­der­ing from vil­lage to vil­lage, and in a way noth­ing seems to have changed in him. Which char­ac­ters change and which do not in the course of the novel?

  • There is rebirth imagery at the end of the book, with the com­ing of spring (e.g., page 646), but also a long and lin­ger­ing descrip­tion of buri­als (e.g., page 662); his­tor­i­cal­ly, we know what came next for Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ties like N.’s, but char­ac­ters such as Luzi also look for­ward to reli­gious renew­al and redemp­tion and some­thing like the cre­ation of Israel (pages 269 – 74, 431 – 32). Does the book feel ulti­mate­ly opti­mistic or pes­simistic to you? Does it grieve or affirm?