Paul Goldberg first heard a Moscow version of the myth about Jews using blood for religious rituals when he was ten, in 1969. By the time he emigrated to the US in 1973, he had collected the Moscow stories that underpin his debut novel, The Yid. Paul is blogging here all week as a Visiting Scribe here on The ProsenPeople.
Imagine Moscow in late February of 1953.
The most powerful tyrant in human history is mad. His paranoia, his dementia afflicts the entire land. A group of prominent doctors — most of them Jews — is behind bars, awaiting execution. Ominous vehicles called Black Marias fan out across the city to arrest enemies of the people.
This drumbeat of hatred is heard in the streets. Ancient tales of blood libel are circulating on buses, trolleys and streetcars. Thugs and military units are preparing a pogrom — the biggest since Kristallnacht. Freight trains amass in Moscow and its environs, and lists of Jews and half-Jews are being prepared for deportation.
The Yid begins with a knock on the door. Three goons come to arrest Solomon Levinson, an actor once employed at the Moscow State Jewish Theater. Friends call Levinson der komandir, the commander. As a young man in 1918 he led a band of Red partisans who fought against the White Guard and the Czech legionnaires and the United States Marines alongside the Trans-Siberian Railroad. Levinson became a formidable swordsman in the civil war. His mastery of small-swords and stagecraft make him deadlier still.
He and his companions confront the fundamental question of Russian literature: Chto cheloveku delat’? What’s a man to do? They decide to take the ultimate challenge of patriotism and rise up: “The king is mad! Down with the king!” They determine — strategically — that on some occasions simple terrorism is what history calls for. I will not throw in any spoilers here.
To write The Yid, I had to inject reality into events that occurred six years before I was born. I needed someone to guide me, and I turned to a writer who had an astonishing command of that terrain — madness, evil, blood libel, racism, regicide, the boundary between the stage and the world. This writer was neither Russian nor Jewish. Though he died in 1616, he remains contemporary, even urgent.
There is a lot of Shakespeare in The Yid—all of it in Yiddish.
Shakespeare was big in the USSR of the 1930s. Censors thought it was safe — as did playwrights and translators. The Russians have a special appreciation for Shakespeare’s ability to explain the horror of their lives. The Bard knew nothing of Marxism-Leninism-Stalinism, but he understood wisdom, power — the loss of power, especially — and of course folly.
One of the most interesting performances of Lear opened in 1935 in Moscow, in Yiddish. Solomon Mikhoels, the artistic director of the Moscow State Jewish Theater, decided to stage Kinig Lir, starring himself as the title role. The production of Kinig Lir, the story of a king gone mad, is the historical backdrop of The Yid: the story of a king making a deadly error was playing out against the backdrop of the Moscow Trials, with their theatrical accusations, scripted confessions and, of course, executions.
(Argument can also be made that Lear is a Jewish story. Who is Lear but a royal Tevye, an old fool with strong-willed daughters?)
There is an interesting line in Mikhoels’ article on Lear: “The tragedy of Lear, to me, begins not at the moment where he is banished by Goneril. The tragedy begins at the point where he banishes Cordelia — that is in Act I.”
Is Stalin Lear? Is he making a fatal mistake? Is Trotsky — who is banished — Kent? Is Bukharin Cordelia?
Indeed, Mikhoels planned to test the notion that Shakespeare was safe material by staging Richard III, casting himself in the role of the tyrant. I would not be the first person to argue that the twentieth century transformed Richard III into a play about Stalin.
The war was followed by more urgent material for Moscow State Jewish Theater. Shmuel Halkin, the translator of Lear, wrote a play called The Avengers of the Ghetto. And then came catastrophe: the anti-Semitic campaigns, the bizarre assassination of Mikhoels in 1948, the execution of Yiddish poets at the end of the Moscow State Jewish Theater.
Lear is a warning to Stalin: You are making catastrophic errors of judgment, which set you and your country on a path to disaster. But in February 1953, the time for warnings has passed. My characters are deep in disaster, and they accept that the ultimate challenge is to act as Russian patriots, to slay the tyrant.
Now, we circle back to Shakespeare, as seen through the broken mirror of the celebrated Russian poet Alexander Sergeyevich Pushkin, born 183 years after Shakespeare’s death. In Boris Godunov, his epic play about political assassination and tyranny, Pushkin riffs on Shakespeare. Some say he riffs on Puccini as well. As I read it, it’s Macbeth made Russian.
Here is an excerpt from Pushkin’s Boris Godunov, the usurper’s soliloquy:
… Raging pestilence
Will burn the soul, and poison fill the heart,
Reproach assault the ears with hammer-blows,
And spinning head, and rising nausea,
And blood-bathed boys appear before the eyes …
How glad I’d be to flee — but where? … Horrible!
Oh, pity him whose conscience is unclean!
Is regicide followed by regret? Does it cause madness?
The characters in The Yid are contrarians. Their answer is an emphatic No. Lear was your warning, Comrade Stalin; you should not have executed Bukharin or banished Trotsky.
The year is not 1935. It’s March 1, 1953, 4:42 AM in Moscow. The great biomechanical Machine of Truth is blasting off the dust and cobwebs. The wheels of just revenge begin to grind.
Paul Goldberg has written two books about the Soviet human rights movement, and has co-authored (with Otis Brawley) the book How We Do Harm, an exposé of the American healthcare system. He is the editor and publisher of The Cancer Letter, a publication focused on the business and politics of cancer. He lives in Washington, D.C.
- The Jewish King Lear: A Comedy in America by Jacob Gordin
- Dictation: A Quartet by Cynthia Ozick
- Lois Leveen: Romeo and Jewliet, or a Jewish Novelist Walks into a Shakespeare Play