Bar-Kochba and Old Bolsheviks
By Paul Goldberg
How do we approach The Yid? Paul Goldberg’s surreal fable is about a small group of semi-geriatric Jews and their various hangers-on who set out on a quixotic mission to assassinate the aging Joseph Stalin before he can carry out a monstrous pogrom. It would be easiest perhaps to treat it as a polemic – an indictment of the hypocrisy, the cruelty and, of course, the Jew-hatred that underlay so much of the Soviet enterprise. Certainly, the rage is there. The novel vividly evokes the paranoia, the feral children orphaned by war and by the endless purges, the brilliant young artists who disappeared into “the gold mines of Magadan, the bogs of Narva…the Auschwitz sky.” But Goldberg, a Soviet émigré himself, is too smart to leave it at that, and too good a writer. The Yid is fantastical, even absurd. But with its strange inversions, the way that Goldberg plays with history, effectively empowering the powerless, The Yid is a highly subversive consideration of both the nature of that Soviet enterprise and of the role of Jews in building and sustaining it. It is also a testament to Jewish suffering, Jewish empowerment and Jewish redemption.
The novel, which is based on historical events and includes both historical figures and characters from the author’s own family, opens in the middle of a February night in 1953. In a Soviet twist on the Final Solution, Stalin, an arch antisemite, and his truly diabolical deputy, Laverenty Beria, have revived the ancient blood libel in the form of the so-called “Doctor’s Plot” alleging that Jewish doctors – “murderers in white coats” – are conspiring to kill off thousands of innocent Russians through deliberate medical malpractice. Troops are massing and cattle cars are rumbling towards Moscow from every corner of the Union. And a three man MGB (a predecessor to the KGB) detachment is on its way to arrest Solomon Shimonovich Levinson, Jew, old Bolshevik and minor actor in GOSET, the State Jewish Theater, shuttered for years since the state-sanctioned murder of its guiding light, Solomon Mikhoels.
For the three security goons making their nighttime rounds, this promises to be an arrest like any other, maybe even easier. To Lieutenant Sadykov, the detachment commander, Levinson is just another among thousands of “old Yids creaking down the street, going wherever it is they go, carrying mesh bags and, in their pockets, rolled up newspapers…dark, birdlike, bleached angels ready to fly to God, or the evil one.”
But in the first of Goldberg’s many inversions, Levinson turns out to be a very different kind of Jew. He greets his tormentors with exaggerated courtesy and invites them into his apartment, cracking wise in Yiddish and Russian the whole time. As the chekisti rummage through Levinson’s belongings looking for evidence of his alleged treachery, he draws their attention to an old photograph of a Civil War partisan band.
It’s a small photo of a dozen men dressed in leather and sheepskin coats and a mad assortment of uniforms: the White Guard, British, American.
A tall man in a pointed Red Cavalry hat stands in the front row, his riding boot positioned on the barrel of a Maxim machine gun, his hand brandishing a curved cavalry sword. The boys behind him have the unmistakable devil-may-care look of brigands, their commander exhibiting the Byronesque spirit of a soldier poet.
No formal education would be required to recognize that the photo was taken in 1918, when Bolsheviks had lost control of Siberia and the surviving Red Army detachments disappeared into the forest. The fact that young Levinson was fighting for the World Revolution so far from his native Odessa, in the Siberian woods, was part of the spirit of the times and didn’t need to be explained any more than one needed to explain the landing of American Marines and British troops in Vladivostok. The world’s most powerful nations joined to strangle Bolshevism in its cradle, and Levinson came to defend it.
Turns out that Levinson is more than just another “old Yid,” he is der komandir, a legendary Civil War Red partisan commander. As der komandir, Levinson fought for years in the brutal struggle that ultimately wrested control of Siberia from a combined force of Whites (Tsarist officers and supporters of the old regime), Czech and Polish Legionaries, US Marines and even a Canadian Northwest Mounted Police squadron. Think Strelnikov in Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago, only Jewish.
Before Sadykov and his men fully realize what’s going on, or whom they are dealing with, they are dead.
The instant he bends over the actor, Sadykov surely understands that he has made a mistake, for Levinson’s arms are no longer clutching his chest.
As they swing open, suddenly, forcefully, spring-like, Sadykov feels a cold intrusion beneath his chin. It’s far short of pain. Sadykov wants to emit a scream, but cannot. His legs no longer support his body. They buckle, and black arterial blood gushes onto the front of his tunic.
Levinson continues the trajectory of his twirl toward a Ukrainian boy whose hand grasps the handle of a sidearm. He is spring-loaded, graceful.
This movement is not rooted in Levinson’s bloody adventures in the taiga along the Trans-Siberian. There, he was unburdened by technique. This is all stage.
In 1937, the pirouette with smallswords, which Levinson first performed in a shepherd’s getup as the curtain fell at the end of the second act of Bar-Kokhba, made Levinson famous among Yiddish-speaking audiences in Moscow and in the provinces. Indeed, in the touring company, Levinson was promoted to the part of Bar-Kokhba.
And now, in 1953, Levinson is airborne once again, a one-man Judean Air Force: a single pirouette, two Finnish daggers, two throats severed, a nign stopped. An acrobat would have bowed, but an acrobat Levinson is not.
For the Jews of the Russian Empire, the Bolshevik Revolution was an event as momentous as the haskalah, the Jewish enlightenment of the 18th Century. Confined to the Pale of Settlement, slandered by provocations like The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, persecuted and murdered by the Black Hundreds and gangs of blood-crazed peasants, Russian Jews were, without doubt, one of the most persecuted minorities in Europe. Pogroms were a matter of state policy under the last Tsar, Nicholas II who, despite his posthumous gloss as a tragic victim of Bolshevism, was a monster of both cruelty and stupidity.
So in late 19th and early 20th century Russia, as in Europe in the 1930s, being a revolutionary, Communist or otherwise, was one of the few moral responses possible to a world gone mad. Russian Jews were involved in various revolutionary causes, from the terrorist Narodnaya Volya, or “People’s Will,” to offshoots of Tolstoyan pacifist communalism. While some, like the Zionist Bundists, were motivated by specifically Jewish concerns, the majority were interested in broader questions of social justice and liberation for all people. So when the fateful year of 1917 began, Jews were well-represented and well-placed in the larger Russian revolutionary movement. Of the seven members of the first Bolshevik Politburo, four – Leon Trotsky, Grigory Zinoviev, Lev Kamenev and Grigory Sokolnikov – were Jewish, leaving Lenin, Stalin and Andrei Bubnov as the outliers. In ideological terms, antisemitism was associated with the Imperial regime, a lie designed to distract workers and peasants from their oppression by capitalists and landowners.
So it is only in this climate of liberation that Solomon Levinson, like that other Red Cavalryman, Isaac Babel, could transform himself into der komandir, partisan commander and ultimate Tough Jew (to echo Rich Cohen). But the problem with being a Tough Jew is that you have actually have to be tough. Ol’ga Fyodorovna Zabranskaya who, with her “hair dyed pitch black…bangs…cut with such precision that drafting tools might have been used,” is a body double for Anna Akhmatova, the poetic conscience of Stalin’s USSR, insists that the three chekisti that Levinson has just killed “were men entitled to dignity and respect.” But “it’s futile to speak about such things with Jews…we made them into who they are…a cold hearted people who see no virtue beyond survival.”
When World War II came, Levinson experienced a fundamental physical urge to fight. Whatever it was, it emanated from his very essence and was an expression of who he was and why he lived. You can get in touch with such feelings onstage if you are very, very good.
Under normal circumstances, Levinson would have returned to service in the rank of major. He would have preferred to enlist as a private, or perhaps as a commando, a leader of a small detachment that crosses enemy lines, operating under cover of darkness. In the previous war, this was Levinson’s biggest strength. In that war, he sometimes felt the pangs of remorse for slitting the throats of fellow Russians, mowing down clueless Czech legionnaires, and running one raid into the camp of U.S. Marines. Sensitivity, even a little compassion, started to creep into his soul, and the saber wound (a slash across the back by a White Army officer just as Levinson’s sword entered his chest) came almost as a relief. He thought he was done with killing.
In the fateful summer of 1941, with Panzers roaring through the former Pale of Settlement, the urge to kill had returned.
Ironically, the reason that Jews like Levinson and his comrades – Sasha Kogan, Moise Semyonovich Rabinovich, and Friederich Robertovich Lewis — can aspire to kill the monster in the Kremlin before he kills them is because of their pivotal role in securing the Soviet enterprise. In Marxist terms, Levinson et al. effectively created the conditions that allow them to act in the present.
Of course, liberation comes with a cost. In one of the book’s recurring images, we see Levinson in his Yiddish theatre days: upside down with tefillin (phylacteries) wrapped around his leg, like the subject of a perverse Chagall painting.
Giving Sadykov no chance to say a word, Levinson places his hand on the young lieutenant’s shoulder and points at a photo of an acrobat, standing on his head, wearing tefillin. The object’s leather belt wraps around his right leg, from the knee to the ankle, like a black serpent or a weird garter.
“That’s me, in 1921,” says Levinson. “Twice wounded, demobilized, but, overall, no worse for wear. Standing on my head, with tefillin. Do you know about tefillin, what that was?”
“Khuy sobachiy,” says one of the boys. A dog’s penis.
“Not quite a khuy sobachiy,” says Levinson, treating the idiotic insult as an argument in a learned discussion. “Jewish prayer rituals required every man to strap on two small black boxes, containing sacred texts: one on the forehead, another on the left arm. The ways of the shtetl had to go away. We were there to kick them down the stairs of history. With tefillin, we were slaves. Without it, we were free. Naturally, with tefillin, I stand on my head. Without it, I’d be right-side up.”
In order to take their place as enfranchised members of Soviet society and the upper reaches of the Party, Russian Jews had to give up most of what made them Jewish. Cheders and Yeshivas were shut down by Soviet fiat; the teaching and study of Hebrew was banned and Yiddish promoted as a “national language;” the Bund and other Zionist organizations were suppressed and ultimately purged. There was even an attempt to create a Jewish Autonomous Region — Birobidzhan – in the Far East, although Jews, for the most part, stayed as far away from it as possible.
The Revolution may have started out being “good for the Jews” (comparatively speaking) but it ended up being highly corrosive to what makes Jews Jews, especially their connection to Torah and to the Land of Israel. And as the Revolution devolved into the Great Terror, old tropes reasserted themselves and the blood libel again became part of the Russian frame of reference. “Bei Zhidov, Spassay Rossiyu (Crush the Jews, Save Russia)” read the eternal graffiti in every back alley and men’s room in the Soviet Union.
So with the clock ticking in 1953, the Jews of Russia need a hero, even a flawed one. What they get is Levinson, who began his life defending the revolution and whose sole claim to Jewish heroism is a turn as a dagger wielding Bar-Kochba on the stage. But really, as Goldberg asks us, “Would the soft-bellied comics of American wealth have either the athleticism or the sense of purpose to execute such a maneuver? … Art is for the soldier.” It takes an old Bolshevik to save the Jews, to say nothing of all Russians, from what Bolshevism has become.
The complex history embodied in Levinson, Sasha, and Moise Semyonovich is both mirrored and magnified in the life of the fourth member of the conspiracy, the Yiddish-speaking African-American Friederich Lewis, whose “…disgust with Jim Crow’s America drove him to a new life in Joe Stalin’s Russia.”
There is plenty of racism in the Soviet Union of course, both direct and implied. Even the great Solomon Mikhoels tries to persuade Lewis to portray a grinning, shuffling Uncle Tom in a 5 Year Plan propaganda set piece. But as a welder in Magnitogorsk in the 1930s, Lewis comes to think of himself as a true Sibiriyak and a key component of the huge expansion of Soviet heavy industry without which the Second World War might have been lost, among other things. Lewis is a success, “a top ranking Soviet engineer, he looks the part” in his impeccably tailored gabardine suits modelled on Paul Robeson’s (for whom he is a kind of stand-in). Even though he risks losing everything with his involvement in Levinson’s plot, Lewis’ life in the Soviet Union stands in stark contrast to the best that he could have hoped to be in America.
The self-preservation instinct commands Lewis to head for the border, any border, or, better, to hide for now and head for the border later.
Were it not for his training in engineering, his obsession with understanding systems, and – yes – love, Lewis would have left Russia sometime in the late thirties, certainly before the war.
Over the years – rarely – he has had thoughts of returning to America, but that would mean abandoning his profession and leaving his new life. All this to become what? A middle-aged welder? A graying railroad porter? A club car waiter? A Commie-nigger on J. Edgar Hoover’s watch list? A lynching waiting to happen?
Now, he is facing similar prospects in the land of victorious revolution. Where would he run? Swim across the frigid waters of the Baltic? Head for Turkey, China, Iran, Afghanistan, Mongolia? He has heard from an uncle, a veteran of the Great War, that France is a fine place for a Negro, but how would he get there?
Lewis’s encounter with Mikhoels ultimately leads him to Levinson, to his remarkable bond with the Jewish people and to his remarkable fluency in Yiddish trash talk. There is a parallel here, almost a cliché: two persecuted groups finding common cause together. Lewis himself recognizes this: “Americans have their baseball, their greed, their nigger-bashing,” he thinks, while “Russia’s national sports are alcoholism, violent idiocy and Jew baiting.” But it goes further. Both Lewis and Levinson frustrate any attempt to define them. Lewis advises Mikhoels that if he wants comic relief in his film, he should go get himself “a bug-eyed toothy Jew and paint him black.” Levinson, for his part, is still enough of a Marxist to seize the moment and take history into his own hands. Racial epithets – “Yid,” “Nigger” – become less slurs than synonyms for empowerment. No less than Langston Hughes remembers Lewis: “Saying fuck you to both Jim Crow and the Black Hundreds, he felt like a ‘double nigger.’” And in his role as part of der komandir’s reconstituted partisan band, Lewis physically recreates his parting shot at Mikhoels in a remarkable inversion. He dons “white face” to portray a dim-witted, Jew baiting Chekist in a life or death minstrel show encounter with some real-life secret policemen who want to know about the provenance of the bodies in the back of Lewis’ truck.
“A u vas-to kto?” asks the driver. Whom do you have?
“Toyte yidn,” prompts Levinson through his teeth.
“Dead Yids,” Lewis translates into Russian.
“Has it begun?” asks the driver. A broad, joyful smile appears on his face. “Reboyta, nachalos!” he announces to the rest of his crew, It has begun!
In late February 1953, everybody knows that “it” is an antecedent of the final pogrom, one that will forever rid the motherland of the vermin.
“Day khot’ vzglanyut’, nasladitsya,” says the driver. Let me at least take a look and enjoy it.
Lewis jumps out of the cab. He opens the back door, offering a view of three white, unclad corpses.
“Oy zdorovyo!” says the driver, his hand involuntarily covering his mouth. This is a delight.
“Did you beat them to death?” asks one of the crew, a young man scarcely older than Sadykov’s Ukrainians.
“Slit the throats,” says Lewis.
As Lewis shuts the back door, the driver pauses for a moment, then bashfully asks the question that, Lewis surmises, must have been on his mind all along. “A sam-to ty kto?” And what are you?
“I am a man,” replies Lewis, getting back into his Black Maria, and for a moment he forgets about his blood-soaked tunic and his cadaverous white face.
“What kind of man?”
“Nastoyashchiy chelovek.” Lewis throws his new friend the entire pack of Belomor. “Sovietskiy!” A real man. A Soviet man.
The soldier catches the pack with his left hand and, after Lewis’s words sink in, slowly raises his right hand in a salute.
Lewis returns the salute, raising his chocolate-colored right hand to his bleached temple.
The Yid is infused with Shakespearian references, especially to the plays that address themselves to tyrants and murderers, conspiracy and betrayal: Richard III, Macbeth, Othello. The leitmotif is King Lear. But this is not the King Lear with which most Western audiences are familiar. This is Kinig Lir, the Yiddish version translated by Shmuel Halkin and staged by GOSET in the 1930s with Mikhoels in the title role. And like the tough Jews of Levinson’s little chevara, it is a complete inversion of what we think we know:
Kogan: Solomon, what did you think of Lir?
Levinson: The character or the play?
Levinson: I hated him.
Kogan: Do you think Lir deserves the tsuris he gets?
Levinson: He does, and how!
Kogan: It could be the translation. Tanya complained, remember?
Lewis, how did it sound to you?
Lewis: I can’t compare. Mikhoels was the only Lir I saw.
Levinson: Lir has no right to be a king. He speaks such nonsense! I despise him more and more as it progresses. And in the end, he is completely weak, prostrate. How is that good?
In an article he wrote for the Jewish Book Council, Goldberg suggests that for Russians caught up in the purges, the tragedy of King Lir begins not when he is banished by Goneril, but when he himself banishes Cordelia. Close to the end of the book, the dying Stalin cries out to the shade of the murdered Mikhoels: “I banished Trotsky. Is he Kent? Cordelia Bukharin? … I kept my kingdom! I’ll make it bigger still, uniting Earth and Hell to build a heaven.” Banishment and bloodletting lie at the beginning of the road to disaster and Lir’s folly mirrors Stalin’s folly. Twenty years later, the process is complete. Stalin’s all too real character has merged with that of the ailing King: senile, wicked, truly monstrous. “Are you saying you want us to behead our beloved Iosif Vissarionovich?” asks a horrified Kogan. “What other choice do we have?” replies Levinson.
While the moral choice here would indeed seem to be regicide, Kogan – a physician and a Jew – continues to have reservations. Resorting to his own theory of “politico-historical epidemiology,” Kogan reasons that if Stalinism is a plague, then therapeutic intervention – murder – is indicated. “But what happens when the devil finally takes him?” he wonders. “Will this disease start to recede?” There is no answer to that question. Just as Jews (and Kogan himself) argue about whether it would be permissible to kill Hitler before he became Hitler, Kogan’s dilemma remains the great moral quandary at the novel’s heart.
Kogan’s internal struggle and deep sense of ambiguity is the engine that drives the novel’s final act and Goldberg’s final inversion. As the conspirators converge on Stalin’s lair, it seems that there is indeed a Jewish conspiracy to murder “the Genius of all Times and Nations” and the presence of Sasha Kogan transforms it into a real life “Doctor’s Plot.” Even the Blood Libel may be fact:
For you, Reb Iosif, we stage the first Blood Seder history has ever known. We will pretend that God did not stop Abraham’s hand and human sacrifice flourished…We stage this play to make your madness real.
Or not. There is a shifting, dreamlike quality to Goldberg’s take on Stalin’s final hours and it is difficult to discern the boundary between the reality of Levinson, et. al., and Stalin’s own paranoia. We know that Stalin died of a massive stroke. Goldberg makes sure that we remember that. More importantly, we know that G-d did, in fact, stop Abraham’s hand: the promise implicit in the Akeda, the binding of Isaac, lies at the heart of the Jewish relationship with G-d.
So the real significance of Levinson’s wild, almost Bulgakovian “Witches’ Seder” with which The Yid concludes are its participants, “some alive. Some dead. All known to him but one”: Solomon Mikhoels; Anna Akhmatova; Paul Robeson; Arkashka Kaplan. These representatives of Stalin’s victims are the only ones truly entitled to sit in judgment over him, forcing the dying man to look into the faces of all those he has sent to their deaths. Just as in the real thing, each participant in the Seder has a role to play, reading from Levinson’s improvised Haggadah:
Levinson: Kogan, your lines…
Kogan (reading): It’s said that every generation, and every man, must find his freedom from Egypt. Our times are cruel. We part one sea after another.
Levinson (holding up a flattened bullet): With this I killed a man.
Kogan: Our freedom is won in battle…
Levinson: Against the czars.
Kogan: Against the Fascists.
Lewis: Against our brothers.
Kima: Against the tyrants.
Kogan: Against our God.
The specter lets the bullet drop into the bucket and, reaching into the rucksack, raises two gutted leather boxes.
Kogan: Tefillin ripped. Twice desecrated. First by us. The second time by thugs. We gutted God for freedom. They are gutting us for gold, for sport, or for no reason at all.
Lewis: To kill a man is homicide. To kill a czar is regicide. To kill a demigod is demiregicide.
Ol’ga Fyodorovna: What do you call the killing of a madman?
Levinson: You have no script!
Ol’ga Fyodorovna: And yet I dare to ask.
Levinson: Meshugecide, let’s say!
Kogan (reading): To kill this man is a sin times three.
Ol’ga Fyodorovna: A sin times four, you mean. Meshugecide brings it to four.
Kogan (reading): A sin times three will equal one redemption.
In this final confrontation with Stalin, the wicked Pharaoh who has kept them all in bondage, Levinson, Lewis and the rest seek redemption, freedom. But, as in the redemption of the Hebrews from Egyptian slavery, redemption is not necessarily what it seems to be. First, there is the question, reiterated by Kogan and Levinson, of the degree to which those in bondage are responsible for that bondage in the first place, whether through forsaking G-d, or forsaking themselves. This question, again, is the puzzle that underlies the entire novel. Beyond this, the fact that they are committing murder, even if it is dressed up as meshugecide, is a reminder that redemption always comes with a price, for someone. Stalin is strung up and exsanguinated; Pharaoh’s own firstborn is struck down and his army drowns in the waters of the Reed Sea. And redemption is never clear cut, even for the redeemed. In Shemot, Jews exchange their bondage to Pharaoh for bondage to the one G-d. In 1917, the Jews of Russia exchanged the bondage of the shtetl, and of the slums of Kiev and Odessa, for the ultimately false promise of the Revolution. And even as the novel concludes and the “wheels of just revenge begin to grind,” redemption – in the sense of liberation from bondage – is by no means a sure thing. The future – for Levinson, for Lewis, for all Russia – is filled with uncertainty and ambiguity.
As my mother, z”l, always said: “Never wish for a new czar.”
A.E. Smith is a writer in Ottawa, Canada.