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The Fiddler’s Children


At the turn of the twentieth century, 60 percent of Europe’s Jews (5.2 million out of 8.7 million) lived in the Russian Empire. Subject to a comprehensive range of legal disabilities and discrimination, the Tsar’s Jews were forbidden to own land, to enter the Civil Service, or to serve as officers in the army; there were strict quotas on Jewish admissions into higher schools and universities; and with a few exceptions they were forced by law to live in the fifteen provinces of western Ukraine, Belorussia, Lithuania, and Poland which made up the Pale of Settlement. The Jews were “middlemen between the overwhelmingly agricultural Christian population and various urban markets,” Yuri Slezkine writes in his bold interpretative history:

Most of the Jewish middlemen bought, shipped, and resold local produce; provided credit on the security of standing crops and other items; leased and managed estates and various processing facilities (such as tanneries, distilleries, and sugar mills); kept taverns and inns; supplied manufactured goods (as peddlers, shopkeepers, or wholesale importers); provided professional services (most commonly as doctors or pharmacists), and served as artisans (from rural blacksmiths, tailors, and shoemakers to highly specialized jewelers and watchmakers).

And then there was Tevye the Dairyman. Slezkine says that his main purpose is to “describe what happened to Tevye’s children.” As readers will recall, Tevye is the hero of Sholom Aleichem’s stories, which were adapted for the Western stage and screen as Fiddler on the Roof. Tevye has four daughters who break from patriarchal tradition: Tsaytl falls in love with a poor tailor and rejects the marriage that her father has arranged; Hodl marries a revolutionary and follows him into exile in Siberia; Beilke (who does not feature in the film) marries a shady businessman and runs away to America; and Chava elopes with a Russian peasant boy who shares her love of books. Fiddler on the Roof ends with Tevye, his wife Golde, and their two remaining daughters packing up their bags and emigrating to America. They are leaving with the rest of their village, following the pogroms of 1905–1906.

Imagining the destinies of Tevye’s children, Slezkine charts the three main paths of Jewish emigration—geographical and intellectual—from the shtetl and its traditions. Many Jews followed Beilke to America, a journey Slezkine links to their adoption of liberal and capitalist views (as well as to the spread of Freudianism). A much smaller number emigrated to Palestine (less than half of 1 percent, even at the height of Jewish immigration to the Holy Land).1 But Slezkine contrives to send Chava there (on the fanciful assumption that her repentant return to her Jewish home at the end of Tevye the Dairyman “stands for her emigration to the Land of Israel”); this allows him to place the emigration to Palestine in the context of a nationalism—Zionism—which developed from the persecution of the Jews. Finally, there were Jews like Hodl, the main subjects of The Jewish Century, who migrated from the Pale of Settlement to the major cities of Russia, where they aligned themselves, for the most part, with the socialist movement, and became prominent in the Soviet government and intelligentsia.

In this way, Slezkine links the emigration of the Jews with the dissemination of the twentieth century’s three main ideologies: liberalism, nationalism, and communism. But this is only part of Slezkine’s reasoning for calling the twentieth century the “Jewish century”—a provocative description that is bound to cause offense to those for whom the Jewish Holocaust was the defining event of the century. Slezkine argues that “the modern age is the Jewish age, and the twentieth century, in particular, is the Jewish Century,” because

modernization is about everyone becoming urban, mobile, literate, articulate, intellectually intricate, physically fastidious, and occupationally flexible. It is about learning how to cultivate people and symbols, not fields or herds. It is about pursuing wealth for the sake of learning, learning for the sake of wealth, and both wealth and learning for their own sake. It is about transforming peasants and princes into merchants and priests, replacing inherited privilege with acquired prestige, and dismantling social estates for the benefit of individuals, nuclear families, and book-reading tribes (nations). Modernization, in other words, is about everyone becoming Jewish.

Modern life, for Slezkine, is all about the transformation of settled agricultural (“Apollonian”) societies into mobile urban (“Mercurian”) societies, where everyone becomes a stranger and the most successful people are the followers of Hermes, above all the Jews, who get on through their cleverness and their ability to act as go-betweens.

Many historians have documented the prominent position of the European Jews in business and banking, in the liberal professions and the arts, and in the socialist movement. Slezkine is a historian of Russia (a professor of history at the University of California, Berkeley, he made his reputation with a splendid earlier book, Arctic Mirrors: Russia and the Small Peoples of the North, which was published in 1994). He charts in great detail the contribution of the Jews to the economy and cultural life of late tsarist Russia, in particular. Russia’s Jews were dominant in banking; they financed much of the country’s railroad construction, its gold mining, oil production, river transportation, and commercial fishing; they were prominent in its timber and sugar industries; and for a long time they controlled most of its grain trade. Slezkine explains the Jews’ predominance in Russian commerce not just by the tsarist prohibitions against their involvement in other economic activities, as most historians would be inclined to stress, but also by their attributes as ethnic Jews:

The Jews owed their economic success to strangeness, specialized training, and the kind of intragroup trust that assured the relative reliability of business partners, loan clients, and subcontractors. And like all Mercurians, they tended to think of themselves as a chosen tribe consisting of chosen clans—and to act accordingly.

The Jews in business, concludes Slezkine, “were—as elsewhere—better at being ‘Jewish’ than most of their… competitors.”

Slezkine writes with irony and wit. His book is full of bold and sweeping statements and flashes of brilliance. It will challenge and surprise and infuriate the holders of received opinion. On the jacket, Slezkine’s publishers are careful to remind us that the author’s opening declaration that “the Modern Age is the Jewish Age” (and that “we are all, to varying degrees, Jews”) “is, of course, metaphorical.” Metaphors can illuminate “symbolic truths” (i.e., truths which are not supported by historical facts), but to do that they must be based on meaningful historical categories. Slezkine’s categories collapse under scrutiny.

Slezkine is at his most controversial in assigning “Jewish” attributes to an ethnic group, which he calls “Jews” just by virtue of their birth:

Jews,” for the purposes of this story, are the members of traditional Jewish communities (Jews by birth, faith, name, language, occupation, self-description, and formal ascription) and their children and grandchildren (whatever their faith, name, language, occupation, self-description, or formal ascription).

This is an enormously inclusive group. By these criteria, I am certainly a Jew (although I have never been to a religious service in a synagogue and do not think of myself as a Jew); my daughters are both Jews (although they have been christened and brought up in an atheist household); nearly all my friends are no doubt Jews; and probably most of my readers too. Using these criteria of ethnic selection, Slezkine presents comprehensive lists and statistics to illustrate the success (the “Jewishness”) of Jews in various “Mercurial” activities. Thus we learn that “in 1912, 20 percent of all millionaires in Britain and Prussia…were Jews”; that in “turn-of-the-century Vienna, 62 percent of the lawyers, half the doctors and dentists, 45 percent of the medical faculty, and one-fourth of the total faculty were Jews”; that “Jews constituted 49 percent of all lawyers in the city of Odessa (1886), and 68 percent of all apprentice lawyers in the Odessa judicial circuit (1890)”; and so on.

This approach reminds me of The Jewish Chronicle, the British newspaper, which is well known and fondly teased for writing articles about the achievements of successful Jews in the community and claiming them as “Jews,” whether they identify themselves as Jews or not. But what use can such statistics have as an explanation of historical phenomena? Are we to suppose (as Slezkine clearly does) that it is possible to attach “Jewish” attributes to a group of people who happen to be Jews (or were born to Jews), even if they have no real connection to the Jewish religion, to Jewish culture or communal life (and indeed might consciously reject all forms of Jewish identification)? Is it sensible or acceptable to ascribe common features to an ethnic group at all? Unless we believe that values and ideas are carried in the blood, Slezkine’s supposition is dubious at best.


Of the three different routes of emigration from the Pale of Settlement, Slezkine devotes most attention to those Jews who migrated within Russia and embraced the Revolution of October 1917. The Jewish emigration to America and Israel are sketched around the edges of The Jewish Century, whose last two chapters, “Babel’s First Love” (on the Jews and the Russian Revolution) and “Hodl’s Choice” (on the Jews in the Soviet Union), make up over two thirds of the book.

According to Slezkine, historians have tended to neglect the story of Hodl because she does not fit into the “canonical Jewish history of the twentieth century”: she was not martyred in the Holocaust; she did not emigrate to America or Israel; and as a Soviet citizen, she did not even have a Jewish religious or cultural identity, or so Slezkine claims. But whereas others might thus disregard her as a proper subject of Jewish history, Slezkine argues, on the contrary, that Hodl’s own negation of her Jewishness is itself a “Jewish” attribute (indeed, he argues, for the Soviet Jews, in general, nothing was more “Jewish” than their effort to escape their Jewishness).

The trick here is to analyze the Jews not as Jews but as Mercurians, people with a talent for making connections and dealing with new situations. Slezkine’s “Jews” are not defined by the Jewish customs, habits, and beliefs of their families; as businessmen and bankers, scientists and artists, professionals and revolutionaries, they are instead defined by their ability to realize their inner (“Jewish”) nature as the makers of the modern world.

On the eve of World War I, Moscow had just 15,000 Jews; St. Petersburg about 35,000. The German invasion of Russia’s western borderlands in 1914– 1915, followed by the collapse of the tsarist monarchy in March 1917, allowed the Russian Jews to migrate north and east to the big cities, where, once they had been freed from persecution, they soon began to shine in schools and universities. The Jews were overrepresented in the Soviet professions and cultural elites; they thrived in science, industry, and trades (when these were allowed in the 1920s); and thousands of them rose to senior positions in the Soviet government, the Red Army, and the political police (the NKVD). By 1939, Moscow’s Jewish population had risen to a quarter of a million (the city’s second- largest ethnic group), while Leningrad had 200,000 Jews. Within a generation of 1917, the Russian Jews became an urban people, as the population of the rural shtetls emigrated or died out: 86 percent of Soviet Jews lived in urban areas, half of them in the eleven largest cities of the USSR, by the start of World War II.

  1. 1

    Tom Segev, One Palestine, Complete: Jews and Arabs Under the British Mandate, translated by Haim Watzman (Metropolitan, 2000), p. 225.

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