David Gutman as a bricklayer in the film The Return of Neitan Bekker

National Center for Jewish Film

David Gutman in Boris Shpis and Rashel Milman’s film The Return of Neitan Bekker, 1932

How the Soviet Jew Was Made by Sasha Senderovich is a scholarly work, but it also presents urgent perspectives for any post-Soviet Jewish American who has ever entertained the question What made my parents the way they are? What accounts for their dark view of the world, their elevated sense of humor and irony, and, perhaps most poignantly for this particular group, their unquenchable anxiety?

Many Soviet Jews familiar to Western readers are defined at least in part by their absence from the USSR. For example, the painter Moishe Shagal (later Marc Chagall), who was born in 1887 near Vitebsk in what is today Belarus, traveled extensively throughout Western Europe before World War I and moved to Paris in 1923, having spent no more than seven years in the new Bolshevik state. Alisa Zinovyevna Rosenbaum, better known as Ayn Rand, left the USSR in 1926 and spent most of her days perfecting her egoism in the United States. Google cofounder Sergey Brin, born in Moscow in 1973, was resettled in Maryland by 1979, part of a large wave of Soviet Jewish immigrants (which included me).

In academia the Soviet Jew has long been seen as an ideological suitcase ripe for stuffing. Whether as an idealistic but ultimately failed Communist, a Zionist in training, an eternal refugee, or a Tevye-like throwback for his nostalgic American brethren, the Soviet Jew wanders across the imagination with a counterfeit passport always in need of stamping. Works about Soviet Jews have often focused on reclaiming the Jewish part of the equation. In this formulation, the pre-Soviet Jew lived and breathed the Mishnah and Gemara, sometimes only putting aside the ancient texts (and his leatherworking tools) to catch up on his Jabotinsky or some other favorite Zionist.

Studies committed to such a mode of thinking attempt to reconstitute the Jew shorn of the Soviet associations, as if the seventy-plus years during which the USSR existed were but an unmemorable interlude and the Soviet Jew could now be fully reunited with his elemental Jewishness. Senderovich cites scholarship that aims to highlight how much of Judaic heritage is preserved in works of Russian Jewish literature. I am reminded of the fastidious manner in which my father would watch the end credits of Hollywood movies after we moved to Queens from Leningrad in the late 1970s: “Weisberg, Jew. Levy, Jew. Greene, maybe Jew?”

Of course, such an approach is understandable after emigrating from a country where your identity often aroused suspicion. But in art and scholarship, an inability to abandon the assumptions of the past prevents us from making fresh discoveries. Forty years after my wave of Soviet emigrants arrived on American shores, it is encouraging to see a fellow immigrant adopt a more sophisticated approach to the subject, as Senderovich (born in Ufa, Russia, in 1981) does in his brilliant new study.

In tracing Jews’ departure from the “unique ecosystem” of the shtetl and immersion in the Soviet metropolis, where “public transit networks and electric grids proliferated,” his book balances the Soviet Jewish equation, denying neither the “Jewish” nor the “Soviet.” Instead he negotiates the push and pull of Soviet ideology and practice on the Jewish inhabitants of the nascent state and the emergence of an entirely unique cultural figure, part glasses-on-nose (over)thinker, part aspiring muscular Soviet worker.

I have known Senderovich for some time because of his interest in contemporary post-Soviet émigré authors such as David Bezmozgis, Irina Reyn, Anya Ulinich, Boris Fishman, and me. I have participated in several readings and symposia with him and have found him to be a generous reader of the works of my generation. (Because we share roughly the same background and appearance, we are even mistaken for each other.) Senderovich’s essays often lead into provocative territory, for example his examination of the relationship between American and Soviet Jews: for Senderovich, these can be considered “colonizers” and “colonized”—not in the sense of imperial powers and overseas subjects, but in the way the US Jew may view his Soviet counterpart as a “savage, a creature who needs to be civilized to become more acceptable to the colonizer, in part to justify the colonizer’s civilizing mission itself.”1

Leaning on postcolonial theory, he captures the ambivalence of the encounter between American and post-Soviet Jews, rooted in, among many other things, culture, class, religious observance, and especially lack thereof. He discusses the similarly paternalistic attitudes of German Jews toward Eastern European Jews in nineteenth-century America and of French Jews who set out to “educate and civilize” Middle Eastern and North African Jews in the twentieth century.

This is an energetic approach for generations of Russian-speaking American Jews navigating a fraught historical identity, and also for artists and intellectuals who do not think immigrants owe America for their acculturation and citizenship, but rather that a complex, prosperous, artistic, and intellectual America is impossible without us.


To get a clearer picture of the “deeply ambivalent” figure of the Soviet Jew, Senderovich takes us back a couple of generations to the Pale of Settlement, the borderland area spanning parts of contemporary Ukraine, Belarus, Russia, Poland, Moldova, and the Baltic states to which most Jewish inhabitants of the Russian Empire were restricted. (By “Soviet Jews” I mean those originating in the western borderlands and not, for example, Bukharan, Georgian, and Azeri Jews, who have different roots and deserve books of equal rigor.)

The origin of the Soviet Jew presents conceptual difficulties from the start. A sample Jew would likely have been born in the Russian Empire and ended up a citizen of the new Bolshevik state—eventually known as the USSR—after the 1917 revolution. The language he or she spoke was more often than not something other than Russian: chiefly Yiddish, but also Ukrainian or Polish or one of many other tongues. My own paternal grandmother, who left Ukraine for Leningrad in the 1930s, had to learn Russian—the language of mobility in the new Soviet state—in addition to the Yiddish and Ukrainian she already spoke.

Senderovich assembles a chapter-by-chapter commentary on novels, short stories, and films, written in both Yiddish and Russian, that highlight the assemblage of the Soviet Jew. He sketches the outlines of a distinctly liminal (a word I find overused, but which is impossible to avoid here) cultural persona able to move across borders, languages, and—as the Soviet experiment often literally and explosively gained steam—ideologies. The works in question capture the essential aspects of Soviet Jewish identity: the pogroms that eviscerated Jewish communities in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries; the upheaval of the Russian Revolution that in many cases intensified the violence against Jews; the urbanization and technological transformation of Soviet Jewish life; the earnest but often comical attempts to define the Soviet Jew within the context of the “New Soviet Man,” perfectly illustrated by the foundation of the hapless Jewish Autonomous Region, also known as Birobidzhan, near the USSR’s border with Manchuria; and, perhaps most in line with my own work, the character of the Soviet Jewish “trickster,” who is able to withstand the uncertainty, cruelty, and incompetence of the new regime through his first line of defense—humor.

Senderovich’s book begins with David Bergelson’s 1929 Yiddish-language novel Judgment,2 set in the crucible of Soviet Jewish life: the pogrom-cursed borderlands of the Pale of Settlement. Any upheaval within the former Russian Empire could be construed as a fine excuse for violence against Jews, but the dissolution of the tsarist domain itself brought about a torrent of aggression as Jews were trapped between the monarchist Whites, the Soviet Reds, and any nationalist force bent on claiming postimperial statehood. (My paternal great-grandfather was killed in a small Ukrainian village after the revolution, and, given the plethora of armed forces operating in the area, it is still not known who took his life.) Judgment begins in the fictional town of Kamino-Balke and is written in what Senderovich calls a “Gothic mode,” with Filipov, the head of the local Cheka (the Soviet secret police), ensconced in the ruins of a monastery not far from the Jewish shtetl of Golikhovke.

Ambivalence—ideological and otherwise—is the cornerstone of this book. The Soviet Jew, Senderovich writes, was one who was destined to evade “the ideological expectations of what a Jew in the USSR was supposed to become.” To put it more simply: out of the shtetl and into the urban factory. The proximity of Soviet power, as embodied by Filipov, to the residents of Golikhovke provides one such paradox. The Bolsheviks presented themselves as an enlightened “bulwark against pogroms,” yet they were charged with eliminating the small businesses that were the economic mainstay of the Jews, as well as prohibiting the contraband trade that flowed across newly formed borders. Building on recent work by the historians Andrew Sloin and Brendan McGeever, Senderovich writes, “Because Jews were so heavily involved in trade—an activity newly criminalized as smuggling—criminality came to be seen as a de facto aspect of Jewishness.”

Judgment also contains elements of the wartime and espionage novel, documenting the violence bubbling among Reds, Whites, and Socialist Revolutionaries. The vast cast of characters includes an anti-Semitic woman—referred to, in full Rothian manner, as “the blonde”—who works for a gang of pogromist Whites and seduces a Jewish double agent, an act she performs with disgust. She is executed upon Filipov’s orders, as is a devout Jew, a factory owner who reported only a fraction of his assets to the state but who submits himself to the judgment of Jewish rather than Bolshevik law. The Chekist Filipov also meets a violent end—as did his creator, Bergelson, who was executed at the end of the Stalin era.


Senderovich closes the chapter by quoting a 1922 essay written by Bergelson (and translated by Joseph Sherman) describing a Ukrainian shtetl in the path of a pogrom: “a God-forsaken world, exposed to the chill of winter, to the wind that might gust down from the north, and the trouble that had yet to erupt and sweep down from very far away.” That sense of exposure to the unpredictable wind, a wind that in the coming years would sweep down from both Moscow and Berlin, reinforces the history of violence that shaped the Soviet Jew’s relationship to the state, its ideology, and the new urban workers’ communities that his newly masculinized avatar was supposed to fill.

Senderovich describes this transition through Moyshe Kulbak’s Yiddish-language novel The Zelmenyaners (1931).3 The novel is set in Minsk, the capital of the Belorussian Soviet Socialist Republic, which was both expanding and modernizing during the interwar period. The stage set for this transformation is a residential courtyard that once belonged to one Reb Zelmele (“Reb” is a Yiddish honorific) and is now populated by a tragicomic cast of his many descendants, who give the novel its title. Such is the closeness of the Zelmenyaners’ courtyard that its inhabitants almost form an ethnicity of their own: they have even developed their own scent, which in the novel’s opening scene allows one Zelmenyaner to recognize another in a train car. (The olfactory gambit is not necessarily over the top; when I moved to New York as a child, I learned to recognize former Soviet brethren in the subway through the unique scent of bad Polish leather mixed with recently consumed raw onion.)

Kulbak delights and confounds the Zelmenyaners with various forms of modernity championed by the Soviet state, including electricity, moving pictures, and the tram: “The day began with the Zelmenyaners hearing [the tram’s] unfamiliar bell ring near the courtyard. The first to run was Uncle Itshe, who loved novelties.” The protagonists include a set of four so-called uncles, the descendants of Reb Zelmele, who practice typical Jewish trades such as tailoring and tanning. Each “uncle” is married to an “aunt,” followed by a plethora of their adult children, who represent the pathway from traditional livelihoods to industrialization.

One young adult who is reluctant to see the socialist light is Tsalke, who “functions as the courtyard’s amateur ethnographer and collector of family lore.” Senderovich notes that Tsalke wears “glasses on his nose” much like “the sensitive Jewish intellectual famously described, using the same words about eyeglasses, in Isaac Babel’s Odessa Tales and Red Cavalry published in the 1920s.” Poor nearsighted, “retrograde” Tsalke is matched against the farseeing Marxist revolutionary Tonke, the daughter of another uncle, with whom Tsalke falls in love and who later brings the entire courtyard to trial for their inability to Sovietize.

The figure of Tsalke is particularly interesting within the scope of Senderovich’s book. The glasses on his schnoz signal the lack of masculinity and an inability to follow the socialist dogma with which the Soviet Jew was to be imbued. Senderovich notes that the Soviet Jew in literature, similar to the figure of the Jew in European emancipatory discourses and in Zionist tracts, was “coded as male,” yet it’s notable that in The Zelmenyaners the task of upholding the revolution falls to Tonke, who decries the way the residents of the courtyard cling to the bits and bobs of their past (“twelve copper ladles, a chamber pot, a fur muff, and plenty more”). Tsalke, on the other hand, is the keeper of accounts, the recorder of the flotsam of traditional Jewish life in the new Soviet world.

In the end, Tsalke kills himself. (His creator, Kulbak, like Bergelson and any Stalin-era writer worth his salt, was executed, in 1937.) The very courtyard in which the Zelmenyaners make their home is destroyed, and they are resettled in new housing. But their smell remains, even within the confines of a new Soviet railcar. The Jew is still a Jew, and the pogroms and the Pale of Settlement are only just behind him, but he is taking on new characteristics, adapting to the contours of an electrified new reality, for better and for worse.

Senderovich’s focus then shifts across nearly the entire landmass of the USSR, from the borders with Poland to the borders of Manchuria, in a chapter titled “The Edge of the World: Narratives of Non-Arrival in Birobidzhan.” The autonomous region was meant to remedy the Jews’ lack of a defined geographic territory while also transmuting this group of shopkeepers and middlemen, as the stereotype about shtetl dwellers would have it, into honest socialist tillers of the eastern soil. (The Jewish settlements were also meant to be a buffer between the Soviet Union and remaining White Russian troops in Manchuria.) The chapter’s title cheekily hints at the only problem with the grandiose plan: the “non-arrival” of the guests of honor, the Jews themselves.

But just because few Jews actually made it to Birobidzhan (and of those who made it, many promptly left) doesn’t mean that Jewish writers couldn’t tackle the subject in prose. And what they wrote reveals less about the actual project of Birobidzhan—which, again, lacked Jews—than about the perspective of exactly who the Jews were supposed to become in the new Soviet Union, that is, “the shtetl Jew’s transformation into a new type of muscular Jew.”

Two works of literature are summoned to commemorate this important nonevent: Viktor Fink’s Jews in the Taiga (1930), a collection of literary sketches, and Semyon Gekht’s A Ship Sails to Jaffa and Back (1936). Both writers had participated in the initial 1929 expedition to the new territory. The comical aspect of their works is that, just as the Jew failed to arrive in Birobidzhan, they failed to write about the Jew arriving in Birobidzhan. Fink’s Jews in the Taiga finds its true subjects in the Amur Cossacks, who were brutally resettled by the Russian Empire decades prior and who have a wrenching tale to tell about their sojourn in the new homeland. Gekht’s hero, per the title, does sail to Jaffa and then travels overland to Birobidzhan, his account an effort designed to deflate the desire of some Jews to settle the former instead of the latter. But the author, again, has little to say about Birobidzhan except for some platitudes, while lavishing Palestine with all the colors of the palette.

Strangely enough, A Ship Sails to Jaffa and Back was given to recently arrived Soviet immigrants in Israel when it was republished there in the 1980s, minus the Birobidzhan sections, to acclimate them to their new home. Even more strangely, Gekht wrote his lush descriptions without ever setting foot in Palestine. Writes Senderovich: “Gekht was able to credibly substitute Birobidzhan with Palestine because of a structural similarity between the two places and their attendant ideological underpinnings”—which is to say, there is a similarity to Zionist and socialist aesthetics, in that both encouraged the newly muscular Jew, freed from his small shop and set loose upon the factory and the field, to flex his physical and ideological biceps.

Senderovich follows the chapter on Birobidzhan with an essay focused on a film titled The Return of Neitan Bekker (1932), in which a Jewish bricklayer who had sojourned in capitalist America returns to the Soviet Union to lay still more bricks. Once again the aim is to celebrate the creation of the New Soviet Man, especially in the context of what would become the USSR’s first Five-Year Plan. According to the screenplay: “There are no socially crippled freaks whom the Bolsheviks can’t reforge into useful and necessary people who are in demand under the conditions of new socialist society’s construction.” In other words, even a Jew was capable of turning into what Senderovich calls “a healthy, muscular type who was to become the new society’s chief builder.”

The grand set piece of The Return of Neitan Bekker is a bricklaying contest between Bekker, who is not only short and Jewish but also steeped in abusive American bricklaying practices, and a tall, attractive representative of the Slavic working class who has been trained according to a new Soviet method. The contest is appropriately set in a circus. Of course, the handsome Slav out-bricklays Bekker, who then resorts to physical mockery of the Slav and the socialist society he represents, hence becoming the “socially crippled freak” in need of reforging. After the competition he slumps against his tiny wall while gazing at the high one built by his opponent. The taller, more efficiently built wall, erected by a taller and more efficiently built gentile, “is associated with the New Soviet Man, and the mockery of the norm with the emergent figure of the Soviet Jew,” as Senderovich writes.

This is not the first or the last time that mockery would be associated with the Soviet Jew. Senderovich’s final chapter explores Isaac Babel and Hershele Ostropoler, the trickster from Yiddish folklore. Many scholars have made a fine supper of Babel’s work, but Senderovich shares the limelight usually cast upon Red Cavalry and the Odessa Tales with Babel’s reinterpretation of the character of Hershele in his short story “Shabos-nakhamu,” in which the traveling Hershele tricks an innkeeper and his wife out of a meal, a horse, and a set of clothes. The character was based on a historical figure, a wandering entertainer who was hired at the turn of the nineteenth century as a kind of jester at the court of Rebbe Borukhl of Medzhibozh, a central figure in Hasidism. The spiritual leader, according to accounts, was depressed because he couldn’t hasten the arrival of the Messiah, and Hershele was sent in to bolster his spirits.

Babel transplanted Hershele into Bolshevik Russia. This updated Hershele allows a critique of the Soviet system’s inability to “supply its followers with the relief it had promised them,” much as messianic Hasidism failed to deliver the Messiah it had promised. At the same time, both Hersheles help “maintain the system itself,” according to Senderovich. This is an important consideration for any writer working in a charged ideological environment—whether Soviet, Hasidic, or otherwise—of which the Soviet Jewish writer was an example par excellence. One must be able to operate within the system, even to subtly expose its failings, without ever approaching the possibility of changing it. Senderovich expands upon this theory by bringing in Lyutov, the Jewish enlistee embedded with hostile Cossack troops in Red Cavalry:

This figure is not at home in traditional Jewish culture, but neither has he become nostalgic for it after being alienated by the emerging Bolshevik society. Instead, this is a figure whose very existence, like Hershele’s, is defined by alienation from both societies and cultures, combined with the ability to be engaged in both. Styling himself after Hershele, Lyutov can navigate two distinct cultural systems and play them off one another.

The inability to conform to either traditional Jewish practice or the nascent Bolshevik state, matched with the ability to “play them off one another” in true trickster fashion, is perhaps the central conceit of How the Soviet Jew Was Made and an important corrective to approaches that cleave the Soviet Jew into disparate parts while ignoring the whole. Senderovich scrutinizes the examination by one literary scholar, Efraim Sicher, of the topography of Odessa in Babel’s story “Karl-Yankel,” in which the narrator wanders the streets of the city. Sicher designates Pushkin Street as Russian, while the street where the Hebrew poet Chaim Nachman Bialik lived is coded as Jewish, and he argues that the meaning of the story is partly derived from the “rigid dichotomy between fixed Russian and Jewish cultural markers.” Senderovich wonders if, instead, there’s “a different way to walk Odessa’s streets,” to imagine a figure whose Jewishness “manifests not in the stable cultural markers that Sicher envisions” but instead “remaps cultural elements that became dislodged from their traditional contexts in the former Pale of Settlement and became diffused within the evolving Soviet culture.”

Such insights help explain both the Jewish and Soviet jokes that came out of the same mouths as I was growing up (and were likely created by the same people). They contextualize both my father’s aching for the void that might have once been filled with Jewish practice and his New Soviet Man machismo. Of the Russian-speaking Jewish immigrants I know, any one of us could have had ancestors in the Zelmenyaners’ courtyard, any one of us could have been descended from a Tsalke or a Tonke. (My maternal grandmother was a Leningrad journalist and devoted Communist until her last days.) The recently consumed onions I remember smelling on a 1979 subway car preceded me from the Pale, but the cheap leather was of distinctly Soviet Bloc vintage. Any attempt to separate the two denies a unique identity—an error How the Soviet Jew Was Made finally corrects.

An earlier version of a picture caption with this review misidentified the co-director of The Return of Neitan Bekker (1932); she was Rashel Milman.