The only reason my father never wrestled a bear is that there were none on the streets of Manchester. But he behaved otherwise Russianly. He had a riotous laugh. He performed feats of strength—bending 6-inch nails, tearing telephone directories in half, lifting up a chair by one leg, regardless of whether someone was sitting in it. And he danced the kazatsky, shouting “Hoy! Hoy!” at ruby weddings and bar mitzvahs.
It helped that my father had short legs. He taught me to dance the kazatsky and it helped that I had short legs too. The kazatsky is a long way down if you’re a tall man. For all their fearsomeness, Cossacks must have been short men.
The only Russian thing my father didn’t do was drink vodka, though I did occasionally see him throw back a small glass of kummel and then look wildly round the room.
For all the Russianness of his character, my father had nothing to say about Russia the country. He wasn’t born in Russia himself but his parents came from thereabouts—Kamenetz-Podolski, to be exact (though you can spell it how you like), a stony-fortressed administrative city on the Smotrych River in Western Ukraine. There was a massacre of Kamenetz-Podolski Jews in 1941, carried out by the usual combination of Einsatzgruppen and overzealous local militiamen Jews had thought of as friendly neighbours. Fortunately, my father’s mishpocha, or at least those we knew of, had all cleared out by then. A blessing on my ancestors who saw what was coming in good time.
Whether my father was even aware of the 1941 massacre I have no idea. I wasn’t quite born yet. But I heard no later mention of it. Nothing about the old country was mentioned. To my recurrent question—“So where is it we came from again?”—his answer was always a sweep of the arms denoting everywhere and nowhere. “There.”
“There, there …”
“You mean Russia?”
“Round there. Now loz me ein.”
I was in my 50s before I discovered that my mother’s family came from Lithuania. Litvaks, Mitnageddim, naysayers—which explained why they were so much more reserved and critical than my father’s people. It was I who broke the news to her.
“Lithuania? Where’s Lithuania?”
I made a sweeping gesture with my arms. “Out there …”
“The Baltic! I thought we were from Russia.”
“It’s in the vicinity.”
That we owed the past nothing, that the best thing we could do with it was bury it, was something almost all my Jewish friends’ families agreed on. Few of us could be, or wanted to be, precise about our origins. We had enough to do getting on with being English.
So what’s so English about dancing the kazatsky, I could have asked my father. But I understood why there was no inconsistency in his doing it. Just because a little bit of the past occasionally showed through, didn’t mean that a fresh start was illusory or dishonest.
My own contribution to the task of shaking the Urals from our shoes was preferring Tolstoy to Dostoevsky and once in a while putting in a word for Turgenev above them both. But weren’t there twinges of recognition whichever of them I read? Yes. No. Yes.
I can discern a Jew from a gentile across a busy road in the pelting rain. No disrespect to gentiles, but when I do discern another Jew my heart leaps. Why? The answers, I fear, are all sentimental. Look, we are still here. Look, we have come through. Expectation of a warm handshake. Maybe even of a shared joke.
Unless the real explanation is buried deep under the rubble of the past. Several thousand years ago we crossed a river together. Shortly after, we gathered muttering at the mountain foot waiting to see what Moses would bring down for us. That might have been when the jokes began. “No adultery! Is he kidding?”
My heart will leap no matter whether the Jew across the road is Spanish and Portugese, glossy or pale from a life dodging wolves and short-legged Cossacks in the cold Carpathians; but in truth it will leap higher in the latter case. Sephardic Jews are my better-favored cousins. The Jews of Ashkenaz are my brothers and sisters.
So now here I am in Moscow at the invitation of my Russian publisher for the translation of my novel J. It’s not my first Russian trip. I was in St. Petersburg 25 years ago on a mission to persuade the great Russian clown Slava Polunin to appear in a television series about comedy I was making. I had no attention to spare from trying to get him and then the disappointment when I failed. I flew in and flew out. Today, I’m here on my own account as a novelist and a Jew.
My first public event is at Eshkolot—a cultural center in the middle of the city that aims, in its own words, “to provide young intellectuals with the opportunity to take part in Jewish study programs.” So no bear-wrestling or dancing the kazatsky. The room is arranged café style, which I like. This is to be a conversation, not a lecture.
I sit to one side and watch the room fill up. On the streets or in the underground Russians don’t look at you. They are, I have been told, a diffident but not a hostile people. Here, they smile at me—though again not boldly—as they take their seats. There isn’t a face I don’t know, if not from family photograph albums, then from my imaginings of what the Mashas and the Ivans of the Russian novels I love must have looked like. Not a face I don’t know and not a face I don’t love to look at.
In England there has always been something of a separation between the literary worlds I inhabit and the Jewish ones. No other Jewish boy that I went to school with in Manchester studied literature at university. Law, yes. Sociology, yes. Medicine, of course. Subjects that had professions at the end of them. Literature was not flaky exactly, but precarious, a touch bohemian.
A few literary Jews have since popped up, but not in such numbers or convictions as to bridge the essential chasm. If I’m going to have a Jewish conversation it’s not going to be with fellow writers or critics, and if I’m going to talk Wordsworth it won’t be with my Jewish friends. But here, on my first night in Moscow, I am conscious of no such dissociation of sensibility. Here, I think, are people with whom, without drawing a breath, I’ll be able to talk Jewishness and literature.
Too many years ago to count, my then-wife, who wasn’t Jewish, accompanied me on my first trip to modern Israel. She was moved for me when the plane landed. “You should kiss the tarmac,” she said.
I told her I didn’t kiss tarmac.
“Then start now. You’re home. You’re back with your people.”
She was right. I was home. But too much had happened since I was last in Israel, however many thousands of years before. Yes, these were my people, but they’d changed. And I’d changed too.
Russia, on the other hand, was recent history whether we’d talked about it or not. I had been kissed by great-grandparents who’d been born not far from here. “Zeyn a gut eyngl,” they’d said, pinching my cheek and giving me a kopek.
There is a way that a member of a small audience will smile at you, if you’re lucky, that denotes not just understanding and appreciation but a conviction that they get you in a special way, as though your words are just for them. Two or three such people in your audience and you are an unstoppable force. Tonight, the whole room smiles at me that secret smile of special one-to-one knowingness and I smile it back. What this really means is that they recognize in me what I recognize in them—the family likeness, not just of feature, but of manner of discourse, the worrying one’s way to truth, the holding back of final assent, the sense that we’re all in the Great Yeshiva of the Mind together.
I several times forget what it is I want to say, so lost in their faces am I. There is one woman here whom, because of the seriousness of her demeanor, I mentally elect to be my aunty, though I am old enough to be her great uncle. She has a silvery complexion like a seabird’s and a great swooping profile. She holds her head very still, presenting the planes of her pale cheeks to whatever wind that blows. There is nothing, I fancy, that she can’t see or hear or feel. Does that explain the melancholy of her expression? Too many sensations. No hiding place. She is out of Chekhov rather than Dostoevsky. I hear her nerves vibrate. I’d like to ask her if she can hear mine.
A fine-looking young man, as slender as a Russian birch and the spitting image of how I see Turgenev’s Bazarov, only I don’t think he has green eyes, laughs into his chest as I speak. I recognize my shyest Jewish friends in him, that way they had of confabulating with themselves. He is one of the first to stand up with a question, and now he is all confidence. Not Bazarov, not a nihilist—if anything he is hope itself and shames me by finding more of substance in what I say than I feel, in his presence, I possess. While he looks like a student of politics he is actually a student of literature, the bookish Jewish friend I never had.
He has two books he wants me to sign and stands very close to me while I do. Though they keep their distance in public places, Russians allow no space to come between you when you talk. I speak into his eyes and break off only when an intense woman in spectacles interrupts to ask why all Jewish novelists feel they have to be funny. “It’s our way of expressing tragedy,” I tell her.
Another less insurrectionary woman with a flustered expression—she has to be called Natasha—has taken my hands in both hers. Do I think things are truly as bad for Jews in Europe as J suggests, she wants to know. Too many questions, and in the confusion of them I forget to ask how things are going for Jews here. That’s a mistake I will fail to rectify on this visit. They seem to have decided I am some sort of prophet—a role I fear I am only too willing to play.
The intense eye-meeting and handclasping go on for the next few days. At an event in my publisher’s Jewish bookshop I show as miserably ignorant in the matter of the contemporary Jewish novel. But that doesn’t stop a boy wearing tzitzit from asking five questions. They all boil down to his wanting to know what I think he should do with his life. It turns out he is a student at the Jewish University in Moscow and has as many friends with him as he has questions. They gather round me for a selfie. Jewish boys this age would not come to a reading of mine in England. I’m not even sure their parents would.
I am better at telling people what to do with their lives than I am discussing contemporary Jewish fiction. I say that in my experience love makes for fulfillment and if he hasn’t got a partner he should get one now … of either sex. That occasions a tremor of consternation. Only slight, but enough to remind me that the East is not the West. But the anxiety I see on many faces in my audiences doesn’t strike me as site-specific. This is just what we do. We listen hard. We wonder. We fret away, never content to let a matter rest or say “enough.”
You can’t gauge the health of a community in five minutes, and I have no right to pronounce on the Jews of Moscow. And I wasn’t there for them anyway. I was there for me.
It’s a mark of our jumpy times everywhere that we’re all trying to find out who we are and where we’re from. I love intoning at Pesach the great Jewish trek out of Egypt, across the Sinai, and into the Promised Land, but at other times it can feel like too onerous an imaginative stretch. Out there, there, Russia somewhere, is more like home, and the Russians look more like me than the mystics of Safed do. But I’m not going to kiss the tarmac at the airport. It’s too far down.
Read Booker Prize-winner Howard Jacobson’s monthly column in Tablet magazine here.