American Jewish fiction, in its classic phase, was a literature of immigration. Early examples of the genre deal with the immigrant generation itself—as in The Rise of David Levinsky, by Abraham Cahan, generally considered the first major American Jewish novel, or Call It Sleep, by Henry Roth, which takes up the story of David Schearl as he disembarks on Ellis Island. Later books focus on the experience of the first American-born generation as it struggles to reconcile the Old World of the family with the New World lying all around. Classic examples of the pattern include Alfred Kazin’s memoir A Walker in the City and Delmore Schwartz’s story “In Dreams Begin Responsibilities,” in which a young American Jew watches his immigrant parents’ courtship on a movie screen.
It makes sense, then, that as the majority of American Jews grows ever more distant from the immigrant experience, Jewish fiction has become less powerfully distinctive. Jewish lives in the third and fourth generation are American lives with a Jewish inflection—unless, that is, they are deeply engaged with Judaism as a religion, which explains why some of the most vigorous Jewish fiction of recent years, from Jonathan Rosen’s Joy Comes in the Morning to Allegra Goodman’s Kaaterskill Falls, deals with the observant or Orthodox experience. For the most part, the baton of immigrant fiction has been passed to writers of other backgrounds, whose arrival in America is still a fresh discovery and trauma—such as the Indian-American Jhumpa Lahiri and the Dominican-American Junot Diaz, two of the most celebrated novelists at work today.
The one group of American Jews who still have a vital connection with the immigrant experience are those who came here from the Soviet Union in the 1970s and 1980s—and it is no coincidence that these are some of the most popular Jewish writers today. Now in their thirties and forties, writers like Gary Shteyngart and Lara Vapnyar are just the right age to conjure up the dislocations of moving from Brezhnev’s USSR to Reagan’s America. So is David Bezmozgis, who, though his family emigrated to Canada rather than the United States, has the same basic immigrant story to tell. And he told it brilliantly in his first book, Natasha, a story collection that brought an acerbic, unsentimental vision, reminiscent of the early Philip Roth, to autobiographical tales of growing up as a Soviet immigrant in Toronto.
In his subsequent work, however, Bezmozgis has separated himself from other Soviet-American Jewish writers—indeed, from the whole genre of immigrant fiction—in a deliberate and fascinating way. Rather than continue to write about his own experience in the New World, Bezmozgis has turned himself into a chronicler of the Old—the experience of his parents’ or even grandparents’ generation, during and after the Soviet period. In his novel The Free World, Bezmozgis told the story of a group of adult émigrés from the Soviet Union in the late 1970s as they grapple with the bewildering freedoms on offer in Rome, where they are temporarily housed before making their way to Canada. The most memorable character in that book was not a child—not, that is, someone whose experience would have resembled Bezmozgis’s own—but Samuil Krasnansky, a World War II veteran and true-believing Communist, who leaves the USSR against his will and sees the West with bitterly skeptical eyes. In creating Samuil, Bezmozgis was reaching imaginatively into a phase of Jewish history that most Jews today prefer to forget about—the generation of Jewish Communists who ardently believed that the Soviet Union was forging a path to Jewish and human liberation.
In doing so, Bezmozgis showed that there is another way to be a Jewish immigrant writer. For if the story of immigration is always one of rupture, for Jews it is also, inevitably, a story of continuity as well. To come to America from Italy or Greece, or China or Mexico, is to leave a country behind and enter into a new national story; it’s not incumbent on Italian-Americans to sustain Italian culture, because Italy itself continues to exist. For Jews who came here from Eastern Europe, however, there is no “back home” to visit or nostalgize over; that heartland was doubly destroyed, first by Soviet power and then by Nazi violence. Jewishness, if it is to live, must continue to live here—or else in Israel, which both is and is not a kind of homeland for Jews elsewhere. American Jews live in two time frames at once: As American ethnics, they are well along the path to assimilation; as Jews, they are part of a history of Diaspora, in which Jews have lived more or less successfully in a variety of countries, but never permanently disappeared into any.
The Betrayers, David Bezmozgis’ new novel, continues his project of imagining the Soviet Jewish experience. And he has boldly chosen to place at the center of the story the man who is probably the most famous Soviet Jew of them all: Natan Sharansky, whose life and career are in almost every detail the model for the novel’s main character, Baruch Kotler. Sharansky, the most famous refusenik of the 1970s, spent 13 years in Soviet prison camps before being released, thanks in large part to the efforts of his wife Avital, who had moved to Israel on her own. Once he made aliyah, Sharansky—who exchanged the Russian name Anatoly for the Hebrew Natan—remade himself as a major Israeli politician, serving in the Knesset and the cabinet as the leader of a Russian-immigrant party.
Kotler, Bezmozgis’ hero, has an almost identical history, down to the number of years he spent in prison. But while no scandal has ever attached itself to Sharansky’s name, we first meet Kotler in full flight from an Israeli media mauling, when it is discovered that he has been cheating on his wife—the saintly Miriam, who waited for him all those years—with a young political aide, Leora. Hoping to escape scrutiny, the ill-matched lovers have impulsively flown to Yalta in the Crimea, where Baruch once went on vacation with his parents as a young child, back when he was still known as Boris. Clearly, both the affair with Leora and the trip to Yalta are attempts to recapture his youth—a quest that, Kotler and the reader know, can never really succeed.
Things begin to go wrong for Kotler right away, when the hotel claims to have no record of his registration. He and Leora are forced to rent a room in a local couple’s house, and right away the claims of Jewishness begin to obtrude themselves: Out of all the locals competing for the tourists’ business, Kotler picks the one woman who pointedly mentions that she has a Jewish husband. “Doesn’t it say in the Torah that you should first help your own kind?” wheedles Svetlana, and while Kotler resents the emotional blackmail, he gives in to it. This is doubly foolish because he is supposed to try to be anonymous, while any post-Soviet Jew will surely recognize the famous refusenik.
Yet Kotler gets a bigger dose of recognition than he bargained for when it turns out that Svetlana’s husband is none other than Chaim Tankilevich—the man who, 40 years earlier, denounced Kotler to the KGB as a Zionist spy, thus sending him to the Gulag. This is admittedly a pretty big coincidence, and in a different novel it might well come across as melodramatic. But The Betrayers keeps its artifice in bounds by refusing to dwell on it. As in a play, the dramatic confrontation between these two men is the premise, which we accept because we want to see what will result.
Just as Bezmozgis extended his novelistic sympathy to the hardline Communist Samuil in The Free World, so in this book he refuses to dismiss Tankilevich as a mere traitor or stool-pigeon. As we see his miserable life in post-Soviet Ukraine—he depends for survival on a pension from a Jewish charity, which is meanly doled out on the condition that he attend the dying local synagogue—Tankilevich becomes less a villain than a victim of history. Indeed, when you consider their lives’ trajectories, who is to say that Tankilevich didn’t do Kotler a favor by denouncing him? After all, Kotler’s years in prison made him a hero and led to the life he wanted, as an Israeli leader; Tankilevich’s sacrifice to a dying system brought him nothing but poverty and disgrace. Svetlana even insists, rather shamelessly, that Kotler was sent to Tankilevich’s house by God, in order to redeem him and bring him at long last to Israel.
While this central confrontation unfolds, Bezmozgis evokes the atmosphere of present-day Crimea—decayed, desperate, directionless—with remarkable sympathy for the average victims of the Soviet implosion: “This was what they had raised from the scraps of communism. This was what the struggle for freedom and democracy and delivered. Bread and circuses. Mostly circuses. … First the Soviet sham, then the capitalist.” This Ukrainian stasis is especially clear by contrast with Israel, which for all its problems is pulsing with life and hope, the strange energy of a dream come true.
But when it comes to Israel, too, Bezmozgis writes sympathetically about a politics that he knows most of his readers will regard with hostility. In the novel’s indefinite near future, Israel is about to make a momentous withdrawal of settlements from the West Bank—just the kind of gesture of reconciliation American liberals clamor for. But Baruch Kotler is a leading opponent of the move, and the exposure of his affair is linked, we come to learn, with his refusal to give in to the prime minister’s plan. Bezmozgis convincingly evokes Kotler’s tough-minded variety of Zionism: “Holding the territory had become increasingly painful, but as Kotler knew, one had to have a tolerance for pain. Because there is no life without pain. To deny this was only to invite more pain. This is what they had done when they withdrew from the Gaza settlements in 2005, and they were doing it again, as if a mistake stubbornly repeated could yield different results.”
Writing so pointedly about current events, and about a nearly real person, Bezmozgis must have feared that history would outpace him. And of course it has, not in Israel—where a withdrawal from the West Bank now looks more remote than ever—but in the Crimea, which just this year has become the focus of geopolitical gamesmanship between Russia and Ukraine. Vladimir Putin’s brazen annexation of Crimea, the very place where The Betrayers unfolds, lends a certain accidental timeliness to the novel; but on a deeper level, it only confirms Bezmozgis’ diagnosis. For who can expect that Crimea under Russia will be any more hopeful or prosperous than it was under Ukraine? On the contrary, the constantly hovering threat of war between these two post-Soviet states only emphasizes the bleakness, the sense of being cornered by history, that Bezmozgis evokes. For a Jew like Baruch Kotler, being Jewish is a form of redemption from that history—a chance to enter into an entirely different narrative, one that continues, in Israel and elsewhere, to hold out new possibilities. For this reason, The Betrayers is the rare book that makes being Jewish feel not just like a fate or a burden, but a great opportunity.
To listen to a 2011 Vox Tablet conversation with author David Bezmozgis, click here.