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Toward the Abyss

The final work of a doomed Yiddish novelist

Elizabeth Mitchell
May 27, 2008

One day in 1934, Pinchus Kahanovitch, a fifty-one-year-old Ukrainian writer of Yiddish stories, fairy tales, and criticism, decided he did not want to disappear. Within a group of novelists and short story writers that included David Bergelson, Peretz Markish, and Moyshe Kulbak, Kahanovitch had been something of an idol, having published in the great Y.L. Peretz’s journal, Yudish, in the 1910s under the pen name Der Nister (meaning “the Hidden One”). The novelist Israel Joshua Singer later recalled a visit to Kiev around 1920 in which a member of the Culture League announced during a meeting that, “had writers of the whole world been given a chance to read Der Nister’s work, they would have broken their pens.”

The clique’s reverence, however, provided little insurance for Der Nister in the Soviet Union of the mid-1930s. The Soviet government looked suspiciously on any group that set itself apart from the main social body. Though the government officially acknowledged Yiddish—mainly to show a peaceable face to the international community—as the language of a Jewish minority, libraries were throwing out Yiddish books, Yiddish schools and institutes were being shuttered, and newspaper presses stopped. In 1934, Der Nister explained to his brother in a letter, “The writing of my book is a necessity; otherwise I am nothing; otherwise I am erased from literature and from life.”

The book Der Nister labored over would not be a revolt against the modern Yiddish literary tradition, but revolutionary in its adherence to that tradition during a time when Yiddish culture was under attack. That book, The Family Mashber, was conceived as an epic tale of at least three volumes, relating how a generally happy, successful Jewish family in the Polish-Ukrainian town of N (actually Der Nister’s hometown, Berdichev) lost that happiness completely within one short year in the 1870s.

At least that is how the book ends now.

The modern Yiddish literary movement had been flourishing since 1864, when S.Y. Abramovitsh published the first installment of his very popular “The Little Person” in the Yiddish newspaper supplement Kol Mevasser. The novella, enjoying the wide Eastern European circulation of the paper, offered a witty, masked social critique of corruption within the Polish and Russian power centers and the Jewish community itself. Yiddish fiction found its most famous voice in the work of Isaac Bashevis Singer, who published his first stories in a Polish literary journal before immigrating to the United States in 1935. Book One of The Family Mashber appeared in Russia in 1939.

(Book Two would be printed in the United States, also in Yiddish, in 1948.) The completed third volume disappeared when Kahanovitch did, on a Saturday in February 1949. Kahanovitch received the Soviet secret police at his door in Moscow with a smile. “Thank God you came at last,” he is reported to have said, “I have waited for you for so long.” When one of the arresting officers asked about the whereabouts of his manuscripts, he replied: “Forgive me, gentlemen, that matter is none of your concern. It was not for you that I wrote my manuscripts and they remain in a safe place.” He was charged with conducting “hostile nationalistic activity” and thrown into Lefortovo prison. The following year he died, at age sixty-seven, of bleeding hemorrhoids in a labor camp.

In his lifetime, Kahanovitch had witnessed the worst of human nature. As a young man, he hid under assumed names to avoid czarist military service. In 1921 he escaped to Germany, but was lured back in 1927 by Stalin’s false promises that Yiddish culture would be celebrated in the Soviet states. In Moscow, he lived and taught with a group of Yiddish artists, including his good friend Marc Chagall, at the Malakhovka children’s colony, a school for orphans of the pogroms. There he tried to synthesize lessons in Jewish culture with Communist propaganda. In 1949, during Stalin’s campaign against “Cosmopolitans,” he saw many of his artist friends hauled away to prisons and labor camps, where they perished. In the months before his arrest he waited at home with his wife for the tragic ending he had imagined for himself to come to pass, and which indeed he had committed to paper—in a symbolic way—in the last pages of the second volume of The Family Mashber.

The first two volumes of The Family Mashber have just been reprinted in English, as a single paperback, by New York Review of Books Classics. (This translation, by Leonard Wolf, first appeared in 1987 as a Summit Books hardcover; in The New York Times Book Review, Ruth Wisse called it “a large, sprawling historical novel reminiscent of Dostoyevsky in its concentration on the human soul.”) Although Kahanovitch fought for Yiddish works to be published in Yiddish, he might have been pleased to know that the memories he struggled to preserve would be carried forth in the minds of new American readers. In his preface to The Family Mashber, he writes, “The world depicted in this book—the economic base on which it rested, its social and ideological conflicts and interests—disappeared long ago. . . . In depicting those people, who are physically and spiritually extinct, I have taken pains not to contend with them, not to cry out that they are doomed. Rather, I have let them proceed quietly on their historically necessitated way toward the abyss.”

The key character approaching the abyss in the novel is Moshe Mashber, a successful and seemingly humane businessman. Moshe boasts a devoted wife, a loving family of married daughters, and two brothers: Alter, who suffers from epilepsy, and Luzi, revered for his absolute piety. In Yiddish, Mashber means “crisis,” and one may suspect that Moshe, as a rich man intimately connected to characters who shun material wealth (particularly Luzi, his most beloved sibling), will be served his crisis owing to overweening pride or avarice. But such is not the case. One of the region’s noblemen refuses to pay back massive loans owed to Moshe, threatening the stability of Moshe’s whole business. When another drunken nobleman shoots a portrait of the czar in a Jewish inn, the Jews must find hush money to avoid persecution from the capital. The two financial strains cause Moshe’s crash. The collapse is more than financial; under strain, Moshe proves to be selfish. The fall of its most successful citizen brings down the whole tightly intertwined community.

Meanwhile, Moshe’s brother Luzi moves deeper into his faith, ultimately joining the Bratslaver sect of Hasidim. The Bratslaver never chose a successor when their founding rabbi, Nachman of Bratslav, a famous Yiddish storyteller in his own right, died in 1810. For this, they are considered radical in breaking from the tradition of powerful rabbinical dynasties. Rebbe Nachman preached that his followers should speak to God without intermediaries, pay no heed to money, and spend their time in joyous singing and dancing. “Their days were spent in prayer, and their nights lying on the graves of the town’s holy men,” writes Der Nister. “As for doing something for the world or for themselves or for their families—they ignored all that to a criminal degree.” The culture of this bedraggled sect—absolutely devoted to God—must have been the one Der Nister most wanted to preserve for posterity. His own brother, Aaron, was a Bratslaver, and given everything Der Nister witnessed of religious and political persecution during his lifetime, he must have been certain that this sect would vanish for good, forever to be misunderstood. In the 1920s, the mainstream Jewish community had even turned on its own religious sects in the Soviet states, echoing the government’s pogroms, and Der Nister’s novel reflects that internal feud. As Book Two ends, the town seeks to drive out the sect, suspecting that somehow the group’s strange habits have brought the curse of financial ruin upon everyone.

If this abundance of crises makes the book sound humorless, it’s not. Der Nister’s love for his characters allows him to enjoy their affections for each other, their gaiety in celebrations. But he reveres the transformative power of pain above all else and liberally doles out trials to everyone. When Moshe is imprisoned, Luzi writes to him, “In times past a man who did not have sufficient sorrows of his own used to go in search of them, wandering an exile through the world. . . . You ought to consider yourself worthy to have received the precious gift of suffering in your own home.”

Those sentences might once have described the goal of literature in general, and of religious texts in particular: bringing the stories of suffering into one’s own home, so one can be transformed by pain in proxy. I doubt this idea of tragedy as a blessing is as valued today. I kept wondering, reading The Family Mashber, how this book would be received by twenty-first-century American readers, trained to enjoy filmic storytelling and dazzling style. Der Nister is at his best detailing the quirks of his characters’ physiques, passions, and flaws, in sketching his doomed society. Isolated passages astound with their grace, the enormity of the philosophical ideas presented. In narrative arc, Mashber is not unlike the thoroughly gentile It’s a Wonderful Life—a relatively decent businessman is brought down by an act beyond his control. But in Mashber, one watches the strands unravel slowly, as if by gravity, and the spiritual struggle is not simply to understand the worth of one’s self, but to reckon with the worth of the universe. Moshe and his immediate family are spared no agony, so perhaps the book is too lifelike for pleasure. We tend to want our authors to serve as just gods, doling out the rewards to the worthy. But there is no happy ending in Mashber, at least not at the end of Book Two.

The great enemy in Mashber is society itself—the organizational forces of neighborhood, town, and nation that swamp the decency of the individual and the personal quest for spiritual ecstasy. Moving through The Family Mashber, anonymously righting wrongs and preserving the righteous, is the odd character of Sruli, a curmudgeon of mysterious origins, believed to be rotten by most of the town’s inhabitants and yet, by secret deed, the most holy. As Book Two ends, he is leading Luzi off on his pilgrimage—the journey in search of suffering. Reaching a wedding party before dawn, the two outcasts are invited in with great honors, their knapsacks stuffed with “sponge cakes, honey cakes, fruitcakes as well as roasted meats enough to last our travelers for a day or longer.” Luzi’s departure feels like victory.

In his 2004 book In Harness: Yiddish Writers’ Romance with Communism, Gennady J. Estraikh writes that, in 1924, Moshe Litvakov—the editor of Der emes, a Yiddish daily—called Der Nister the “only existing model for a revolutionary Yiddish writer.” According to Litvakov, Der Nister “was the only established writer who never went through a crisis and always wanted to write for a mass reader.” When I read this, the word “crisis” jumped out at me. There is little possibility Der Nister would have missed this call to arms in a prominent Yiddish paper. Ten years later, Der Nister was writing his “crisis” about Moshe—a book boldly describing a separate society, a story of individuals shunning the social body, in effect shunning socialism—bringing the crisis to his own doorstep with the arrival of the secret police. Did he finally decide that the only way to be a mentsh was to clarify his break with the government?

In the absence of the third volume of Mashber, Kahanovitch’s life almost serves our need for narrative closure. Luzi breaks all his ties—to family, to sect—to set off with only his own strength to guide him. It’s impossible to read The Family Mashber without thinking of the fate that befell its creator. On the day he was arrested, he promised the officer that his manuscript was safe. Is it still? Does it exist somewhere in Russia, hidden under floorboards, in the pages of other books, untouched by fire, flood? It could.

Or we could accept the only resolution for the novel we currently possess: The victory of the solitary artist, independent of state or mentor. Kahanovitch also told the officer he did not write his books for the police, implying he wrote them for people who read for pleasure and enlightenment. Which of course would be anyone who reads this new edition of the novel.

Elizabeth Mitchell is the author of Three Strides Before the Wire: The Dark and Beautiful World of Horseracing and W: Revenge of the Bush Dynasty. She recently completed a novel set in the third century of the Roman Empire.

Elizabeth Mitchell is the author of Three Strides Before the Wire: The Dark and Beautiful World of Horseracing and W: Revenge of the Bush Dynasty. She recently completed a novel set in the third century of the Roman Empire.

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