The Magazine

On the Brink

A haunted vision of a people in extremis.

Feb 20, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 22 • By SUSANNE KLINGENSTEIN
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Kaganovitch wrote at the end of a long line of literary self-criticism. No literature was as merciless toward its own people as Yiddish literature, beginning with the satires of Sholem Yankev Abramovitch (aka Mendele Moykher Sforim), which faulted the Jews for being backward, self-satisfied, hypocritical, unproductive, exploitative shnorrers, all the way to the novels of Isaac Bashevis Singer, which fault the Jews for self-indulgent sensuality. It’s a literature of relentless self-examination because it was clear to all that, by the 1880s, the traditional world of Eastern European Jewry was falling apart. Under the dual impact of violent anti–Semitism and huge economic stress, religion lost its grip on the Jews. The young moved toward Zionism, nationalism, socialism, communism; those not given to idealism moved to America.

Der Nister was in the thick of it all. Born in Berdichev, where his brother fell in with the Bratslaver Hasidim, he became a writer of mystical Hebrew poems and symbolist Yiddish stories. He lived in Kiev during the Russian Revolution and subsequent civil war, in Moscow during the famine, and in Berlin during the Roaring Twenties, producing refined poems, stories, and works for children. In 1926 he moved back to the Soviet Union, because that is where his readers lived.

In 1929, the party began to exert pressure on all writers. Socialist Realism was the order of the day, and Jewish particularism was no longer tolerated. Der Nister’s fantastic symbolism and literary aestheticism were damned as bourgeois decadence. In response, he developed a highly idiosyncratic style, fully displayed in his epic The Family Mashber, in which he hid his metaphysical thoughts that required symbolist modes of expression behind the realistic façade of a story, in the style of Buddenbrooks, about a family’s decline.

The stories in Regrowth, written while Kaganovitch was at work on his epic, are cast in the same pseudo-realist style that conceals Jewish metaphysical depths for those who can unravel the clues. One of the easier ones is “Meyer Landshaft.” When the Germans invade Meyer’s home and line up its inhabitants, men on one side, women on the other, a contest ensues between the father and his youngest daughter over who gets to sacrifice himself for the other. At the core of the story is Meyer’s sharpening of knives, which the Germans interpret as a threatening act but for Meyer recalls Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac. In due course the story reveals itself as a symbol of Meyer’s masculinity, which he feels is dulled when his daughter saves him by using her blossoming sexual allure. The story turns out to be a King Lear tale about a father’s inability to release his daughter into freedom because he knows it’s a freedom that will kill her.

On the surface, Der Nister’s stories here depict the defeat of a tired, worn-out super-refined ethical culture by a horde of brutes. The destruction of the Jews is child’s play for the brawny Germans. But underneath the surface of the setting, where the author explores the Jews’ relation to each other, and the cultural resources they can draw on in their response to destruction, Der Nister assesses the ethical and intellectual legacy that has been bequeathed to him as a writer at the end of a long line of Jewish thought. The upshot is simply expressed at the end of the title story: “to be mindful of the commandment of growth and regeneration. [And] then he resolved to appear with clear words and .  .  . to pronounce what until now he has half concealed.”

For his commitment to the Jews expressed in his fiction, Pinhas Kaganovitch was jailed in 1949 and died in a Soviet prison hospital in 1950.

Susanne Klingenstein is a lecturer in the Harvard/MIT Division of Health Sciences and Technology.