"You can be a Bolshevik, march with the flag, say what you’re expected to, and still help a fellow Jew here and there. ... You know, sometimes I look at a light bulb and I think: the only God left in this world is electricity. You tell me, though: can a light bulb be God?"So worries a Jew in Stalin's Russia in around 1930 -- a character in The Zelmenyaners, a comic novel by Moyshe Kulbak. The work -- which deals with the adjustments to Communism, modernity, and attendant dislocations of a Jewish family in Minsk -- was published in Yiddish in serial form from 1929 until 1935. It was recently translated into English, and I read it to my great amusement, as I've always wondered about how the Jews of the Shtetls and the cities of Eastern Europe managed to adapt to the major upheavals of the era.
The book is episodic, covering the lives of the descendants of one Reb Zelmele. In a kind of apartment building that Reb Zelmele built for his sons we meet a large number of his descendants, and their spouses or lovers, and a few others too, simple people: "a Zelmenyaner is no more complicated than a slice of bread." (p. 4)
Sometimes the author looks back to the history of family members, for example, how one of them had survived the Great War and the Revolution because he had a wooden spoon:
"Although he had more than once lost his rifle, he was never without the wooden spoon that he kept tucked into his boot leg, his most precious weapon of the war....By the time it was old and black and broken at the handle, no bigger or cleaner than the palm of his hand and hardly still a spoon at all, it had done more for him than any spoon in the world had ever done for anyone. He had raked potatoes from campfires with it. He had eaten snow with it. ... He had spooned castor oil, vodka, and plain water down his throat with it. He had dug trenches with it. Once he had even rented it out for a single meal in exchange for a thick slice of bread." (p. 128)During the main narrative, in the early years of the Communist regime, Jews in the apartment building ate traditional foods: potato puddings, boiled potatoes, cold potatoes, bread, herring, hard-boiled eggs, bagels, jam. Jam, it seemed had miraculous properties for comforting the eater, curing the sick and other purposes. The Zelmanyaners loved to eat, especially children: "Given a slice of bread with a pickle, or a radish and a bowl of sorrel soup, they gulped it down and cried: 'More!'" (p. 31)
And times change as on this occasion towards the end:
"The food was served. Uncle Itshe had a sharp eye. He saw at once that it wasn’t the usual Zelmenyaner fare. It started with little tidbits served from tins, each barely enough for a lick and a bite. What else was to be seen on the table? Gorgeous yellow apples on a white platter. Round little tortes in cobbler dishes. Canned delicacies on white trays. A suckling pig, its lewd little head at one end of a trencher with its feet tucked beneath it and its tail curled like a cord at the other end. Tall, thin wineglasses with napkins folded inside them." (p. 213)I'd love to also tell you about the huge and varied smells that the author describes like this one about the apartment building -- "A smell of fresh pine boards mingled with the odor of the long-gone geese that had once laid their eggs in the vestibule" -- but I'm out of time. (p. 23)
The Zelmanyaners are doomed by modern life and by the outlawing of their ways of making a living, as summarized in this passage:
"The last tailor is gone— the old Jewish tailor with the little beard, the thin, amused brows, and the dry-as-dust fingers.
"Gone is the barefoot potato wolfer and fecund progenitor who reproduced like grass, doubling and redoubling himself.
"Gone is the merry Jew who needed only a bowl of sorrel soup to make him sing the world’s wonders." (p. 173)The end of the story is the end of the Zelmanyaners' apartment building:
"Reb Zelmele’s kingdom, which had endured for seventy years and several generations, had come to an end. Not only would it never see the fulfillment of its founder’s dream, the well from which it could drink its own water, it was doomed to be wiped from the earth with its little houses, fences, sheds, and even its brick building that had been the incomparable pride of so many Zelmenyaners." (p. 263)