Salwa — The Jewish Century — A conversation with Yuri Slezkine

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interesting Q & A with UC Berkeley prof. of History Yuri Slezkine on his new book the Jewish Century – salwa
Q&A: A conversation with Yuri Slezkine
In the 20th century, we all had to become literate, urban, mobile, and occupationally flexible. In other words, we all had to become Jewish.
By Russell Schoch
A few years ago, historian Yuri Slezkine set out to write a book about the early Soviet elite. He focused on a residential building in Moscow that housed the leaders of the Soviet Union of the 1930s. When he figuratively looked inside that building, a prototype of communist living, he found that it had been occupied in large part by Jewish immigrants from the Pale of Settlement, the restricted region in which Jews were allowed to settle in the Russian Empire. In attempting to understand their internal movement, and the two other great migrations of Russian Jews in the 20th century–to the United States and Israel–he was forced to step back and examine more broadly the role of Jews in the modern age.
The result, The Jewish Century (published by Princeton University Press), has been called “a passionate and brilliant tour de force” and “an extraordinary book with continual surprises” about modernity, the 20th century, and the history of the Jews. One of Slezkine’s metaphoric points is that all of us have had to become “Jewish” in the modern age because Jews have long been urban, mobile, literate, articulate, and occupationally flexible–traits the 20th century demanded. Slezkine uses the characters and writings of Pushkin, Joyce, Proust, and the Yiddish writer Sholom Alecheim to illuminate his beautifully written book.
Slezkine was born in Moscow in 1956 into a family that considered itself a part of the Russian intelligentsia. He learned English in part by listening to the BBC and read the collected works of Charles Dickens in Russian (and later in English). He has written: “I became half-Jewish in 1967 when I told my father that Mishka Ryzhevskii from Apartment 13 was a Jew, and my father said: ‘Let me tell you something.’” He was told that his mother’s family was Jewish, and that his grandmother–like one of Hodl’s daughters in Sholom Aleichem’s Tevye the Dairyman–had left the Pale of Settlement, moved to Moscow, and embraced communism.
Although his first love was history, Slezkine studied Russian literature and linguistics because, he says, history was too politicized under the Soviets. His first trip outside the Soviet Union was in the late 1970s, when he found work as a translator in Mozambique, in East Africa. He returned to Moscow to serve as a translator of Portuguese, and spent 1982 in Lisbon before taking a leap, the next year, to Austin, Texas. He received his Ph.D. in history at the University of Texas in 1989 and taught at Wake Forest University before coming to Berkeley in 1992. His earlier books include Arctic Mirrors: Russia and the Small Peoples of the North and two co-edited volumes, one of life stories of Russian women from 1917 to the Second World War, and one on the myth of Siberia in Russian culture. His next project, he says, will be to return to that residential building in Moscow and finish the story he set out to tell before The Jewish Century intruded.
Daniel Boyarin, the Taubman Professor of Talmudic Culture in the Department of Near Eastern Studies at Berkeley, calls Slezkine’s new book “a brilliant addition to Jewish studies” and says that “it provides the best explanation I know of anti-Semitism.” Yuri Slezkine discussed that and other issues of The Jewish Century in an interview as the fall semester began. A professor of history at Berkeley, Slezkine this fall also became director of the Institute of Slavic, East European, and Eurasian Studies.
In your book, you say that Jews experienced three Paradises and one Hell in the 20th century. Hell of course refers to the Holocaust. What are the Paradises?
These are the destinations of the three great migrations of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. There are the two we all know about–from Eastern Europe, mostly the Pale of Settlement in the Russian Empire, to America and to Palestine. Then there is the one I am particularly interested in: from the Pale of Settlement to the Soviet cities. Most of the Jews who stayed in Russia moved to Kiev, Kharkov, Leningrad, and Moscow, and they moved up the Soviet social ladder when they got there. This third, invisible or less visible, migration was much bigger than the one to Palestine and much more ideologically charged than the one to America. And, for the first 20 years or so of the Soviet state, it was also seen by most people involved as the most successful. But, by the end of the 20th century, it was seen by most people involved–the children and grandchildren of the original migrants–as either a tragic mistake or a non-event.
All three migrations were, in a sense, pilgrimages, and all three represented different ways of being Jewish, and of being modern, in the modern world: non-ethnic liberal statehood in the United States; secular ethnic nationalism in Israel; and communism–a world without capitalism or nationalism–in the Soviet Union. That, plus the Holocaust, of course, which stands for the dangers of not going on one of those three pilgrimages, represents much of the 20th century, I think.
Why were Jews so successful in the early Soviet state?
The story of the Jews in the early Soviet Union is similar to the story of the Jews in America. That is, they were especially successful in the realms of education, journalism, medicine, and other professions that were central to the functioning of Soviet society, including science.
Jews in the Soviet Union were much more literate than any other group, they were untainted by any association with the imperial regime, and they seem to have been very enthusiastic about what the Communist Party was doing. This was to some extent a conscious commitment to ideology, but mostly it was just because there were no more legal barriers against Jews. The doors opened, and they flooded in and did exceedingly well in the 1920s and the first part of the 1930s.
My belief is that you can’t understand the second part of the Jewish story in Russia–the anti-Semitic policies, and what happens to Soviet Jews later, their desire to emigrate, for example–unless you know the first part of the story, which is mostly about amazing success.
You write that Jews were important members of both the secret police and those who ran the gulag. This was news to me.
The fact was not known to me when I was growing up in the Soviet Union. Most people found out about it when they read Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago. He didn’t make a point of it at the time, but he talks about the people who were running the White Sea Canal labor camps, and they were virtually all ethnic Jews.
What was your reaction?
Mostly surprise, because it seemed so incongruous to those of us who thought of Jews as the primary victims and primary opponents of the Soviet regime. But later I discovered that the role of communism in modern Jewish history was tremendously important. I don’t think you can understand modern Jewish history without considering the Russian Revolution or understand communism without considering the role of the Jews.
What accounts for Jewish success more generally?
Jews belong to a certain community of peoples that engage in certain occupations in similar ways–and provoke similar resentments. Looking at it comparatively, one discovers that this specialization is very old and fairly common.
What is this specialization?
At different times and in different places, there were tribes–ethnic groups–that specialized exclusively in providing services to the surrounding food-producing societies. They include Roma-Gypsies, various so-called “Travelers” or “Tinkers,” the Fuga in Ethiopia, the Sheikh Mohammadi in Afghanistan, and of course the Armenians, the Overseas Chinese, the Indians in East Africa, the Lebanese in West Africa and Latin America, and so on. I call them all “Mercurians,” as opposed to their “Apollonian” hosts.
What do you mean by those terms?
Apollo was the god of both livestock and agriculture. “Apollonian” societies, the way I use the term, are societies organized around food production, societies that consist mostly of peasants, plus various combinations of warriors and priests who appropriate peasant labor by controlling access to land or salvation.
Mercury, or Hermes, was the god of messengers, merchants, interpreters, craftsmen, guides, healers, and other
border-crossers. “Mercurians,” the way I use the term, are ethnic groups, demographically complete societies, that do not engage in food production, but live by providing services to the surrounding Apollonians.
In the modern world, Apollonians have to become more Mercurian–more Jewish, if you will; but Apollonian values, peasant and warrior values, essentially, live on, of course. The two attitudes, two ideal types, are still with us today, and the Jews, the most accomplished of all Mercurians, are still playing a very special role in the modern world–as the models of both success and victimization.
There are striking similarities in the way all Mercurians think of themselves and of their non-Mercurian neighbors, and in the way they actually behave.
Can you give illustrations of what you mean?
Essentially, the idea is that certain things in traditional Apollonian societies are too dangerous or too unclean to be performed by members of those societies: communicating with other lands, other worlds, and other tribes; handling money; treating the body; and dealing with fire by engaging in metal work, for example. All these are typical Mercurian specialities. Most Tinkers and Travelers started out as tinsmiths. My great-grandfather was a Jewish blacksmith.
It’s a very large world, if you think about it: disease, exchange, negotiations, travel, burials, reading. And these were the things the permanent internal strangers, or Mercurians, were willing to do, compelled to do, equipped to do–or very good at doing.
And these occupations were not limited to Jews.
There were a lot of groups performing such functions. And, throughout the world, they share certain features and are regarded in similar ways. Think of Jews and Gypsies. Both were traditionally seen as dangerous internal aliens, homeless for reasons of divine punishment, and engaged in harmful, morally suspect activities. They were always seen as mirror images of their host communities: Their men weren’t warriors, their women seemed aggressive–and, perhaps for that reason, attractive; they remained strangers by staying aloof, not intermarrying, not fighting, not sharing meals–just making, exchanging, selling, and possibly stealing, things and concepts. And so they were feared and hated accordingly, with the Holocaust as the culmination of that long history of fear and hatred.
And I think they were seen in similar ways because they were, in many ways, similar. Both were exclusive, nomadic service providers; both had rigid taboos regarding unclean food and intermarriage; both could only survive by remaining strangers–hence the prohibitions against sharing food and blood with their neighbors, and the obsession with cleanliness.
But Gypsies have certainly not had the success that Jews have had in the modern world.
I distinguish between the majority of Mercurians, including Gypsies, who engage in small, non-literate pariah entrepreneurship; and those, like the Jews, who specialize, among other things, in the interpretation of written texts. With the rise of the modern world, the Gypsies have continued to ply their trade in the diminishing world of folk oral culture, while the Jews have gone on to define modernity.
In any case, the ways in which Mercurians and Apollonians regard each other are similar wherever one looks. What is true of Jews and their peasant neighbors in Imperial Russia is, I think, true of Gypsies and their hosts, as well as of Indians and local populations in East Africa, and so forth.
Including the Overseas Chinese in Southeast Asia?
Yes. The Overseas Chinese too are supposed to be clever–too clever, perhaps. You can call on the usual anti-Semitic list: they are aloof, devious, unmanly, and so on. This is the way Apollonians describe Mercurians throughout the world.
And of course one could interpret these same qualities in a positive light. “Cunning” and “deviousness” may become “intelligence” and “a general commitment to the life of the mind.” Gypsies are proud of being smarter than the non-Gypsies they deal with, as Jews are, or were in the traditional Jewish world. Mercurian views of Apollonians tend to be negative too: “soulfulness,” “courage,” and “earthiness” may become “stupidity,” “belligerence,” and “uncleanliness.”
In other words, the oppositions mind/body, intelligence/physicality, impermanence/permanence, non-belligerence/belligerence remain the same and are agreed upon by everyone involved. Everyone knows which traits are associated with which group; the difference is in the interpretation.
Which leads you to conclude what about the Jews?
Seen in this way, some things about the Jewish experience and the traditional Jewish economic role become less unique, so to speak. To be crude about it, perhaps, it’s not an accident that there was a Gypsy holocaust.
What do you mean?
That there are similarities between Jews and Gypsies and a whole lot of other peoples who engaged in similar pursuits that go beyond their common fate under the Nazis, or the hostility that they encounter wherever they go.
This could change the way one understands anti-Semitism.
In my book, I tried to contextualize the Jewish experience, to explain both the Jewish victimization and the Jewish success.
On the particular question of anti-Semitism, my book makes the argument that anti-Semitism is not a disease, not mystical, not inexplicable. It makes the argument that the beliefs and perceptions and actions usually associated with anti-Semitism are very common, and that they are applied not only to the Jews.
Does your argument give you, personally, a different understanding of what it means to be a Jew, and of anti-Semitism?
Sure! Of course it does. I didn’t write the book to preach anything in particular. But I hope that one conclusion people draw from this part of the book is that something that is understood is easier to combat. If you think of anti-Semitism as a mysterious epidemic, then it’s hard to know what to do about it. When you feel you understand what brings it about, then it becomes more intelligible. And less dangerous.
But what of the Holocaust?
The Jewish Holocaust was in some ways bigger than any other event of that sort in the history of the world. But the perceptions on which it is based are perfectly familiar and very common. The history of the Overseas Chinese in Southeast Asia, for example, is a history of relentless pogroms as well as remarkable success.
You’ve seen these common beliefs yourself?
Growing up in Russia one couldn’t help noticing that the things people said or thought about Armenians were in many ways analogous to things people said or thought about the Jews. And there was my experience in East Africa, which is one reason I became interested in the comparison. In Mozambique, it was striking how similar the economic and social roles of local Indians were to the economic and social roles of Jews in Eastern Europe.
Did you see the Indians at the time as “Jews”?
I did. Everyone did. They’re often called that–“the Jews of East Africa.” And the Overseas Chinese are sometimes referred to as “the Jews of Southeast Asia.”
But it’s one thing to realize that the rhetoric is similar; it’s another to recognize that the rhetoric is based on something people actually do, and that this goes far back into the past, and that it’s much wider than the familiar example of the Indians and the Overseas Chinese.
In your book, you examine modernist literature in this way.
Joyce’s Ulysses, for example, is the central text of modernism, and it is about that very opposition. The main character, Leopold Bloom, is a “half-Jew”; and the figure of Ulysses is the ultimate earthly representative of Mercurianism, of cleverness, restlessness, diplomacy, ingenuity–all those things.
Is there a famous Apollonian Jew, to use your terms?
Irving Howe said that Trotsky was one of the greatest figures in the 20th century because he managed to be both a writer and a warrior; somebody who analyzes history while making it; somebody who is equally good at thinking and killing.
One could say that Israel, and Zionism generally, is an attempt to abandon traditional Jewishness for the sake of Apollonianism with a Jewish face, as it were. I suppose Ariel Sharon would be a Jewish Apollonian. He stands for the rejection of the world of the shtetl, the life of the Diaspora, the Pale of Settlement–the Mercurian way.
How do you mean that?
Life in the Pale means living with physical weakness, coupled with eloquence and intelligence; it means doing things others despise. It means being committed to Diaspora life and tradition. And Zionism was to be the ultimate rejection of that life and tradition. The state of Israel became a place where one could escape the fate of Tevye the Dairyman–the great Sholom Aleichem character. It became a place that existed for the purpose of avenging Tevye’s weakness through a rejection of Tevye’s cleverness and non-belligerence.
The Holocaust created an aura around Israel that made it different from all other modern states, that excluded it from some of the expectations that are usually associated with modern states–and from certain criticisms. Because of its very special role, history, and moral claims, Israel became the state to which standard rules don’t apply.
Israel has been transformed from an attempt to get away from the ghetto into a new kind of ghetto, which is the only place you can say certain things.
For instance?
It’s the only place in the Western world where a member of Parliament can say–and get away with it–“Let’s deport all Arabs from Israel.” Or where so many people can say, as part of a routine political conversation: “We should create more Jewish children because we want this to be a pure ethnic state.” Imagine someone saying the same thing in Germany: “Let’s procreate to make more Germans because we have too many Turks here.”
And Israel also can do things other states cannot do?
Yes, like build walls. There was an attempt to build a wall in a town in the Czech Republic–to separate the Gypsy area from the rest of the town.
What happened?
There was an outcry. It couldn’t be done. So, this seems to me to be yet another tragic irony in the history of the Jews: The attempt to create a state like any other led to the creation of a state that is remarkably different from the family of states it set out to join.
But that’s only one of the three great migrations. The history of the Jews in America has been one of tremendous achievement and success. The history of the Jews in Russia has been a tragedy, in the most basic sense of the word: There cannot be tragedy without the initial hope and fulfillment, without the nobility of character that the fatal flaw would go on to undermine. That’s how I see the story of my grandmother’s life.
And, using your Mercurian metaphor, you say that all of us in the modern age have had to become Jewish.
A central part of my argument is that the modern world has become universally Mercurian. Mercurianism is associated with reason, mobility, intelligence, restlessness, rootlessness, cleanliness, crossing boundaries, and cultivating people and symbols as opposed to fields and herds. We’re all supposed to be Mercurians now, and traditional Mercurians–especially Jews–are better at being Mercurian than anyone else.
And that is the reason for their extraordinary success and extraordinary suffering in the modern world. That, it seems to me, is the reason why the history of the 20th century, and the history of the Jews in particular, is the history of three Promised Lands and one Hell.