“The Yid,” by Paul Goldberg, Picador, 307 pp., $26
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Paul Goldberg, a 14-year-old émigré from the Soviet Union in 1973, grew up in the United States to become an editor, publisher and journalist. Now he is the writer of a bizarre and wonderfully discursive novel, “The Yid,” a tour de force of riotous humor set in the dark and blood-stained Soviet Union of the 1950s when Stalin’s periodic paranoia and murderous anti-Semitism reemerge.
“Historians trawl with broken nets,” Goldberg claims in an afterword. This gives a novelist wiggle room for his imagination. “A leap of fiction brings with it the privilege to blend history with fantasy,” he tells us. And with “The Yid” the author has mixed an exotic cocktail. We get much of the history obliquely and by implication. The “straight story,” about which most historians agree, is this:
On January 13, 1953, Pravda, the official newspaper of the USSR, declared that nine of the Kremlin’s most eminent doctors not only had murdered two of Stalin’s closest associates, but were engaged in a vast plot, instigated and orchestrated by Western imperialists and Zionists, to “eliminate,” mainly by poisoning, leading Soviet political and military figures. The government’s media saturated the public with stories about a Jewish “fifth column” in the USSR.
In an attempt to explain why so many Jewish leaders were being fired, arrested or executed between 1948 and 1953, the articles were filled with constant references to the disproportionate number of Jews, especially physicians, involved in the conspiracy to bring down international socialism.
That Jewish doctors were poisoners, and that Jews conspired to topple governments and control the world, were not ideas born full-blown from the brain of Stalin. The libelous charge that Jews poisoned the wells of Christians was common among medieval anti-Semites, and very early in the 20th century “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion” (the fraudulent text “revealing” a Jewish plan to achieve global domination) was written in czarist Russia and was widely circulated there – and elsewhere ever since.
As early as December 1, 1952, Stalin, at a meeting of the Politburo, announced, “Every Jewish nationalist is the agent of the American intelligence service. . . . Among doctors, there are many Jewish nationalists.” This fractured syllogism set the stage for a show trial. In addition, a letter appeared in Pravda, signed by many terrorized Soviet Jewish leaders, implying that the deportation of Jews to Siberia would protect them from the violence that would inevitably follow revelations about the Jewish doctors’ intent to destroy the Soviet regime.
Apparently the goal was to provoke widespread pogroms and flood the press with letters demanding deportation as either punishment or a kind of perverse “protective custody” for the Jewish people. No blueprints for the deportation were formally developed, ratified, or advanced to the implementation stage, but much speculative talk about the deportations circulated within elite party circles in January and February 1953.
Goldberg gives the reader enough fact and iridescent fictional detail to draw us into what is framed as a three-act play within a play — from which the actors occasionally veer off into wild improvisations. He allows us to infer that there were indeed “blueprints,” and that empty cattle cars were heading toward Russia’s major cities to pick up and deport survivors of government-instigated outbursts of mass murder.
But not so fast: An unlikely, ragtag band of Yiddish-speaking “superheroes” have their own “plan,” including the prevention of deportation, vengeance, and even revolution.
In Tarantino mode
The gang of heroes is led by Solomon Levinson, a creature of Goldberg’s rampant and rambunctious artistry, a former member of the now-defunct Moscow State Jewish Theater (which existed from 1920-49). Levinson’s fellow actors, of whom he was bitterly jealous, include the real, world-famous Solomon (Schloyme) Mikhoels, chairman of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee during World War II, who, having “fallen out of favor” with the increasingly anti-Semitic Stalin, was “run over by a truck” in 1948. Another colleague, Benjamin Zuskin (also real) was executed in 1952 in what became known as “the night of the murdered poets.”
The so-called Komandir of a Red Army troop in the Civil War that followed the Bolshevik coup in 1917, Levinson is targeted for arrest and deportation in a fictional round-up in 1953. State Security officers arrive at Levinson’s apartment thinking it will be easy to “arrest an old Yid.” They are wrong. What follows their knock on the door could easily have been a scene in a Beckett play:
“Dos bist du?” (Is that you?) the old man asks in Yiddish.
The goons answer with a salacious Russian retort along the lines of Poshel v pizdu or “fuck you!”
“I see,” responds the old man. “It’s not you.”
Levinson, who walks a perilously porous line between reality and stagecraft, employs his acting skills and the acrobatic swordsmanship he perfected on stage to dispatch the Russians by slitting their throats. A very bloody tableau, in the mode of Quentin Tarantino, rightly begins the story of the adventurous and hilarious gang that aims to assassinate the head of the Soviet Union.
Levinson is joined by Friederich Lewis, a black man whose encounters with death began when he was a child during the race riots in Omaha in 1919. A welder and engineer, Lewis fled the U.S. for the Soviet Union in 1931 to escape racism and to be part of the great communist experiment. He is increasingly disillusioned on both scores.
Through his connection to Levinson, Lewis learns to speak fluent Yiddish and, unlike his secular Jewish comrades, he, out of a need for dignity and occasional ritual, recites Kaddish for the dead. He will have ample opportunity. “Last night I killed man,” Lewis admits as the plan to murder Stalin evolves and complicates. “How did you feel?” Levinson asks. “Much better than I’d like,” says Lewis.
An improbable, but deeply loyal pair, Lewis and Levinson spar with stiletto sharpness over Shakespeare, racism, Anna Akhmatova, one of Russia’s greatest poets, some of whose lines they quote, and among other things, the implosion of socialism so soon after its birth. They trade hilarious barbs about each other in Russian and Yiddish, argue over the nature of anti-Semitism and recite the poetry of Pushkin.
Their immediate need is to dispose of three blood-soaked Russian bodies. Enter Alexandr Kogan. A machine-gunner in Levinson’s Red Army ensemble, he is now a highly regarded doctor – a dangerous profession for a Jew in Stalin’s Russia. Although inexperienced with murder, Kogan can still imagine a situation where regicide can have “therapeutic value.”
These three, Marxists all, speak freely with each other about, “the Party’s deviations from the course,” and its grand and seemingly irrevocable march into fascist thuggery. Goldberg deftly weaves in classic examples of the insanity and irrational recalcitrance of anti-Semitism, as well as an apparatchik’s ability to twist the words of a “defendant” in such a way as to tie innocent victims, including the immensely intelligent and erudite Kogan, into knots of fatal entrapment.
Lewis — sometimes hailed as Paul Robeson by unsuspecting Russians — is not as threatened as Kogan and Levinson, and is startled by his comrades’ “shocking indifference to death” as they pursue their dangerous, perhaps impossible objective. Kima Petrova, a svelte, 20-something woman with “emerald hardened eyes” joins the troika, and she, too, is utterly death-defying.
Levinson is more than curious about why this “uber-Slavic” young communist is so intensely interested in the fate of the Jews. What is she doing, he wonders, in the hideout of “two old goats and a Negro?” It soon becomes clear that Kima, in 1942, wanted her country to “love her” as a patriot, but in 1953 after her dissident parents have been murdered by the state, she wants to confront “evil,” and may even be courting martyrdom. Kogan thinks she has gone from one pathology to another. Revenge is what she wants, all “the rest is detail.”
Olga, a Russian Orthodox woman, remains on the margin of this group of would-be assassins. She is wary of blood-baths, and has doubts about the gang’s commitment, but she stays interested and attached to the very end. Even Lewis, fully involved from the start, begins to recognize the many potential pitfalls in the plot, and thinks, “This can’t be serious.”
Yet Levinson’s komandir-like demeanor suggests he is supremely resolute. “Unless, of course, he is acting.” If an actor’s experience shapes his character rather than vice versa, he is safe; he knows where the stage ends. With Levinson one is always uncertain, but all are certain that pogroms and mass deportation of Jews are indeed afoot.
Something must be done, and that something is shocking and gruesome as well as madly funny. Readers will see “The Yid,” I think, much like theater of the absurd, and also as a “revenge fantasy,” one that is not only cathartic, but – without giving too much away – redemptive in the end.
With Kafka, as with more contemporary Jewish writers like Joseph Heller, Michael Chabon and Nathan Englander, we have become familiar with literature that successfully blends murder with mirth, and the hilarious with the horrific. We may be discomfited by such a mix, but Paul Goldberg, like the circle of gifted writers he has joined, has crafted a compelling and serious novel that does not trivialize the treacherous.