Commentary Magazine

Article Preview

Shtetl and Revolution

- Abstract

PARIS in 1923 hardly seems a likely place for the gestation of a novel written in Hebrew that would offer a searching panoramic vision of the shtetl’s disintegration in the historical maelstrom of the Russian Revolution. The last volumes of Proust were still coming out; Gide was working on The Counterfeiters; Surrealism was about to be born out of the aftermath of Dada; and at that time and place, a twenty-five-year-old Ukrainian Jew, who having fled Russia two years earlier had arrived in Paris by way of Constantinople, began to ponder the fate of Jewry and Judaism in the age of revolution, using a mode of fiction that harked back to Dostoevsky and to the cognate traditions of social realism of the 19th-century Yiddish and Hebrew novel.

Haim Hazaz had nearly half a century of activity as a novelist still ahead of him, and after his emigration to Palestine in 1931, his work, with varying artistic success, would eventually reach out to encompass other continents, other cultural spheres, other communities of Jews. The traumatic events, however, that he had witnessed in Russia in the fateful winter of 1917-18 were to remain at the heart of his imaginative world, for he would continue to brood over the Jewish hunger for redemption and the modern attempts to realize redemption through politics. In 1923, the Revolution was still being almost universally celebrated by the intellectual avant-garde in the West. Hazaz as a Hebrew writer was, one might say, acutely advantaged in being able to see not only the vastness of the Revolution’s messianic hopes but also its murderously destructive possibilities. If the Revolution, catalyzed and to an appreciable degree implemented by Jews, meant the end of the Jewish people, it might also mean the end of humanity as we had been accustomed to think of it. Over the years, as historical experience confirmed the rightness of this grim perception, Hazaz returned to the fictional material he had conceived in that distant Paris, working and reworking it.

About the Author