Commentary Magazine

Shtetl and Revolution

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 Tightness of this grim perception, Hazaz returned to the fictional material he had conceived in that distant Paris, working and reworking it.

The kernel of his novel, Gates of Bronze,1 first appeared in print in 1924 in the periodical, Ha-Tekufa, as a series of fictional vignettes entitled “Revolutionary Chapters.” In 1956 Hazaz radically revised and expanded these chapters into a short novel. In 1968, four years before his death, he published a new version of the novel, almost twice as long, with certain significant additions to the historical picture presented in the earlier material. As the book grew in length, Hazaz's conception of how he must handle his subject became firmer, moving away from effects of decorative elaboration through imagery and flaunted grotesquerie in the first version (qualities he would remain addicted to in other works) to a spare, concentrated representation of the conflicts among classes, generations, and ideologies in the second version, finally rounded out with greater novelistic specification of scene and subsidiary characters in the final version. Specific episodes and characters, however, remain substantially unchanged through all three treatments of the subject; and there is one scene, I would like to suggest, retained from the 1924 story, that is the vital central point from which this whole Hebrew imagination of the Revolution radiates.

A small knot of young comrades in the Ukrainian village of Mokry-Kut has just emerged from a political meeting held in the heady period of fervid debate and confusion of tongues that marked the first winter of the Revolution. At the meeting, there has been a collision between Communist and anarchist views of the revolutionary situation. As these Jewish revolutionaries make their way through a midnight blizzard, the town itself seems to disappear in the storm. Then a spectral voice reaches them from behind the clouds of wind-whipped snow. It is, we will learn in a moment, the drunken chanting of Heshel Pribisker, pathetic, uprooted hasid, a religious instructor by profession with no children to teach any more, who has left his own wife and children and now dangles in desire for one of the young Communist girls while the iron wheels of revolutionary change move rapidly down upon him. At first, however, Heshel's voice alone is detectable, as though this sorry representative of the twilight of traditional Judaism were a mere sounding-box for visionary words first intoned 2,500 years earlier. The words chanted by the stranded hasid through the all-enveloping storm are those of the prophet Ezekiel: “One third of you shall die of the pestilence . . . and shall perish of hunger in your midst, and a third shall fall by the sword round about, and a third will I scatter to every wind, and the sword shall pursue them.”

Hazaz, let me hasten to say, was by no means a symbolic writer, and the midnight encounter between Heshel Pribisker and the young comrades is in context entirely continuous with the verisimilar representation of historically plausible figures and actions out of which the whole novel is shaped. The very choice, however, of the Hebrew language to enact the clash between two generations of Jews in the throes of the Revolution produces certain symbolic overtones, the words themselves sometimes leading us to see the paltry events of a few months in this forsaken shtetl though the magnifying prism of ancient visionary perspectives. It is precisely this peculiar feature that gives Hazaz's account of the crisis of Jewish values in the Revolution unique worth as historical testimony.

Hebrew literature on European soil had rarely been very subtle in the nuanced discrimination of character and motive, largely because it had no vocabulary for such fine discrimination and perhaps also because there was little in the culture from which it derived that might have trained writers to Jamesian or Flaubertian niceties of perception. (Hazaz is no exception to this general rule.) By way of compensation, Hebrew, because its own adaptation to secular literary ends sharply reflected the contradictory struggle with modernity of Jews steeped in tradition, provided an ideal instrument for probing the pathologies and potentials of historical Judaism in the modern era, and also for measuring the modern world against the values of historical Judaism. The effectiveness of this recurrent literary focus on a critical stage of historical transition was enhanced, for Yiddish as well as for Hebrew writers, by an accident of sociology—the fact that the Jewry of Russia and Poland typically (though by no means exclusively) lived in shtetlach, provincial townlets of predominantly Jewish population. The shtetl was for the Hebrew and Yiddish writer more or less what the ship was for Melville—a readymade microcosm, a social unit of limited scope, with established hierarchies and conventions, within which opposing views and conditions could be set in coherent relation as part of a cohesive fictional structure. Thus, the imponderable forces of modernity could become fictionally manageable in the microcosmic conflict between the study-house hangers-on and a local maskil, or proponent of Enlightenment, in the grudging decision of a pious householder to bypass the matchmaker and allow his daughter to choose her own husband, and so forth. This concentration on the microcosm of the shtetl leads Hebrew and Yiddish writers in precisely the opposite direction from the European novel, which is impelled by the titanic aspiration to embrace, encompass, dominate in language the vast inchoate reality of the modern metropolis, from Balzac's Paris and Dickens's London to Joyce's Dublin and Biely's St. Petersburg. The two novelistic traditions are, one might say, ways of scrutinizing the dynamics of history from the two opposite ends of the telescope.

Historical change is generally a corrosive presence, inexorably encroaching on the enclaves of piety, in the late 19th-century Hebrew and Yiddish fiction about the shtetl. In the revolutionary moment in which the action of Hazaz's novel occurs, such change becomes literally explosive: the first illumination of the shtetl in the book is from the flames of the aristocratic manors put to the torch by Sorokeh, the Jewish anarchist. Gates of Bronze explores the tensions and discrepancies between two competing views of the Revolution, one messianic and the other apocalyptic, both rooted in the language and concepts of Jewish tradition. The most dramatic expression of the messianic construction is voiced by Sorokeh at a new year's party held by the young revolutionaries to inaugurate 1918. As the midnight hour strikes, Sorokeh announces that “At . . . this very moment, the whole world is crossing a frontier, traversing a line that divides all of human history into two. . . . The sun of capitalism has set—a new world has come into being—a world of social justice, of freedom and happiness, a world celebrating the grandeur of man.” Sorokeh's image of history cut through by a critical dividing-line at the point where he stands, with “everything that has gone before, the entire past for two thousand years, four thousand years . . . on one side,” is central to the novel and to Hazaz's general perception of the modern predicament. What is at issue is whether the other side of the line hides the atkhalta degeula, the dawning redemption, as Sorokeh imagines, or universal doom, as the Ezekelian vision of Heshel Pribisker darkly intimates.


Lionel Trilling once suggested, with an allusion to Dostoevsky, that the future of the novel, because the old conflicts between social classes had become blunted and blurred, might lie in the study of conflicting ideologies. Gates of Bronze is a rather pure example of this sort of ideological novel. Hazaz in fact sharpens the focus on ideological conflict by devoting so much of the novel's bulk to dialogue, with a bare minimum (particularly in view of his narrative procedures elsewhere) of authorial obtrusion around and between the long exchanges among the characters. What makes this book especially distinctive, however, as an ideological novel is the way in which the ideologies articulated by the characters repeatedly impose themselves as theologies in political guise. The choice of Sorokeh, the utopian anarchist, as the central character is wonderfully effective in precisely this connection because Sorokeh in himself is a “one-man party,” a busy intersection of different ideologies with their sundry theological freight. It would have been temptingly easy for Hazaz, a Hebraist and a Zionist, to have introduced a clear spokesman for his own commitments in the novel, a Zionist Positive Hero anchored in the Hebrew heritage who could reprove the waywardness of the young Jewish Communists. Something of this is in fact done through Sorokeh, but in a historically complex, psychologically convincing way, because Sorokeh embodies so many of the baffling contradictions and ambiguities of trying to persist as a Jew on the other side of that great dividing-line of history.

The young Communists who quickly become the administrators of the local revolutionary government have only a tenuous connection with their Jewish antecedents, while their professed ties with the Russian people are even more dubious, as Hazaz made clear in the final version of the novel by confronting the Jewish comrades with anti-Semitic Russian peasants (there are scarcely any Gentiles to be seen in the two previous versions). Sorokeh, by contrast, recapitulates the various stages of ideological modernization undergone by Russian Jewry without really abandoning the earlier stages as he goes on to later ones. He is, then, the son of a yeshiva director, the grandson of an illustrious talmudist. Trained from an early age in rabbinical lore, he had lost the old faith, seized upon the new secular Hebrew literature, afterward Russian literature, then the Social Revolutionary party, as modern instruments of salvation. But when, on the verge of World War I, the Social Revolutionaries renounced terror as a weapon of revolution, Sorokeh turned anarchist. Psychologically, he is a new kind of Jew, measuring the length and breadth of the shtetl with a machine-gun tucked under his arm, answering a demand from the local revolutionary committee chairman to show his arms permit by coolly drawing his pistol and pointing it with a smile at the head of the Bolshevik authority.

And yet, we are reminded that his revolutionary fervor is continuous with the mystical fervor of his pious forebears; he quotes Yehuda Halevi as passionately as he does Kropotkin; and the interludes to his dreams of sweeping the world with a cleansing fire of destruction are the idyllic fantasies he entertains of going back to a sundrenched bucolic haven in the Land of Israel. Sorokeh's fitful imaginings were the only voice of Zionism in the two earlier versions of the novel. In the book's last revision and expansion, however, there is actually a Zionist movement in Mpkry-Kut, the Tzeirei Tziyon, and its presence gives greater substance and balance to the conflict of ideologies among the young generation of Russian Jews. Nevertheless, Hazaz remains true to the soundness of his first intuition in keeping Sorokeh with his confusions at the center of vision, so that in this historical maze of contradictory longings Zionism is plausibly an alluring—perhaps quixotic—possibility, not a pat solution.

Sorokeh the anarchist is driven on an unchartable zigzag course by passionate impulse; his Communist rivals follow a straight line of murderous abstraction. In the foreground of the novel, we see the purity of Sorokeh's motives; in the background, we get an occasional glimpse of the awful consequences of his utopian activism—in the rape and destruction unleashed upon the countryside by the anarchist bands he has helped to organize. As a voice in the ideological debate, what sets him apart from the Jewish Bolsheviks most decisively is that his feelings are still palpably in touch with the living Jewish people caught between the millstones of the Revolution. The older generation of that people is almost entirely a gang of bourgeois counterrevolutionaries, running-dogs of capitalism—which is to say, they are more or less the shtetl Jews of Mendele and Sholem Aleichem, only a little more prosperous, not schnorrers, petty conmen, and ne'er-do-wells but small shopkeepers, grain merchants, economic middlemen of varying sorts. They still have the same verbal mannerisms, the same comic nicknames, the same daily regimen of pious practices as the Jews of Mendele and Sholem Aleichem, but now they flounder in a bog of desperation, for everything on which they lived is being destroyed, with their own children zealously executing the iron purpose of the new regime. Incomprehension is their primary response to the revolutionary moment, and it is in its way a historically illuminating incomprehension. They simply cannot understand why their shops should be closed, their stock confiscated, why their homes should be invaded for a general search on the holy Sabbath itself, why some among them should be summarily arrested, beaten, even shot.


The Hebrew words they use in the novel to express their bewilderment impart to it a special historical resonance. In point of fact, such Jews would of course have been speaking Yiddish to one another. Hebrew literature in Europe, following the masterful example of Mendele, made the most of a supreme gesture of stylization, putting Hebrew in the mouths of speakers of Yiddish, exploiting the older language's rich texture of literary associations while trying to simulate in Hebrew the nuanced liveliness of the actual vernacular. Hazaz's novel is a culminating instance of this peculiar literary tradition, which means that even though the book was completed by a writer who had been living for decades in the new Hebrew-speaking cultural milieu, it is by no means modern Hebrew that the characters use with one another but the language of the Mishnah, the Midrash, the medieval exegetes, and the Bible, as it would be embedded in a Yiddish consciousness.

This exchange between two study-house faithfuls at morning prayers is typical: “ ‘They just don't want us to live,’ said Yankel Potchar hoarsely. ‘I've heard that their rebbe, Karl Marx, was himself an apostate and a Jew-hater, and said all kinds of terrible things about Jews, as renegades always have. They say he left the Bolsheviks a torah called Kapital, where he preaches hatred for mankind, and permits stealing and bloodshed.’” The translation clearly suggests the unbridgeable chasm between the mental world of, say, Rashi's commentary and Left Hegelianism, though certain important overtones are necessarily lost in the English. “Apostate and Jew-hater” is meshummad v'sonei yisrael in the original, two Hebrew terms naturalized in Yiddish usage, habitually invoked in both languages with a kind of spitting emphasis of contempt that could only be guessed at by speakers of a genteel language like English. The conversational “said all kinds of terrible things . . .” is in the Hebrew amar dilatoria kasha 'al yisrael—roughly, “viciously maligned the people Israel”—a turn of old-fashioned literary phrase that, with the key Latin loanword, dilatoria, calls to mind early rabbinic contexts and thus suggests that Karl Marx is only the most recent version of an archetypal line of plotters against Jewry going back to Hellenistic times. Yankel Potchar's Hebrew formulation of revolutionary Marxism is obviously a terrible simplification, but it is a simplification that firmly catches a brutal historical truth which somehow continued to slip through the fine mesh of immeasurably more sophisticated intellectual vocabularies even during the Great Terror, the Doctors' Trials, and more recent barbarities.

The response in context to Yankel's observation then moves the argument from rabbinic lore and law to the Bible and its exegesis: “ ‘Ye shall sow your seed in vain, for your enemies shall eat the fruit thereof,’ quoted Reb Avrohom-Abba, holding his beard and swaying mournfully. ‘Scripture is talking about our children. We toil to bring them up, and they turn around and choke us.’” In the Hebrew here, every single phrase, except of course for the biblical quotation, is in perfect Midrashic idiom: the mentality nurtured by a long tradition of exegesis naturally applies biblical texts to the present predicament, though there is sour irony in that mental operation, in the use of that vocabulary, since the present predicament threatens both to extirpate the tradition and to hound to death its upholders.

Sorokeh, as the chief focusing device of the novel's historical vision, provides a lucid perspective on these Jews of the old world under the shadow of extinction precisely because his feelings about them oscillate between critical distance and intimate identification. Broadly, his sense of solidarity with the Jews is expressed in dialogue, in his debates with the other revolutionaries, while the angry criticism is generally reserved for his interior monologues, his debates with himself. This socialist-anarchist has no use for the Jews in their stance as “otherworldly spectators of history,” alienated from nature, en-mired in petty trade, adept in a thousand varieties of verbal ingenuity but impotent in the realm of practical action. His indictment is one that had been familiar in Hebrew literature since the days of the Haskala; it shares the vehemence of those early Hebrew-Enlightenment critiques, but the vehemence is now qualified with compassion. The obvious and sufficient reason for that change is the fact that in the historical moment of 1918 these idlers and obscurantists of the shtetl culture are catastrophically threatened by forces whose ruthlessness is infinitely more pernicious than their own shambling impracticalities. Indeed, Sorokeh is able to perceive in the Jewish fathers a kind of quixotic integrity that seems almost noble in comparison with the motives of their revolutionary sons and daughters. If the traditionalists with their long-deferred messianic hopes have an imperfect knowledge of their complicity in history, the revolutionists, giving their own lust for power the name of humanitarian idealism, exhibit an even more disastrous lack of self-knowledge.


I have been speaking of Gates of Bronze as an instructive historical testimony, but its assault on the contradictions of Jewish revolutionary universalism also makes it a compelling monitory text still relevant in the last decades of the 20th century. The ideological debate between universalism and particularism is at the root of all modern Jewish history, and it is a debate that has had literally deadly consequences. Because this debate involves a collision between general ideas of history and concrete, individual human predicaments, perhaps the most effective formulation it could receive is in fiction, where fully imagined personages can struggle with ideas against a background of highly specified human situations. In the novel, Sorokeh himself has universalist aspirations, feels torn between them and his persistent Jewish loyalties, but he serves primarily to confront the young Jewish Communists with an inexorable historical fact: that national consciousness remains a stubbornly potent element in all human identity, including that of self-professing universalists; and therefore the Revolution, in which the Jews imagine they enjoy an equal role, is as Russian as the spires of Moscow, or the knout.

“In the end reality will catch up with you,” Sorokeh tells the Bolsheviks, “you'll have to pay for your illusions. The bill will be paid by the Jew each of you carries hidden within himself. These goyim will take it out on him with axe and pitchfork, as they have from time immemorial!” These words were first devised for the 1956 version of the novel; in the 1968 revision, Hazaz underscored this general emphasis by having a Russian peasant later in the book fire into the Revkom office, killing a Jew, with the cry, “Down with the commune of the Zhids! Long live the rule of the Soviets!” The basic insight, however, was already present in Hazaz's first conception of the novel a scant half-dozen years after the Revolution, and subsequent history has proven to be a series of terrible footnotes to this observation, from the countless Jewish universalists who died as Jews in the gas-chambers and before the firing squads, to the hundreds of thousands of Russian Jews in the 1960's and 70's desperate to leave the country at any cost because there is no place for them in Soviet society.

Both Sorokeh's special interest as a psychological type and his peculiar value as a voice of ideological critique derive from his cool confidence in the Tightness of his own perceptions. This confidence is unshaken even when his perceptions lead him to be stigmatized with the labels that modern Jews fear above all else: chauvinist, nationalist, reactionary. He is, in other words, impervious to that force of moral blackmail which in our century has so often cowed intellectuals into positions of base political conformism, and he is able to bring to bear a fine lucidity in the debate with the partyline Marxists.

One exchange between Sorokeh and Leahtche Hurvitz, the rather conventional Jewish girl turned Bolshevik who is the erotic center of the novel, brings us to the heart of his quarrel with the universalists. The dictatorship of the proletariat, he has been arguing from his twin vantage-point as anarchist and self-respecting Jew, is a dictatorship like any other, and its moral character is especially transparent in the way it has set about crushing the pathetic, befuddled Jews of the shtetl. “ ‘These poor people have to pay for the sins of the bourgeoisie! Tell me, what hope is there for these poor lost Jews, what have they got to look forward to?’ ” Elsewhere, Leahtche Hurvitz, like the other Communists, is willing to contend that the Revolution is beyond all considerations of morality, that if it requires colossal injustice, its redemptive power lies precisely in thus trampling upon the jaded values of the dead past. (The claim sounds like a late echo of Sabbatean theology.) In this particular discussion, Sorokeh's polemic insistence on the suffering of the Jews, always an irritant to leftists, triggers a classic leftist response: “ ‘I'm not a nationalist,’ she shook her head solemnly. ‘I'm for humanity as a whole.’ ” This grand declaration induces a peal of laughter in Sorokeh, then a dismissal of her words as foolish cant. Leahtche, much offended, reaffirms her position: “ ‘I don't care what you say . . . but I'm not a nationalist. I'll go further, I'm an anti-nationalist. I'm a Communist.’ ‘What a Jewish answer!’ Sorokeh laughed again. ‘No goy would say, I'm not a Russian, I'm not a Ukrainian. Only Jews talk like that.’ ”

Certain words and ideas find uncanny echoes in unexpected places, perhaps because of their inevitability as historical perceptions. Cynthia Ozick, in a grimly powerful essay on the Jews, the world, and past and future Holocausts, evokes a ghastly vision of the universalist victims of the Nazis, refusing to be categorized as Jews, their “charred bones . . . cry[ing] out from the gut of the ovens, ‘You cannot do this to me! I am a member of all humanity!’ ” To this Cynthia Ozick adds, “Only Jews carry on this way,” and then a devastating epigrammatic summary: “Universalism is the ultimate Jewish parochialism.”2

What a novel like Gates of Bronze might well do is lead us to reconsider the meaning of parochialism. If to be parochial is to be hedged in by the mental assumptions of your own limited parish, whether geographical, cultural, or ethnic, that in turn implies some grotesque, perhaps calamitous disparity between the terms through which you conceive the world and the way it really is out there, in the historical moment which is yours to confront. The study-house Jews of Hazaz's novel are obvious and familiar parochials, almost comically so when they talk of the Bolsheviks' rebbe Marx and his torah, or when they imagine writing a letter to their Jewish brother, Lev Trotsky, to redress the injustices done them. Their Communist sons and daughters are far more self-deceived in their parochialism, but they, too, apply to the alien world a grid of assumptions unwittingly taken from their own group's experience and needs, and so in certain crucial respects they are even more incapable than their elders of seeing what is actually going on in the movement of history around them. Sorokeh angrily accuses them of being all too eager to make themselves the lackeys and mindless functionaries of a revolution that is not ultimately theirs. As a point of historical fact, when the nativist managers of the Revolution no longer needed such a class of “universalist”—that is, non-Russian—zealots to do their administrative dirty work, that class was ruthlessly eliminated. The iron boot of Cynthia Ozick's epigram fits these young Jews of 1918 with painful precision.


The issue of revising notions about parochialism is raised not only within the novel itself but also by the anomalous facts of its composition in Hebrew. Hazaz's commitment in the Paris of 1923, after his flight from multilingual Russia, to go on fashioning an imaginative world in Hebrew—an eminently “parochial” language and at the time hardly a spoken one—must surely seem a peculiar choice to conventional ways of thinking. (It might be worth recalling what an illustrious line of East European expatriates—playwrights, poets, critics—has come to Paris in this century and adopted French as its means of expression.) When “Revolutionary Chapters” first appeared, Hazaz could have hoped at best for a couple of thousand readers—a few brave coteries of Hebraists in Paris, Berlin, Vilna, New York, and the new, small centers in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. Even by 1968, the likely readership for a Hebrew novel would not have increased by more than a few thousand. Yet after half a century, this fiction first conceived in an almost lost language for the perusal of the not-so-happy few possesses a cogent timeliness, and from our own vantage-point seems to render the fateful historical juncture which is its subject with a persuasive fullness of vision. The same could hardly be said of the now quaint realms of effusions by “progressive” intellectuals in the sundry European languages during the 20's and 30's written to celebrate the achievements of the Revolution.

Hazaz, as I have tried to suggest, needed Hebrew in order to define his Jewish material with some profundity of historical dimension, in order to take its measure through and against the accreted meanings of its own distinctive terms; and, of course, he needed his Jewish material in order to describe the full impact of the Revolution at the point he knew most intimately, could probe deeply. Historically and imaginatively, there is a way of seeing out and around by first seeing within very keenly. The availability in English of Gates of Bronze offers American readers a valuable opportunity to observe the operation of that paradox in fiction, for it is a novel which, by making scrupulous use of its inherited cultural and verbal materials, vividly shows how a supposed backwater of history could be a point where the most portentous historical currents converge.



1 An English translation by S. Gershon Levi is about to be issued by the Jewish Publication Society, 398 pp., $7.95. The present essay will serve as the introduction.—Ed.

2 “All the World Wants the Jews Dead,” Esquire, November 1974.


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