An Anthology of Jewish-Russian Literature: Two Centuries of Dual Identity in Prose and Poetry

By Horowitz, Brian J. | Shofar, Summer 2009 | Go to article overview

An Anthology of Jewish-Russian Literature: Two Centuries of Dual Identity in Prose and Poetry


Horowitz, Brian J., Shofar


An Anthology of Jewish-Russian Literature: Two Centuries of Dual Identity in Prose and Poetry, edited by Maxim D. Shrayer. Armonk, NY: M. E. Sharpe, 2007. 2 vols., 1278 pp. $225.00.

As a reader of Russian-Jewish literature, I have to welcome Maxim Shrayer's anthology, because there are few resources on the subject. But I have reservations that I will raise in the course of this review.

The anthology consists of two volumes and features over a hundred writers, some well known and others less so. Consisting of eleven sections, the anthology groups together authors who wrote at the same time. In each section the editor provides an introduction and gives a short biographical sketch of each author. Because of the large number of authors, the original prose stories are often abridged, which makes them less valuable for scholars, but perhaps still useful for the classroom.

The working definition that Professor Shrayer uses for the selection of authors in the volume is this: "Any Russian-language writer of Jewish origin for whom the question of Jewish identity is, on some level, compelling" (p. xxx). Borrowing this formulation from Alice Stone Nakhimovsky, Shrayer applies it to some writers for whom it does not work well. For example, while the definition leads Nakhimovsky to write about Vladimir Jabotinsky, Isaac Babel, and Felix Roziner, Professor Shrayer features a long list of writers of Jewish background for whom Jewish identity is hardly compelling. This is particularly true for writers in the former Soviet and Post-Soviet Russia who either purposely drew attention away from their ethnicity or did not consider it a significant fact of their biography. Such authors in the volume as Joseph Brodsky, Naum Korzhavin, YuIy Daniel, Vassily Aksyonov, Nadezhda Mandelstam, Yury Trifonov, Evgeny Reyn, Michael Kreps, Sergei Dovlatov, Anatoly Nayman, Ludmila Ulitskaia, Mikhail Zhvanetsky, Ilya Kutik, and Yuri Leving cannot be said to have a compelling attitude toward their Jewish identity. They are, for better or worse, Russian authors.

The issue of definition is central because it reflects the editor's conception of Jewish identity and Jewish-Russian literature (as he uniquely calls it; the conventional name is Russian-Jewish literature). Ordinarily one defines a RussianJewish writer according to the author's involvement with Jewish life, whether in politics, culture, or society. Here authence, orientation, and context matter. In their discussions about who belongs to Russian-Jewish literature, experts like Vladimir Jabotinsky and Shimon Markish ask directly whether this literature is important to the Jewish people and to Jews for whom Jewish life and culture is central to their consciousness. This is why most scholars - including the ones Professor Shrayer praises in his introduction - do not consider Boris Pasternak or Osip Mandelshtam authors of Russian-Jewish literature. These authors were not occupied with Jewish life and the problems of the Jewish world even if they were born Jews and at times wrote on Jewish themes.

To decide if an author should be in an anthology of Russian -Jewish literature, one should ask, what is the context, to which literary world, political orientation, and social context is the author speaking? Jewish background or the so-called "piatyi punkt" (ethnicity) in one's passport is not the determining factor. For example, there are good reasons why no one calls Walter Benjamin a writer of German -Jewish literature, and why everyone knows that Gershom Sholem is a Get man-Jewish writer. It is because, while both are Jewish and even deal at times with Jewish issues, one, Sholem, is occupied with Jewish problems in a Jewish context, while the other has devoted himself to German literature and cosmopolitanism. …

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