The Zelmenyaners: A Family Saga
By Moyshe Kulbak, translated by Hillel Halkin, introduction and notes by Sasha Senderovich
Yale University Press, 304 pages, $25
Near the end of “The Zelmenyaners,” a novel by Soviet Yiddish writer Moyshe Kulbak, one of the younger characters takes the stand to denounce her family. The proceedings are officially about her uncle Folye’s horsehide theft, but in reality the entire clan is on trial for its insular ways. “Their benightedness is so great that reality is transformed by them into a dream, while conversely, rumors and tall tales come to life in the yard as though they were real,” Tonke says in disgust. “If truth be told,” the narrator goes on, “there were workers who doubted whether, so near their factory, there could exist a yard whose residents lived as though in an enchanted castle.”
“The Zelmenyaners,” now translated into English by Hillel Halkin, was itself a subversive work. Although the novel takes place in a specific historical and political context — Minsk, in the late 1920s and early ’30s — its experimental structure and gossamer prose give it an otherworldly aura, keeping with the Zelmenyaners’ self-mythologizing impulse. After being serialized in the Soviet Yiddish journal Shtern, “The Zelmenyaners” (or just “Zelmenyaner” in Yiddish) was published as a book in two volumes, the first in 1931 and the second in 1935. Two years later, Kulbak was arrested on charges of spying for Poland and was executed on October 29, 1937, at the age of 41.
Like much Yiddish literature, “The Zelmenyaners” derives its humor and its pathos from characters’ hapless negotiation between old and new. (The translation flattens some of the comedy; though in other respects, Halkin succeeds at conveying Kulbak’s style and voice.) The older generation of Zelmenyaners watches in bewilderment as its children abandon religion and tradition, intermarry and espouse Communist doctrine. Parents and grandparents bicker over whether to call a baby Zalmen — after the Zelmenyaners’ patriarch, Reb Zelmele — or Marat, after French revolutionary Jean-Paul Marat. When Aunt Gita holds a Passover Seder, the rest of the yard isn’t sure what the strange ritual is. Later, Gita’s daughter Tonke holds a party at the very same table, complete with vodka and a whole roast suckling pig.
Kulbak’s sense of humor contributed to the book’s political problems. His jabs at Bolsheviks were hardly kosher, and his mockery of their maladjusted parents was suspect, as well. Zelmenyaners may be ridiculous, critic Shmuel Niger argued in his 1958 study, “Yiddish Writers in Soviet Russia,” but they are also harmless, which was no way to portray the bloodthirsty forces of the artisanal lower-middle class. Worse, according to Soviet critics, in “The Zelmenyaners,” family bonds trump political consciousness. It isn’t class that matters most, but blood.