The purveyors of Jewish history have tended to be highly selective in what they choose to focus on. In America, for example, we almost completely ignore the mercantile achievements of the Sephardic Jews through the ages, as well as their role in the development of modern capitalism. And we rarely talk about Jewish involvement in the explosion of creativity in the visual arts, literature, science and music that characterized the Italian Renaissance. We also underplay events that make us uncomfortable, even though the people involved may deserve objective study.
One of these purposely overlooked topics is the story of the Jewish involvement in the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia. Last month, a fierce debate erupted on the Internet between members of the American Jewish History Electronic Discussion Group, an academic forum. A left-wing, Ukrainian-born magazine editor named Morris U. Schappes had just died. Schappes was a fixture of American communism, having earned the limelight after he was ceremoniously fired from the faculty of City College of New York for Communist Party membership. Although some in the forum wanted nothing to do with him because of his politics, others suggested that Schappes’s death offered the opportunity — from the distance of many decades — to take a new look at these folks and why they did what they did.
In my case, the opportunity literally fell into my lap. Several years ago, I was handed a cache of private letters and access to certain individuals who could help me piece together the personal story of a Jewish Bolshevik spy named Marc Cheftel. The letters belonged to Bluet Rabinoff, wife of Max Rabinoff, the foremost ballet and opera impresario of the 1920s. They told of Bluet’s life as Cheftel’s mistress.
Bluet had fallen in love with Cheftel soon after they met in Manhattan while he was briefly stationed in the United States on a secret mission. Later she returned with him to Moscow. Although eventually she escaped, he suffered a fate much worse, and she spent the rest of her life believing that her actions had killed the man she adored and admired. Only through the public retelling of his life could she restore him and his mission to a place of dignity. And she was eager to make that possible by providing me — as a writer whom she knew and trusted — with access to private letters she had written while in Moscow and to individuals who knew Cheftel’s real story.
Thus the book takes the reader on a very personal, whirlwind ride through the theatrical salons of Manhattan in the Jazz Age, where Cheftel was assigned temporarily, and Moscow during the early 1930s, where he faced liquidation at the hands of Stalin’s henchmen.
For me, it also had all the elements of a great story: intrigue, passion, tragedy. Still, I faced a quandary. Was I about to resurrect a genuine hero of the Jewish people, or someone who might be deemed an embarrassment? Was I about to tell a tale that was best left unwritten?
In addition, was I about to talk about the very Jews — privileged Russian Jews — whom Eastern European immigrants to this country have traditionally ignored? These Jews had not shared the agony of the Jewish masses: They had bought their way out of the forced child conscriptions to the military that tormented the rest of Russian Jewry during the 19th century. They had gained the right to live in major urban centers like Moscow or St. Petersburg while the less fortunate masses, still confined to the muddy villages of the Pale of Settlement (the only area where most Jews could live officially) remained at the mercy of the Cossacks. And when these wealthier Jewish merchants began to take over from the rabbis as intermediaries with the czar for their less fortunate brethren and develop a more assimilated and less observant way of life, even the rabbinate turned away from them.
In “Beyond the Pale” (University of California Press, 2002), Professor Benjamin Nathans of the University of Pennsylvania noted that the result has been ambivalence, if not outright hostility, on the part of scholars of Eastern European Jewry in writing about these privileged Jews.
Yet all this only made me even more eager to write “Russian Dance: Passion and Intrigue in Stalinist Moscow,” for I had at my fingertips the chance to explore the remarkable life of one of them who, like many, was guilty of an even greater “crime”: becoming a Bolshevik.
Like many other assimilated Russian Jews, Cheftel had decided to join the socialist revolutionaries — later known as the Bolsheviks — at the turn of the century rather than flee to America or turn to Zionism, believing he had a responsibility to stay and build a better world for all Russians and not only Jews. Because his story was also one of passion and espionage, it was equally worth telling as a romantic thriller in its own right. The characters could be drawn in such a vivid manner, and the setting become so intimate, that readers could begin to understand his motivations and dedication, even if they disagreed with his politics.
As one correspondent in that Internet debate commented: “Does that mean that we should not try to do what seems right at a particular time, [because it] later proves to be questionable? As Jews our mission has never changed. We are here to make the world a better place. And in trying to fulfill that mission, we take different roads.”
Andrée Aelion Brooks, author of “Russian Dance” (John Wiley & Sons, 2004), was a finalist in the 2003 National Jewish Book Awards for a biography of Dona Gracia Nasi called “The Woman Who Defied Kings.” She is an associate fellow at Yale University and a former contributing columnist to the New York Times.