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The De-Jewification of ‘Dr. Zhivago’

The U.S. government might be on the outs with Vladimir Putin, but on the Great White Way, Russian culture has never been more in. Boris Pasternak’s monumental novel “Doctor Zhivago” was reincarnated first as a 1965 Hollywood movie and now as a Broadway musical. It’s no compliment to the show’s creative team (music by Lucy Simon, lyrics by Michael Korie) that the catchiest tune, “Somewhere, My Love,” is taken from the film’s famous “Lara’s Theme.”

And while the fathers of American musical theater, George and Ira Gershwin, famously riffed on the unimportance of pronunciation (“You like tomato and you like tomahto”), the actors in the Broadway musical risk offending both the oligarchs and the Brighton Beach crowd by invariably accenting the wrong syllables. But the bigger disappointment here is how the musical’s creators have excised all Jewish themes.

The musical opens with Christian imagery — the parallel funerals of Yurii Zhivago in 1930 and of his father in 1903. Russian Orthodox priests are present in both scenes. While any student of history would know better than to place a Russian Orthodox priest at a funeral in Moscow in the 1930s, it’s a symbolically fitting opening for a show (book by Michael Weller) that abandons a key Pasternak subplot in which he explores his own Jewish identity.

Pasternak hailed from a family of Odessan Jewish intellectuals, and his family traced their roots to Sephardic Jews and to Don Isaac ben-Yehudah Abravanel, a statesman and philosopher. His father, Leonid Osipovich Pasternak, was a famous painter (whose most famous subject was Tolstoy) and a professor who published a well-known book called “Rembrandt and Jews in his Work.” His mother, Rosalia Isidorovna Kaufman, was a concert pianist and a music professor. In 1912, Pasternak attended Marburg to study with the German Jewish philosopher Hermann Cohen, founder of the School of Neo-Kantianism. Pasternak’s first wife, Evgenia Vladimirovna Lurie, was also Jewish. Later, Pasternak claimed that his nanny had converted him to Russian Orthodoxy when he was a child; however, his parents were known to be Zionists and probably would not have allowed this. Documents from his Marburg period identify his faith as “Mosaic.”

The novel, which won Pasternak the Nobel Prize in literature in 1958 is, like its model, “War and Peace,” part love story and part war story. It follows the protagonist, Yurii, a poet and doctor, from pre-Revolutionary Russia to the decade following the Civil War.

If you’re looking for a show that’s got belles in bling at balls eating blini, as well as barbaric battles, blacklisted poets and vodka bacchanalias, “Doctor Zhivago” has all these and more. The banal set’s columns are configured and reconfigured to show city palaces, weekend dachas, and the battlefields of World War I and the Civil War. (The set’s curtain is made of chairs that are stacked on top of each other from floor to ceiling; perhaps the set designers thought they were working on another 20th-century Russian novel, Ilf and Petrov’s “The Twelve Chairs”?) If, on the other hand, you’re in for a Russian experience of laughing and crying, as you did the first time you read Yurii/Pasternak’s masterful poem “The Candle Burned..,” then think again, as all of Pasternak’s poetic imagery has been removed. A sample lyric evokes the maudlin effect of these compositions: “For the sake of my family’s survival / I will silence the beating of my heart”; silence the beating of my heart indeed, lest I have to sample such nausea-inducing treyf again.

Thankfully, the heartthrob Tam Mutu, who plays Yurii, has the audience crooning and swooning as he establishes a small harem east of the Urals. Mutu is the closest you’ll get to a Don Draper look- and act-alike on Broadway, and he makes even these sacrilegious lyrics, against Russia’s great versifier, kosher. Meanwhile, Yurii’s great ladylove, Lara Guishar (played by the lovely but lackluster Kelli Barrett), echoes the truism that musical theater stars don’t know how to act. If I could have had a kopeck for each time Barrett looked like she was trying to emote, I could have bought out all the Stolis at the bar.

Pasternak began to write “Doctor Zhivago” in 1946, at the start of the anti-cosmopolitan campaign in the Soviet Union. The campaign targeted intellectuals with ties to the West. It became the first anti-Semitic campaign in the Soviet Union, culminating in the case of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee and in the execution of committee members.

In October 1946, Pasternak had written a letter to his cousin Olga Freidenberg, with whom he carried on a life-long correspondence, asking if she was feeling the effects of the campaign. Freidenberg, a professor of Greek philology, had also been targeted, and was forced to retire from the university. In a 1949 diary entry, she wrote:

All cultural leaders who have Jewish last names are undergoing moral lynchings. It’s necessary to have seen the atmosphere of the pogroms, which occurred on our faculty: groups of students scurrying about and digging in the works of Jewish professors, eavesdropping on private conversations, whispering in corners…. Jews are now denied education, they are not admitted to university or to graduate studies. The university is destroyed. All leading professors have been fired. The murder of the remnants of the intelligentsia is continuing unabated.

One of the only saving graces of “Doctor Zhivago” the musical is the focus on the persecution of Zhivago as a poet who could not fit into the dictatorship of the proletariat. He is brought in front of the Cultural Affairs Committee, where he is told, “Perhaps in the future your work will more clearly celebrate the People’s Revolution.” Zhivago promises that his “verse will follow the ‘correct path.’” This scene highlights the autobiographical subtext of the work. In September 1946, the head of the Soviet Writers Union, Aleksandr Aleksandrovich Fadeev, accused Pasternak of “rejecting our ideology” and of “breaking with the people,” after which Pasternak was not allowed to publish his translations of Shakespeare.

In another letter to Freidenberg, from October 1946, Pasternak explained that the importance of the novel lay in expressing his feelings about his own Jewishness, which he explores through the character of Misha Gordon, Yurii’s best friend. In the musical. Misha’s character and all episodes relating to him have been expunged. In one episode of the novel, Misha contemplates what it means to be Jewish. “For as long as he could remember he had never ceased to wonder why, having arms and legs like everyone else, and a language and a way of life common to all, one could be different from the others, liked only by a few and, moreover, loved by no one,” Pasternak writes. “He could not understand a situation in which if you were worse than other people you could not make an effort to improve yourself.”

In a different episode in the novel, Yurii and Misha are at the front when they notice a Cossack baiting an old Jewish man. This can be read as Pasternak’s meditation on the imagery from World War II and the Holocaust (a term never popularized in the USSR). Yurii, a medical officer, orders the Cossack to stop taunting the old man, while Misha remains silent throughout the episode. Following the scene, Yurii says to Misha, “This is terrible …. You can hardly imagine the cup of suffering drunk by the unhappy Jewish population during this war.” Misha keeps silent, but later on he seems to express Pasternak’s own views about why the Jews should convert to Christianity: “Who benefits from this voluntary martyrdom,” Who needs the bloodletting?” he asks. “Haven’t they been told ‘Come to your senses. Enough. No more of this. Don’t call yourself, as before. Don’t congregate, disperse. Be with everyone. You are the first and best Christians of the world?’”

It’s easy to look back on Pasternak’s sentiments as regressive, the ideas of yet another converted Russian Jew, but they are not surprising, given that he is writing them in the wake of anti-Semitic repressions and the aftermath of the Holocaust.

In his poetry, Pasternak, like many other Russian Jewish writers, addressed the extermination of Jews. Pasternak’s poem “Odessa” (1944) commemorates the devastation of Odessan Jewry:

Evil must be avenged with doubled blows

And the victim’s widows and relatives

Eased in the moment of their family woes

By some new word that truly lives.

With all our Russian ingenuity

We swear, inspired by the great event,

To build the martyrs in perpetuity

A worthy peacetime monument.

In all honesty, “Doctor Zhivago” is one of my favorite novels. It’s a beautiful love story and a probing meditation on the destruction caused by totalitarianism, not just on individual lives but also on art. It deserves to be made into a good musical — and this one’s just not it. On Broadway, the character of Lara says, “Imagine Stepka, you’ll smell the ocean soon.” Stepka replies, “Odessa, is it possible?” Meanwhile, poor Pasternak rolls over in his grave and intones, “Odessa is called the Jewel by the Sea. Americans, go brush up on your geography.”

Anna Katsnelson teaches world literature at Medgar Evers College in Brooklyn.

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