November 20, 2019

‘The Yid’ embarks on a hero’s journey

Moscow-born author and journalist Paul Goldberg first learned about the so-called blood libel — the hateful lie alleging Jews use Christian blood in their rituals — in a place where slander against the Jews is deeply rooted. After immigrating to the United States in 1973, Goldberg began to report and write about the Soviet human rights movement (“The Final Act” and “The Thaw Generation”) as well as the business and politics of cancer, but he did not forget the stories that he’d brought with him from the Soviet Union, the literature of the blood libel. Now, at last, he has unpacked those stories and put them to use in “The Yid” (Picador), a brilliant novel that is at once surreally comic, suspenseful — if slightly cracked — and punctuated with eruptions of violence, but with a poignant ending.

The book begins in 1953, during the last week of Joseph Stalin’s life, when a new wave of anti-Semitic persecution was already beginning to build. Among the targeted victims is Solomon Levinson, an actor who once performed in the long-suppressed State Jewish Theater and now faces the same oppression Stalin has decreed for all Jews of the Soviet Union. As the story plays out in “The Yid,” however, Levinson shows himself capable of both audacity and courage, even if, as the author suggests, he is starring in “a madman’s play.” Whether it is earnest or wholly fanciful remains to be seen

The characters, the settings and the suspenseful storyline all come alive in the author’s expert telling of his tale. He has a sure command of his characters, sometimes zany and sometimes poignant, a sense for the telling detail and a flair for the fascinating aside. Thus, for example, when he describes the arrest of Levinson, he puts us on the darkened landing of Levinson’s apartment, where three young policemen have announced their presence not with the stereotypical knock on the door but with “a light kick of a military boot.”

“Three men standing in cold, stinking darkness, waiting for someone to hear the kick on the door is not an inspiring sight,” Goldberg pauses to note. “They might as well be scraping at the door, like cats, except cats returning after a night of carnage and amour are creatures of passion, while nineteen-year-old boys with sidearms are creatures of indifference, especially at 2:55 a.m. on a February night.”

The aged Levinson, as we soon learn, is made of sterner stuff than his tormentors anticipate. We see him as a younger man whose visceral response to the German invasion of Russia in 1941 was “to kill and survive, and kill again, as directly as possible, preferably silently, in the darkness.” As it happens, he was able only to serve in a Red Army acting troupe that brought “the Bard to the trenches, mostly in Russian, sometimes in Ukrainian, and sometimes in Yiddish.” In one of many scenes that ought not to be revealed in a review, Levinson draws on his theatrical exploits from the second world war to wreak vengeance on his young persecutors.

So begins an extraordinary, rich and surprising tale of intrigue that quickly focuses on a mad plan by Levinson and his memorable little band of fellow eccentrics to stand up against Stalin and his reign of terror. “You are a crazy, stubborn old Yid,” says one of Levinson’s comrades, an African-American man whose employer sent him to the Soviet Union in the ’30s and who never went back. But the fact that Levinson is meshugge is almost beside the point. “One should never underestimate the power of a stubborn son of a bitch,” Goldberg writes, and “The Yid” is his case in point.

“The Yid” is a novel, to be sure, but Goldberg draws on a rich vein of real history. One of Stalin’s real-life victims was a star of the Yiddish theater named Solomon Mikhoels, an actor who was famous even in far-off America. In Goldberg’s novel, the real-life Solomon Mikhoels is imagined to have been the rival and nemesis of the fictional Solomon Levinson. But Goldberg also reports a fact of history — the celebrated Mikhoels was supposedly killed in a traffic accident, but he was actually among the earliest victims of Stalin’s final purge. “No phantom truck,” the author insists. “A bullet in the head. An execution in a Lubyanka cellar.” Goldberg imagines a final reckoning for Stalin himself in unsettling detail — a scene that conjures up King Lear, Frank Lloyd Wright, Marc Chagall and Paul Robeson — and the historical underpinnings of “The Yid” make it all the more plausible, even if it begins to resemble a fever dream. “The accused, Stalin, I., is sentenced to the highest measure of punishment: the extraction of all blood, drop by drop.”

Paul Goldberg has been aptly compared to a whole constellation of Jewish literary geniuses — Sholem Aleichem, Philip Roth, Cynthia Ozick, E.L. Doctorow, Michael Chabon and even the Coen brothers. (I would hasten to add Mordecai Richler to the list.) And “The Yid” is proof that he surely belongs in their lofty ranks. But it is also true that Goldberg possesses a voice and vision that are entirely and uniquely his own. Indeed, the words that best describe his achievement in “The Yid” can be excerpted from the book itself, where the author uses them in a different context to describe his hero’s exploits: “[A]wash in fresh blood … comedy, tragedy, and history abruptly join into one mighty stream.” 

Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of the Jewish Journal.