January 24, 2019

Growing Up Jewish Under Stalin

The story is told of a delegation of Communist Party cadres who are ushered into the Kremlin for a ceremonial meeting with Stalin.  After they are gone, Stalin discovers that his favorite pipe is missing, and he sends Beria, the much-feared chief of the Soviet secret police, to retrieve it.

“Never mind,” Stalin tells Beria on his return.  “I found the pipe under a pile of papers on my desk.”

“Too late,” reports Beria. “Half of them confessed to taking the pipe and were shot as wreckers, and the other half died under questioning.”

The story captures both the terror that afflicted the citizens of the Soviet Union who lived (and died) during the Stalin era and the spirit of resistance that has always manifested itself in joke-telling.  But the humor is very black when it comes to Stalin, who succeeded in destroying Jewish and Yiddish culture in Russia.  At the time of his death in 1953, Stalin was preparing a new wave of terror against the Jews in connection with the so-called “Doctor’s Plot.”

All of these ironies came to mind when I heard that Emil Draitser, author of “Shush! Growing Up Jewish Under Stalin” (University of California Press: $24.95), will be taking the stage in the ALOUD series at the Central Library at 7:00 p.m. on February 3, 2010.

Born in Odessa in 1937, Draitser was a political satirist in the Soviet Union before he was blacklisted for a piece that daringly criticized a high-ranking figure. He managed to reach L.A. in 1974, earned a Ph.D. in Russian literature at UCLA, and is today a professor of Russian at the City University of New York.

Since coming to America, Draitser has published novels, non-fiction, newspaper journalism and scholarly articles, including “Forbidden Laughter: Soviet Underground Humor” and the bittersweet memoir that gives its title to his event at ALOUD.  “Shush!” was hailed by Publishers Weekly as “a painful and acutely observed memoir,” but Draitser always brings to his work the same wry sense of humor that cost him his career in the Soviet Union.

Draitser will be featured at ALOUD in conversation with Suzi Weissmann, a professor of politics at Saint Mary’s College of California.

Free reservations and additional information about Emil Draitser’s event at the Central Library, located at Fifth and Flower Streets in downtown L.A., are available by calling (213) 228-7025 or at www.aloudla.org.

Jonathan Kirsch is the book editor of The Jewish Journal and can be reached at books@jewishjournal.com.