Alex Epstein (2010) Blue Has No South Translated from the Hebrew by Becka Mara McKay ClockRootBooks (http://www.clockrootbooks.com/) $15
Reviewed by Joseph Burke
Acclaimed historian Tony Judt once wrote: “I was raised on words. They tumbled off the kitchen table onto the floor where I sat: grandfather, uncles, and refugees flung Russian, Polish, Yiddish, French, and what passed for English at one another in a competitive cascade of assertion and interrogation.” Judt, writing with the degenerative disease that led to his death on August 6, continued: “Talking, it seemed to me, was the point of adult existence. I have never lost that sense.”1 What is it about words that they can move us? Not just move us emotionally; as when they move us to tears, to anger and so forth. What is it that they can move us across lands and oceans, move us to pack up a suitcase and buy a train ticket?
Alex Epstein’s concise, intriguing book, richly entitled Blue Has No South consists of a group of one hundred and fourteen stories over no more than one hundred and thirty pages. This book may, in fact, be more suitably described as a collection of cleaved reflections. Few of the stories reach out over a page; indeed most sit comfortably in the top half of each leaf. However, the white space is never excessive as the reader’s thoughts inevitably seep down from the subtle but engaging, often humorous, texts. Indeed, it is a testament to the book’s translator, Becka Mara McKay, that brevity, depth and wit are all retained.
Epstein was born in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg), Russia, in 1971, and immigrated to Israel in 1980. Israel has undergone significant change following large scale migrations of Jews from all over the world. The Hebrew term aliyah commonly used to refer to this immigration is better understood as the ingathering of the exiles. Not merely sourced in Western Europe or North America, significant aliyot have originated in Ethiopia, Morocco, Iran and Argentina. In particular, four main inflows following displacement from the morphing Russian territories over the course of the 20th century have had a deep impact on Israel’s identity and politics. The first such movement was stimulated, prior to the formation of the Israeli state, by the Russian revolution and subsequent civil war between the years 1917 and 1922. During that time some one and a half million people left the newly formed Soviet Union to various destinations. The second refers to the two million displaced during the Second World War, amongst which many Jews fled south. The third stream took flight between the end of World War II and the late 1980s. The fourth wave, then, refers to those who made the journey to Israel following the collapse of the Soviet Union.2
Israel’s Declaration of Independence of May 14, 1948 offered to “open the gates of the homeland wide to every Jew”3 and with Israel’s Law of Return, enacted on July 5, 1950 this was reiterated and formalised: “Every Jew has the right to come to this country as an oleh [a Jew who immigrates to Israel].”4 With a Ministry for Immigrant Absorption, the endeavour of the State of Israel to act as a sponge for the some 13 million Jews worldwide seems as earnest as it does immense. As of 2007, approximately 40 per cent of the world’s Jewish population were living in Israel.5
The complications of receiving globally diverse inflows are something Israel has deeply experienced given its national purpose. In its relatively short history as an internationally recognised state, it has become a reflexive society, not simply through its interaction with its Arab neighbours, though this clearly plays a large part. Internally, Israelis have had to ask themselves many questions, most strikingly: “Who is a Jew?” The unavoidable reality of aliyah originating in dissimilar corners of the world has put strains on some of the common presupposed characteristics of the oleh. Russian Jewish immigration to Israel has been particularly notable in this regard.
Sadly, anti-Semitism has a dark history in 20th-century Russia. The infamously spurious accusations against the Jew, Menahem Mendel Beilis, in the bloody murder of 13-year-old Andrei Yushchinsky in 1911 led to widespread and odious claims of ritualistic murder and blood libel against the Jewish community. The so-called Doctor’s Plot of 1953 during Stalin’s regime, involved a group of predominantly Jewish doctors in Moscow who were falsely accused of planning to assassinate Soviet leaders. State media at the time published hateful, anti-Semitic material as show trials further exacerbated public hostilities towards Jewish people. The formation of the Israeli state in 1948 led to a large scale purge of Jews in the Soviet Union as they, thought to have one eye on a distant homeland, were deemed potential traitors. The Soviet quota system, ostensibly established to sustain equal access to education and employment, in fact became a tool of repression against the Jews who found their allocation far below reasonable demographic expectations. As a result of this ‘marking out’ by the authorities, Soviet Jews were “culturally Russian, but legally and socially Jews.”6
A systemic anti-Semitic residue remained even after the death of Stalin. In 1953 the schoolgirl, Valeriya Dimova wrote to Ilya Ehrenburg: “I am a `white negro’, I am 18 years old, but I cannot study in the neighbouring city twelve hours away [because] I cannot go 5 km past the city limits without being given 20 years in prison. What’s all this for?”7 Following Israel’s victory in the Six Day War, the Soviet Union commenced a non-distinct anti-Zionist/anti-Semitic campaign. Any desire to leave the Soviet Union for Israel was seen as a direct threat to Socialism itself. The Israeli state was portrayed as an imperialist, capitalist project that was endangering the ultimate objective of global communism. Within this repressive context, a body of Jewish activists, known as refuseniks, moved to openly demand their right to emigrate to Israel. In drawing attention to their situation the Soviet Union began a “brutally insidious repression of its Jewish citizens, which included bogus charges of espionage, false diagnoses of psychological illnesses to justify putting people into psychiatric facilities, years of imprisonment in hard-labor camps and even execution.”8 However, the refuseniks persisted and approximately 170,000 managed to reach Israel between 1971 and 1989.9
Epstein, awarded Israel’s Prime Minister’s Prize for Literature in 2003, amongst other things, plays on recurring themes to bring out the complexities of the oleh experience, in particular the Russian-Jewish one. Epstein has noted that his own family’s move to Israel in the 1980s was just such a particular mix between fear of anti-Semitism on the one hand and Zionist hope on the other. His father missed his place at a university in Soviet Russia because it had already met its Jewish quota. His grandfather would make ambiguously explained trips to ‘church’ on Saturday mornings. Yet Israel too was a funny sort of place to call home for the nine-year-old oleh: “When we first stepped off the plane, I saw real palm trees for the first time in my life and thought we were moving to Africa. All the scenery around us looked like some kind of legend,” he told a journalist at The Jewish Week.10
It seems difficult to really tease out where anti-Semitism ends and Zionism begins as a motivating factor for Jews departing for Israel from around the world. The two are inexplicably bound together: “The nations dislike foreigners, and, in order to overcome their perennial state as foreigners, Jews must become a proper nation with a state of their own.”11 However, perceptions of a distinction have arisen amongst many Israelis between the third and fourth waves in terms of their Zionist idealism. Since 1989 some one million Russian-speaking immigrants have arrived to Israel. Netanyahu, the current Israeli Prime Minister, has said this group “have changed the face of Israeli society.”12 The reasons the post-perestrioka group left for Israel contrast with the earlier émigrés who were more strikingly compelled by the Zionist narrative. In the mayhem that followed the disintegration of the Soviet system there were fears that anti-Semitism could raise its ugly head. As such, “Jews in the latest immigration wave left Russia because they felt they ‘had to.’ In contrast the immigrants of the 1970s, or second wave of Russian immigration to Israel, were deeply motivated by a Zionist vision.”13
Consequently, while the 1970s immigrants moved quickly to learn Hebrew and underplay their Russian backgrounds, those who arrived in the 1990s have forged a new, distinctly Russian dimension to Israel’s culture. For instance, while in 1989 there was only one Russian language newspaper, this had leapfrogged to five local dailies and a large number of weeklies and other Russian language magazines by the 21st century. Even more controversially, this latest wave of Russian immigrants, less concerned with the rules of Judaism, stock pork alongside other Russian products in their niche supermarkets.14
Thus, Russian Jews arrived to Israel at different times and for different reasons. Yet they are all Russian Jews and now they are all Israelis. The question then for Israel is not only how to build a lasting peace with its neighbours. Nor is it even merely about integrating Arab and Christian Israelis more into a democratic, pluralistic society. Sustaining the absorption of Jews who have multifarious cultural memories and practices not always defined by Judaism is a conscious part of the state’s dynamic. As such, there are varied Absorption Centers designed to help new arrivals with, for instance, ulpanim (intensive Hebrew language classes).
In addition to putting the themes of Love and Time and Death in view, Epstein presents us with the most tender of expressive strokes towards an understanding of aliyah. In the process he folds and unfolds reminiscences of his characters like a magician’s handkerchief that appear to vanish like they were never in his hand at all. One story begins: “This happened on a day without a date”, another ends “Now it’s your turn to find an alibi for the imagination” and a further one commences with “I must admit these winter events never happened.”
Epstein hones in on the curiousness of the individual with economy and precision, all the while hinting at the puzzling nature of a person’s self-understanding and how this is often unknowingly shared between us. So there is the woman who collects completed (or abandoned) crossword puzzles: “In her childhood, she stuttered. In 1991, after she learned Hebrew, this flaw disappeared.” Some pages further on there is the man who still writes the name of his former love into spaces on the crossword where it will fit. These rituals, these invocations of yearning, might connect these life-worn persons someday. Will she happen upon a bewitching crossword he had once worked on?
Indeed as the narrator of one piece pus it: “Longings are more a story than a word.” It is really not words alone that move us but the stories that they are a part of. In paring down these tales to the shafts of wheat scattered here, Epstein has evoked the very particular sense of returning home, which moved so many Jewish migrants, some to tears and some to pack their suitcase. In doing so, however, he has also released the scent of the universal striving towards making sense of ourselves, itself a movement. Epstein’s tapping into this common experience explains why his work has grown such a widespread audience following from English, French, Spanish, Russian, Greek, Dutch, Croatian and Italian translations of his work. We migrate through time and space, dash through our imaginations and walk along whatever borders demarcate our mind. Once a traveller there, always one: “And so early in the morning, behind closed doors, the old immigrants still sit at the table and mark imaginary travel routes on old deceptive maps of the world.”
It seems we are lost with or without our stories. Or, more accurately, we are lost because of them. Don Quixote’s ‘madness’ was based in holding faith in stories of a different era, in seeing maidens where there were prostitutes. His stories of chivalry and honour pushed him on to find his Dulcinea del Toboso. Each of us has his/her own stories that lead us across different paths. In this sense we can agree with Sir Walter Alexander Raleigh (1861-1922) who wrote: “All men have a vein of Quixotry somewhere in their nature.”15 Our stories will be to some degree taken up, to some degree handed to us but it will be our life’s endeavour to work with them, to satisfy them, to complete them: “In May she turned eighty seven. Her oldest grandson helped her cut her fingernails. At night, for the first time in many years, she dreamed in Yiddish.”
Epstein’s stories, just like the ones we tell ourselves, do not follow through on their promises, forget themselves, are indeed magical and unreasonable. They guide but are not conclusive; they lead us by the hand to displacement. Some of Epstein’s stories are almost fully in parenthesis and indeed what we bracket off in our lives often is our story. It is what is most explanatory about us and our actions that is hidden away, deemed not worthy of full inclusion in our public biographies.
Ancient myth is hauled into the present in Blue Has No South to account for the reality it has imposed on us, that which we must live with. Odysseus, the repatriated, adjusts his watch to local time. Sisyphus remembers ‘something’ in the dazzling light of the photographer who recounts his gossipy stories of Hades, Cerberus and other ‘celebrities’. Atlas is the retired basketball player living in the flat upstairs and the Labyrinth is reduced (or elevated?) to the status of a tourist destination with a ‘Caution, Wet Paint’ sign on the wall.
It is ultimately the odd mixture of confusion and warmth in the immigrant that Epstein brings out in this delicate assortment. Learning how to manage the new feelings of being “at home” in a place you have never been before. Knowing what are the right ways to think, to speak, to behave in this place which has been physically distant but always emotionally very near. Chess, cosmonauts and Chekov sit alongside Kabbalah, Tel Aviv and shiva. In one piece a time traveller who allows himself to be the first reader of a Greek poem returns, very moved, to his actual place in time: “Before he goes up to his apartment he stands for a few moments in the street, exposed to the rain that began in his absence and now grows stronger and stronger, so fast it seems possible to recall everything that has passed vividly, at once. But apart from this nothing has changed. Nothing is changing. This is the essence of this voyage. This is the essence of Ithaca.”
Israel’s experiences of different generations of immigrant coming from Russia have been both a challenge for and an enriching of the society. What we have in Blue Has No South is a book, which is itself a collection of immigrants. An exquisitely described gathering who, though unknown to each other, share a common place here. Some are funny, some are smart, some are surreal but all are moving towards a collective meaning in their own way. Not all arrive at their final destination. Nevertheless, they shuffle together and in doing so mark something astonishing.
Joseph Burke is the Managing Editor of Near East Quarterly.
1. Tony Judt, “Words,” New York Review of Books, July 15, 2010, http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2010/jul/15/words/
2. Tom Trier, “Reversed Diaspora: Russian Jewry, The Transition in Russia and the Migration to Israel,” Anthropology of East Europe Review, 14 1 (1996), http://condor.depaul.edu/~rrotenbe/aeer/aeer14_1.html
3. Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs, “The Declaration of the Establishment of the State of Israel, May 14, 1948,” government of Israel (2010), http://www.mfa.gov.il/MFA/Peace%20Process/Guide%20to%20the%20Peace Process/Declaration%20of%20Establishment%20of%20State%20of%20Israel
4. Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs, “Law of Return 5710-1950,” Government of Israel (2010),http://www.mfa.gov.il/MFA/MFAArchive/1950_1959/Law%20of%20Return%205710-1950
5. Anshel Pfeffer and Haaretz Correspondent, “Percent of world Jewry in Israel Cimbed to 41% in 2007,” Haaretz, January 6, 2008, http://www.haaretz.com/news/percent-of-world-jewry-living-in-israel-climbed-to-41-in-2007-1.236675
6. Zvi Gitelman in Tom Trier, “Reversed Diaspora: Russian Jewry, The Transition in Russia and the Migration to Israel,” Anthropology of East Europe Review, 14 1 (1996): 35, http://condor.depaul.edu/~rrotenbe/aeer/aeer14_1.html
7. David Brandenberger, “Reviews,” Review of V plenu u krasnogo faraona: politicheskie presledovaniya evreev v SSSR v poslednee stalinskoe desyatiletie – dokumental’ noe issledovanie, by G. Kostyrchenko, Out of the Red Shadows: Anti-Semitism in Stalin’s Russia by Gennady Kostyrchenko and Obvinyaetsya krov’: dokumental’ naya povest’ by A. Borshchagovsky, Europe-Asia Studies 51 2 (1999): 347-349.
8. Desson Thomson, “Chronology of Suffering,” The Washington Post, July 11, 2008, http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2008/07/10/AR2008071000522.html
9. Moshe Lissak and Eli Leshem, “The Russian Intelligentsia in Israel: Between Ghettoization and Integration,” Israel Affairs, 2 2 (1995): 20-36.
10. Eric Herschthal, “Less Is More: Alex Epstein’s Poetic Prose,” The Jewish Week New York, April 26, 2010, http://www.thejewishweek.com/arts/books/less_more_alex_epstein%27s_poetic_prose
11. Ze’ev Levy, “Zionism,” in History of Jewish Philosophy, edited by Daniel H. Frank and Oliver Leaman, 776-785. London: Routledge, 1997.
12. Haviv Rettig Gur and Herb Keinon, “Netanyahu: 20 years after Iron Curtain collapsed, it’s clear Russian-speaking aliya ‘rescued state of Israel,’” The Jerusalem Post 9 June, 2009, http://www.jpost.com/Home/Article.aspx?id=153994
13. Shelese Emmons, “Russian Immigration and its Effects on the State of Israel,” Global Legal Studies Journal, 5 34 (1997): 346
14 Shelese Emmons, “Russian Immigration and its Effects on the State of Israel,” Global Legal Studies Journal, 5 34 (1997): 348.
15. Sir Walter Alexander Raleigh, “Don Quixote,” Some Authors; A Collection of Literary Essay, 1896-1916 (2010): 39.