11.11.2013

The Zelmenyaners, by Moyshe Kulbak

I received a free copy of this ebook to review from NetGalley, on behalf of the publishers. It will be published 29 January 2014.

The Zelmenyaners
I dread looking up early twentieth century Russian authors on Wikipedia. I so often enjoy their books--because of the setting, the turmoil, the pathos--that I don't want to know if they were one of the unlucky ones. But when I read The Zelmenyaners, I had to, because I had never heard of Moyshe Kulbak before. Kulbak, a master of Yiddish literature in Russia, was not one of the lucky ones. So as I neared the end of The Zelmenyaners, I felt an extra dose of regret that I wouldn't see any more of the serialized misadventures of the Jewish clan.

The Zelmenyaners was published in two parts, each serialized over a few years in the early 1930s in Shtern, a Yiddish publication. The first part is set mostly in 1929, in a city the editor identifies as Minsk. In the 1860s, a man named Zelmele from somewhere in "Deep Russia" set up a hoyf, a courtyard surrounded by houses that filled up with his descendants and their descendants. By the time we meet the family, the second generation is running the show. The family's misadventures (there's really no other word for them) are sketched broadly, but the sense that I got from the stories and the introduction was that they were also deeply satirical. By the end of the book, when the hoyf is being dismantled and the family scattered, it's hard not to see the hoyf as anything but a metaphor for Russia under the Communists.

Undated photo of Moyshe
Kulback, from The Jewish
There are no clear protagonists or antagonists in The Zelmenyaners, but many of the characters are their own worst enemies. Some are hypochondriacs. Some have prickly personalities. Some are terminally depressed. A few attempt to become proud Bolsheviks. If it weren't for the Russian Revolution, the family would have carried on living their way for decades or longer. No one could escape the changes, however, and the Zelmenyaner clan has to adapt eventually--even though Bolshevism and Communism (and electricity and radio) baffle most of the family members.

The stories are written in a vaguely chronological order, with frequent backtracking. But Kulbak eventually brings the various threads to order in the last stories in Part II. One of Reb Zelmele's sons, Folye, has stolen a hide from the tannery where he works. When he shows for his trial, once of his nieces, Tonke, gives a speech denouncing the whole family for their bourgeoiserie. Only in the mid-1930s in Russia would the family's way of life be seen as a crime. I felt pity for them mostly because they just kept getting in their own way.

The Zelmenyaners is a remarkable tale. It's remarkable that was published. It's remarkable that it wasn't lost when Kulbak was arrested and executed. I couldn't help but laugh as Kulbak elevated the family's shenanigans with semi-legendary language. But the history will catch up to you as you read it, as it caught up with everyone.  

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