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The Jewish Century
Princeton University Press, 2004
344 pp., $45.00
A Mythical Jewishness
Trapped within Yuri Slezkine's The Jewish Century, struggling to free itself from Slezkine's ideological thesis, is a poignant history of Russia's Jews. It is a history of desireâ€”of 19th-century Jews seeking to free themselves of the Jewishness of the Pale of Settlement by exulting in the Russia of Tolstoy and Chekov; of zealous Jewish commitment to and success within the early Soviet Revolution; of the shock of betrayal under Stalin, as Jews were persecuted for their ethnic Jewishness; and finally, of Soviet Jews' spasmodic, discomfiting, but at times passionate rediscovery of their Jewish identity. The emblazoning image Slezkine leaves us with is of thousands of Russian Jews, most of whom "had probably never been to a synagogue before," coming to meet Golda Meir in 1948 on Yom Kippur at the Moscow synagogue, chanting in the streets, "Next year in Jerusalem."
Unfortunately, Slezkine surrounds and ultimately overwhelms the promise of this narrative with a thick and loathsome typological shell. Instead of dealing fully with actual Jews, Slezkine mythologizes all Jews as the descendents of Mercury (Hermes), "the god of all those who did not herd animals, till the soil, or live by the sword." As Mercurians, Jews work with their minds and by their wit. They value language, they value ideas, they value talent and merit. Even when they dwell in a land for centuries, they are essentially nomads, eschewing any permanent connection to place and nation: "A Jewish house in the Ukraine did not resemble the peasant hut next door, not because it was Jewish in architecture (there was no such thing) but because it was never painted, mended or decorated. It did not belong to the landscape; it was a dry husk that contained the real treasureâ€”the children of Israel and their memory." Sure of their divine exceptionalism, Jews think their neighbors dim-witted: "Their world is larger and more varied" than those of the poor or the princely, both of whom lack a Mercurian intellect. These ...