Acclaimed translator Hillel Halkin offers the first English translation of a classic of Yiddish literature, considered one of the great comic novels of the twentieth century." The Zelmenyaners "describes the travails of a Jewish family in Minsk that is torn asunder by the new Soviet reality. Four generations are depicted in riveting and often uproarious detail as they face the profound changes brought on by the demands of the Soviet regime and its collectivist, radical secularism.
The Zelmenyaners are a Jewish family living in Minsk, and The Zelmenyaners: A Family Saga is about their lives during the change to the Soviet era in Belarus, a part of the USSR. One of the few modern Yiddish novels to be translated into English, The Zelmenyaners is a humorous attempt to show how hard it is for superstitions to die down and change to take place.
The story follows the exploits of the different members of the family, the chief among them being the four brothers: Uncle Zishe, Uncle Itshe, Uncle Yuda, and Uncle Foyle. These are the four patriarchs of the Zelmenyaner (court)yard. They, their wives, and their offspring mingle with each other in good and bad times, fighting and helping. As the USSR brings facilities, education, and innovation to the masses, at the same time upending the entire structure of the family, the older generation has trouble adjusting. The younger generation, in the meanwhile, flows happily with the rhetoric and ideals of the Soviet Union.
It's an interesting portrayal of the times, and Kulbak eloquently lays out how utterly difficult it is for superstitions and inequality to die out in a single generation. And should we even try? At the same time, how far should elderly people be expected to let go of a lifetime of belief in order to benefit others? How fast or how gradual should the change be? The advantages and the autocracies of the Soviet system are both described through the events affecting various characters. As a rule, the younger ones find it much easier to adjust than the older ones, which I suppose is true for any country, anytime.
Despite the very relatable humour and the human interest factor of the stories, there is a disjoint between the different chapters. The book was originally written in serial form over six years, and unlike other such books published in book form later, it was not edited sufficiently to form a chain of events. A second problem I had was keeping track of the different characters, especially the four uncles and who was married to whom. The only two people who sank in were Bereh and Tonke, and I am even having trouble recalling how they were related to the others. At some point, the book also began to drag a bit. However, it is a peek into very different times and a highly distinct culture, that of Soviet Jews during industrialisation.
Moshe Kulbak's own story is intriguing and sad. He spent time in Poland and Germany, where he taught literature before returning back to Minsk, for the sole reason that the literary life was at its high point in the USSR. However, that soon changed and Kulbak was carted off during the Great Purge (along with many other intellectuals (many of them Jewish) and executed secretly. His family got no information about him for months after his death. His legacy continues to live on in his books and his poems.
Просто чарівна родинна сага про кілька поколінь великого єврейського роду в Мінську в перші роки радянської влади. Книжка виходила розділами прямо під час тих подій і реагувала на останні новини, від прокладання нових трамвайних ліній до руйнування старого міста. Отже, дуже цікавий погляд сучасника на те, як радянський лад починав прокрадатися у фактуру життя (як з'являється електрика й розганяє давні тіні; як молодше покоління підхоплює революційні гасла і їде робити революцію десь у Владивостоку, а потім повертається з позашлюбними й неєврейськими дітьми; як дрібних ремісників заганяють у знеособлені великі фабрики; тощо, тощо) - і фактуру мови (ще існують давні народницькі етнографічні моделі говорити про себе, але з ними вже змішуються інші жанри - скажімо, взірцева біографія ветерана Червоної Армії).
При цьому це проза поета, щедра на блискучі описи: "The winter, like a silver fish, flip-flopped in Khayaleh’s heart"; чи от "The sun throbbed like a diesel engine, a diesel engine, a diesel engine. Rays of light, each so solid you could touch it, nailed the yard to the earth".
Розповідь дотепна, подекуди прямо дуже смішна: "The town lay under deep, warm snow. It was as quiet as an attic. One hundred thirty thousand people, not counting newly hatched tots, had been lying beneath their warm blankets for hours. Dream production was in high gear. Dreams of all kinds, cut from every possible cloth: old Civil War fabric, big bolts of new hopes, and loud patterns of class struggle were taken down and unrolled behind the shutters. Underneath a feather quilt, the dreams of a NEP-man were being woven. Long columns of electric digits blinked on and off in the sleep of employees of the State Planning Commission".
І щедра на абсурдні й виразні портрети героїв - скажімо: "Tsalke, as has been mentioned, had the annoying habit of sometimes committing suicide. No one knew where it came from, since Zelmenyaners commonly lived to be a hundred or more. Not even the idleness of Reb Zelmele’s last years had caused him to die any sooner. It was anyone’s guess where Tsalke had picked it up".
При цьому ти розумієш, що всі ці колоритні герої живуть уже в позиченому часі, їхня епоха закінчується. Починається роман із опису спадщини засновника двору - отже, обіцянки майбутнього. Закінчується показовими процесами і руйнуванням старого Мінська, і ще одним переліком речей - уже не полишених нащадкам на надійне безпечне майбутнє, а останніх уламків, які встигають винести зі зруйнованого двору.
I first heard of this book through Outwitting History; it is one of a select group of rescued Yiddish books that the Yiddish Book Center chose to translate into English, presumably because it offers such a rare glimpse into Jewish life in the early Soviet Union. Published as a serialized novel in the 1920’s and 30’s, it tells the story of the Zelmanyaners, the children and grandchildren of Reb Zelmele and Bobbe Bashe, who all live in one shtetl courtyard. Historically, this was a time of terrible assimilation, but while author Moyshe Kulbak is not a traditionalist and does not seem to mourn the younger generation’s loss of Torah, he definitely pokes fun at their ignorance. In general, he is less sympathetic to them than to the older generation, though they, too, have their foibles. The most hateful character is Tonke, doctrinaire communist and rebel daughter of the pious Aunt Gitta, but Tonke gets some stiff competition from the gossipy and unnamed wife of Uncle Folye, of whom it is written, “The smaller the heart, the bigger the mouth.” Now that’s Yiddish wisdom!
Because the book was published as a serial over a long period of time, it mostly reads like a comic strip - a series of unconnected vignettes about familiar characters. The ending, however, ties it all together, and it’s as poignant as “Anatevka” in “Fiddler on the Roof,” except it’s the Soviet era, not Czarist Russia.
Any Jew interested in history will appreciate this book, but as I said, it is not pro-religion. Neither does it seem to be anti-religion, as the most rebellious characters are portrayed quite negatively. But on this note, I must warn my religious friends that pre-marital and extra-marital affairs are part of the plot. Communists disdained marriage as a bourgeois construct just as they did religion.
The most mourned loss in the book seems to be not for Jewish life, but for the private ownership of small-time artisans. It is quite amazing that Kulbak was able to publish such sly social commentary under Stalin’s rule, but it did eventually catch up to him, and he was executed for it. The Yiddish Book Center therefore made a wise choice in preserving his work. His original audience was made of Jews who could laugh at the Zelmenyaners while completely relating to them because they were living through the very same upheaval. For us today, the book is a vivid slice of life from a vanished world. Unlike “Fiddler on the Roof,” it’s neither romantic nor nostalgic, but it is descriptive, and because of that, Moyshe Kulbak is a voice worth listening to.
This is an entertaining satire, an episodic novel featuring a Jewish extended family living in Minsk in the early 1930s, and published contemporaneously as a serial, though not translated to English until long after the fact. Four brothers, their wives, adult children, and various other relatives all live together around a central courtyard, from which they watch rapid changes in their world, from the arrival of electricity to Soviet doctrines that distance the younger generation from their Jewish roots. Interestingly, although written in Belarus under Communist rule, the book seems to neither support nor oppose the regime; the young people’s enthusiasm is tempered by an imperfect reality, but the disorientation of the older generation is portrayed humorously. Perhaps, in a rare example for Communist-era literature still read today, the author intended to take no political position, and just poke fun at a traditional family with the political reality as a backdrop.
And it’s an enjoyable book, humorous and easy to read, with short chapters and a fair bit of dialogue. After reading the first half I would have given 4 stars, but the second half muddles the timeline and doesn’t add much in the way of new ideas or plot elements. It’s an ensemble cast, but many of the characters stand out clearly and I soon came to feel some affection for them. I was a little uncomfortable with the way the female characters are overall portrayed unsympathetically, but then I’m not sure this was always intended; Tonke, for instance, the most dogmatic of the family, is apparently an outright villain in the eyes of many reviewers, but a Soviet audience may have viewed her quite differently. I’m sure plenty of the satire went over my head; the introduction provides some interesting insight, though as usual, is best saved until after finishing the book if you’d rather avoid spoilers.
At any rate, this is overall an enjoyable and accessible book; you don’t need a lot of background to see much of the humor in it or to enjoy reading about the Zelmenyaners’ lives and foibles. The translation is also well-done, with the helpful inclusion of the occasional explanatory footnote.
Actually, I listened to this on audio, but I can't easily find an ISBN to create a new record. And it may be an easier listen than read, as the narrator, David Skulski, has a lovely voice and makes a companionable narrator with distinct voices for the characters. It's a Yiddish classic, a family saga, set in Minsk, dealing with the humorous tribulations faced by the Zelmenyaner family. It originally appeared serialized over several years, and frankly that might be the best way to appreciate it. By the end of the 9+ hours, I was a little tired of their travails. My main objection to the audio, however, is that the first hour is spent in an introduction--covering the book, the times (Soviet Russia 20th century, 20s and 30s), biography, history, literary criticism. Way too much for me. A short intro and fuller details at the end would have made the listening experience superior.
I’d never heard of this little known classic of both Yiddish and Soviet literature, or of its author, in spite of my study of Russian literature, and am delighted to have now discovered it. This is the first complete English translation and I hope it now reaches a wide audience. Moyshe Kulbak (1896- 1937), a contemporary of the far better known Isaac Babel, was a leading Yiddish poet, novelist and dramatist. He was arrested in 1937 when the Stalinist purges reached Minsk, and after a show trial he was shot at the age of 41. His novel was published in serial form and covers the period of relatively liberal artistic and cultural times of the late 1920s to the advent of Socialist Realism in the 1930s, the style which became the only acceptable one thereafter. These cultural changes are reflected in the novel. The book chronicles the challenges faced by the extended Zelmenyaner family as they encounter the profound changes brought about by the demands of the new Soviet regime and its collectivist and secular ideology. Their courtyard, with its traditions and customs, is gradually overtaken by industrial expansion and willingly or unwillingly the family members are forced to integrate with the new society. Kulbak describes how they deal with the introduction of electricity, radio and trolleybuses, how they are affected by the campaign for literacy, and how the younger generation become indoctrinated with the new Soviet values. The book is both satirical and humorous, but also deeply poignant as the older members see their centuries old way of life gradually eroded. The fact that Kulbak was writing as these changes were actually occurring gives the book great immediacy, and it is a fascinating and important social document. It will be of particular interest to those interested in Yiddish culture, Soviet history and Soviet Jewish identity and day-to-day life, but the general reader too will find much to enjoy here, largely due to the excellent introduction, one that is worth reading both before and after reading the book itself. Footnotes, too, are both useful and enlightening and help put the novel into its historical context. . All in all, this is not only a literary curiosity, but a very enjoyable and entertaining rediscovery.
The Zelmanyers by Moshe Kulbak and masterfully translated from the Yiddish by Hillel Halkin with a scholarly introduction and analysis by Sasha Senerovich is a novel set in 1929 in Soviet Russia in the courtyard of Reb Zelmele. The book was originally a set of serials published over a 6-year period and then recompiled into a "novel" with some bumpy transitions of the chapters. The characters, principally 4 sons of Reb Zelmele who has no real appearance, and their children, form the heart of the novel through their interactions and attempts to grasp and sometimes resist the modernization of Soviet Russia. It is clear that the author needs to be careful in his support of collectivization and other Russian modernizations. Indeed, he was executed in a closed trial in 1939, not too long after the book's publication. The novel is in many respects comic yet underlies the tension between the primitivism of the characters and their uncertain role in the country.
An amazing (translated from the Yiddish) family story/historical novel set in 1920's/1930's, written by a Jewish author who was later executed (in 1937) by the Soviets. I had never heard of Moyshe Kulbak before, and Hillel Halkin's wonderful translation now opens this work to a deservedly much larger audience. Funny, slightly surrealistic, poignant, prescient, it opens up a world that was about to disappear. Also insightful about how new technologies (at that time. electricity) could be both embraced and resisted, and lead to unforeseen consequences.
I enjoyed this, but I did have a sense that my lack of knowledge of Soviet history may have hindered my understanding. Furthermore, the black humor of some Yiddish writers doesn't always strike me as funny. Still, I am please to have gotten a small window into my Russian Jewish ancestors' lives.
I enjoyed this book tremendously. The descriptions of the Zelmenyaners are incredibly funny while also giving us a sense of what the Sovietisation of Jewish life would have been like. By this, I am referring to the way it traces the adoption of Communist and the rejection of tradition by the younger, and the way some family members resisted and held on to tradition. The most brilliant part of this serialised novel, however, is an anthropological type paper about the Zelmenyaners that one of the young sons writes. It is great satire and truly enjoyable, especially because of the presumably Soviet scientific style that it adopts. Of course, the ultimate fate of the family, of Yiddishkeit and of the author were all tragic, but that did not detract from my enjoyment, I just admit. I was full of joy about the author’s talent and his colourful writing.
This is - to say the least - delightful. It's punchy and blunt and generally very charming.
However (!) this edition allllmost completely ruins it for me. The translation is good and I'm glad that the book is available in English, but to have multiple footnotes on each page explaining every line and joke feels just... patronizing. I'm certain that 99% of the people reading this book will know what electrification in the Soviet Union was, or what the Komsomol is, or (G-d forbid they don't) what Yom Kippur is. Every time I have a chuckle at something in this book, it's ruined by the fact that there's a little asterisk explaining what the joke is. Surely they don't assume a reader is *that* uninformed (or maybe my circle is just too deep into Soviet culture....? who knows!).
I enjoyed this book and appreciated the annotations at the end of chapters explaining yiddish and Russian words customs, etc. that clarified the chapter. The characters and scenario were so typical early 20th century Eastern European Yiddish so real that it was hard to believe this was fiction.
I felt like I was reading history from more than 100 years ago. This book was so interesting! and the fact that the author Moshe Kulbak had been executed by Stalin in Russia made it even more so. This is a look into life in a small village, of an entire family line. Worth the read!!!
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...
Read the rest of my review at A Bookish Type. I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley for review consideration.
Parts of this book I liked very much; other parts, not so much. It was an interesting glimpse into a society and a time that I have little knowledge about, however, so I am sure had I had more background in the history and culture from this area, the book may have hooked me in a bit more. That being said, though, there is always the recogniztion on the part of the reader that no matter where people live, human nature is much the same anywhere. Even though I didn't have the deeper levels of understanding, I am glad that I read this book, and will look for more set in this area of the world.