Goldberg, Paul. “The Yid: A Novel”, Picador, 2016.
Stalin and the Jews, The Jews and Stalin
It is the winter of 1953 in Russia and Stalin had formulated his plans to rid Russia of Jews. Government agents are hard at work making their routine nightly arrests in Moscow. They arrive at the home of Solomon Shimonovich Levinson, a marginal Yiddish actor from a closed Yiddish State Theater company and knock on his door thus beginning a point of no return and bringing in a strange cast of characters and Kafkaesque events.
Author Paul Goldberg introduces us to Frederich Lewis, a black American who left racist oppression in Nebraska to work in the remote Communist steel mills of the USSR; Aleksandr Kogan, a disillusioned surgeon who had once been a machine gunner from Levinson’s old Red Army unit and is now threatened by anti-Semitic rumors circulating about a “Jewish doctors’ plot” to kill high-ranking Soviet officers and officials with poison-laced syringes; and Kima Petrova, a beautiful girl has only revenge on her mind. Together the three have concocted a simple plan to kill Stalin before his “Final Solution” operation has a chance to do damage.
Writer Goldberg brings in Shakespeare, Gogol, and Sophocles to give us a novel of literary beauty that includes a Passover pageant with the underlying idea that God did not stop Abraham’s hand and there was a flourishing human sacrifice that was staged at Stalin’s private dacha. You may wonder where “The Yid” fits into a literary genre—it is a historical fictional dark that while at times is absurd yet makes a lot of sense.
What many do not realize about Stalin’s plan to rid Russia of Jews is that if it had been carried out successfully, it would have dwarfed the Nazi genocide of East European Jewry. Here we get a look at how Russians lived at a time in which fear and paranoia reigned. It was a time when loved ones suddenly disappeared, never to be seen again.
This is a book that demands the reader have patience and stick with it even when it is not easy to do so. The comedy that we get includes what seems to be senseless schtick and the characters seem absurd and surreal but there is a person for this which you will discover as you read.
The book is structured in three acts including lines of dialogue formatted as though part of a script and it is easy to imagine what we read taking place on the stage. The title of the book is as provocative what we find inside. Tremendous and staggering change was about to take place that February of 1953. The story revolves around Stalin’s Final Solution and while there is historical evidence to this, Goldberg embellishes history by the addition of the comedic characters and the way they react to this fact of history. We meet these Yiddish-speaking jokester-superheroes who make it their mission to avenge countless acts of anti-Semitism, both real and anticipated. I understand that Goldberg bases his characters on his friends and relatives in Russia.
One of the fierce fighters who remembers what happened during World War II is based on Goldberg’s grandfather and he even uses his grandfather’s name. Many of the characters hammy are actors who quote from the Yiddish version of Shakespeare’s “King Lear.”
The novel begins with the late night raid on the apartment of Solomon Levinson and this is a routine event for the 25-year-old Russian officer in charge of rounding up Levinson. But Lieutenant Sadykov was not accustomed to theatrical behavior. He had expected a clichéd Jew that Russian propaganda has made so familiar. He certainly did not expect the nicely dressed old man in an ascot who is totally polite.
We then meet Friedrich Robertovich Lewis, a black American originally named after Frederick Douglass. He was given a Yiddish nickname and, he prefers Yiddish to the racist talk he heard growing up in Omaha. He can curse in Yiddish much more creatively than Levinson can. The two of them waste a lot of time wishing each other plagues and ailments before figuring out how to make the Soviet leave.
The group of characters enlarges as “The Yid” continues in its structure of a three-act play. Soon there is a core group determined to stop the deportation and pogrom that could become Stalin’s last gift to Russian Jews. Its members will change the course of history. As to how this will happen demands reading this absolutely fascinating book.