Review of Sasha Senderovich’s How the Soviet Jew Was Made

Nobuto Sato

Sasha Senderovich, How the Sovi­et Jew Was Made. (Har­vard Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 2022). 368 pp. $39.95.

Sasha Senderovich’s How the Soviet Jew Was Made is a deeply researched book that explores literary and cinematic representations of Jews in the USSR between 1917 and the 1930s. The book participates in the recent scholarly efforts to reconsider the Cold War paradigm that characterizes Jews in the USSR as monolithic supporters of the Soviet regime, and further advances the discussion of complexity and diversity of Soviet Jewish culture. By gesturing to Lilya Kaganovsky’s How the Soviet Man Was Unmade (2008), a study of male subjectivity in Russian-language films, Senderovich contextualizes his argument about Jews in the USSR as an addition of multilingual dimension to the critical discourse on interwar Soviet culture. His inclusion of Yiddish material helps paint a more comprehensive picture of the Soviet cultural landscape.

Senderovich introduces readers to his study by historicizing the term “Soviet Jew,” which may appear neutral but is in fact a notion constructed externally and retrospectively within the Cold War framework. The English phrase “Soviet Jew” does not have an exact equivalent in Russian, and spread only decades after its formation in the post-Second World War period. It eventually took on an ideological connotation of Jews in the USSR to be “saved” and reunited with Western Jewish culture. Senderovich challenges this fixed notion of the Soviet Jew, and recounts a complex prehistory of the Soviet Jew in the immediate context of interwar Soviet culture. Investigating both understudied and canonical texts such as David Bergelson’s Judgment, Moyshe Kulbak’s The Zelmenyaners, Semyon Gekht’s and Viktor Fink’s travel writings on Birobidzhan, the film The Return of Neitan Bekker, and Isaac Babel’s short stories, this book redefines the Soviet Jew as a “layered, indeterminate, and fluid figure” that remains “in perpetual motion” (2).

Each chapter is devoted to in-depth discussions of the emergent Soviet Jew’s features in a different geographic and/or thematic setting. Chapter 1 focuses on Bergelson’s Yiddish novel Judgment, which Senderovich himself translated into English with Harriet Murav (Northwestern University Press, 2017), looking at “the lasting trauma of pogrom violence as a definitional aspect of the figure of the Soviet Jew” (18). Chapter 2 interprets Kulbak’s The Zelmenyaners as a novel that reimagines Jews as a productive force of the newly built Soviet regime. The novel’s use of ethnographic discourses not only preserves the process of a Jewish family’s transition to Soviet modernity but also parodies this process (122). Chapter 3 compares Gekht’s and Fink’s writings on travels to Birobidzhan. Although Jews were expected to transform themselves into muscular agricultural workers in their state-imposed resettlement in Birobidzhan, the two texts end up providing a narrative of “non-arrival” (126), highlighting the Soviet Jew’s “rootlessness, migration, and an unsteady discursive location both inside and beyond Soviet ideology” (132). Chapter 4 concerns the film The Return of Neitan Bekker, which is about Jews who had emigrated from the Russian Empire and returned to the Soviet Union in the 1930s. Instead of an American returnee’s ideological conversion from capitalism to socialism, argues Senderovich, the film exhibits the failure of becoming the New Soviet Man, and therefore the emergence of the Soviet Jew, who is “never fully separate from the Wandering Jew” (217). Chapter 5 examines the folkloric character Hershele Ostropoler in Babel’s stories. As an alter ego of Babel, this popular Jewish trickster represents the Soviet Jew, “who enters and disorders ideologically charged spaces while safeguarding them at the same time” (226). In its entirety, Senderovich’s book pursues “somewhat nebulous contours” (4) of the Soviet Jew, located between the dissolution of the Pale of Settlement and the establishment of the USSR.

While Senderovich provides his key texts’ historical and critical backgrounds in great detail, the Soviet Jew’s ambivalent figure emerges through his thorough examination of nuts and bolts of each text. The ways in which he explicates symbolical functions of the human body in literary and cinematic texts—particularly, his interpretations of characters’ speech impediments—are very intriguing. Rejecting the superficial reading of Bergelson’s novel Judgment as a heroic tale of the Bolshevik regime, he calls our attention to Bolsheviks’ sick bodies. Certainly, there are some ostensibly heroic characters in the novel, but they are often too sick to deliver their words to the people that they are supposed to govern. The fictional Bolshevik leader Filipov’s sick body ultimately dismantles the heroic plot, while he might look like “the revolution’s selfless hero” to the untrained eye (51).

Chapter 4 most clearly displays Senderovich’s close reading of the human body and speech impediments. The film The Return of Neitan Bekker presents the protagonist Bekker’s body as “a cultural site resistant to integration into the Soviet collective” (181), and depicts Bekker’s “progressive loss of voice” (195). This loss of voice takes the form of stuttering, which is “a marker of the body that can never be fully assimilated into the Soviet collective” (212). The Soviet Jew’s failure of assimilation, importantly, does not necessarily indicate its inability. Referring to another film Seekers of Happiness, he points out that some Jewish viewers of the film positively saw the protagonist, despite its essentially negative characterization as an unassimilable Jew. For the Jewish viewers, the protagonist was an incarnation of their “silent protest against Soviet rhetoric and ideology” (211; quote from Anna Shternsis). Senderovich’s nuanced analysis thus opens an interesting interpretive domain in which the failure of assimilation signifies an ability to stealthily defy the Soviet regime.

Popular trickster in Yiddish folktales Hershele Ostropoler, the subject of Chapter 5, also acts as a sort of stutterer, whose digressive speech distances himself from the Soviet collective. Language is Hershele’s “tool for creating alternative meanings and playing on ambivalences, oppositions, and discrepancies in the larger cultural and linguistic sphere in which he operates” (226). This subtle positioning of Hershele is important because it reflects the way in which Isaac Babel — who wrote several articles for The Red Cavalryman in 1920, the propaganda newspaper for Semyon Budyonny’s First Cavalry Army — sees himself. Babel’s involvement with the newspaper was “the double-edged project of producing the language of the state through his propaganda work while questioning it in his fiction” (243). Senderovich develops this idea of producing/questioning the state language through his remarkably original interpretation of Hershele’s disorienting travel paths in Babel’s Russian version of the Yiddish folktale “Shabos-nakhamu.” Building on Michel de Certeau’s concept of “pedestrian speech act,” which opposes the Foucauldian idea that members of modern societies are always under surveillance, Senderovich regards Hershele’s walking as a speech act: “Like speakers who improvise on the conventions of language within the existing structures of speech, pedestrians substitute their own itineraries for those printed on the map, even as they are limited by physical and geographic constraints” (234). Senderovich places Hershele in a complex sphere of in-between, neither as a radically subversive actor nor a completely powerless individual. And this is the sociopolitical space Babel himself had to navigate and negotiate as a writer.

On the whole, Senderovich’s book successfully demonstrates how the ambivalent figure of the Soviet Jew “evolved in far more polyvalent circumstances” than some may assume (278). His comparative approach offers a wider view of the Soviet cultural landscape, where Russian and Yiddish richly interacted with each other. By extension, Senderovich’s book is also an invitation to further expand the scope of Yiddish studies through multilingual approaches. Not to mention the Yiddish language’s relation to Hebrew, its diasporic status in the interwar period requires more crosscultural attention for a better understanding of Yiddish literature’s global circulation.

Sato, Nobuto. “Review of Sasha Senderovich's How the Soviet Jew Was Made.” In geveb, February 2023:
Sato, Nobuto. “Review of Sasha Senderovich's How the Soviet Jew Was Made.” In geveb (February 2023): Accessed May 28, 2024.


Nobuto Sato

Nobuto Sato is a PhD candidate in Comparative and World Literature at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.