Review of Marat Grinberg’s The Soviet Jewish Bookshelf

Sasha Senderovich

Marat Grin­berg. The Sovi­et Jew­ish Book­shelf: Jew­ish Cul­ture and Iden­ti­ty Between the Lines. Waltham, MA: Bran­deis Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 2022. 284 pp. $40.00.

In 1960, when the USSR’s State Publishing House for Literature issued the fourth volume of Sholem Aleichem’s collected works in Russian translation, it inserted a small note to readers in each of the print run’s 225,000 copies. “In order to meet the wishes of numerous readers,” the note said, the press announced the significant increase in the length of the remaining two volumes and in the number of the Yiddish writer’s works included. In Soviet books, such inserts usually noted errata after the book itself had been printed: the decision to increase the size of the remaining volumes in this case would have been made at the last minute, based on the information about the popularity of earlier volumes. Soviet readers at the time were eager consumers of Sholem Aleichem’s work, the six-volume publication of which was launched to mark his centennial the previous year.

In his new book, The Soviet Jewish Bookshelf, Marat Grinberg concedes, somewhat reluctantly, that Sholem Aleichem was indeed popular with a subset of Soviet readers—Soviet Jews or, as he puts it, “the Soviet Jewish reader.” But for Grinberg, translations of Yiddish works are not the essence of the eponymous Soviet Jewish bookshelf. In setting out to “reconstruct post-Holocaust Soviet Jewish identity and culture,” Grinberg gravitates to less overtly Jewish texts, those that, in his understanding, made “the Soviet Jewish bookshelf…the basis of Soviet Jews’ improbably defiant and necessarily makeshift Jewish heritage and knowledge” (4). Across the study’s five chapters, Grinberg selects works that bear out philosopher Leo Strauss’s famous 1950s notion that, when constrained by persecution, any writer worth their salt relies on a “peculiar technique of writing,” in which “the truth about all crucial things is presented exclusively between the lines” (9).

Within such a framework, not every book-loving Soviet Jew was “the Soviet Jewish reader” of Grinberg’s devising. The presence of Sholem Aleichem’s collected works “on the shelf of practically every Jewish home in every corner of the Soviet Union” (107) is for Grinberg of limited significance. In alignment with Strauss’s dictum that between-the-lines writing is addressed “not to all readers, but to trustworthy and intelligent readers only,” Grinberg sketches a particular Soviet Jewish reader—or, rather, the paradigmatic Soviet Jewish reader—as “intuitive and cautiously perceptive, able to locate the instances of subversion and Jewishness in between the text’s gaps and absences and within the official pernicious line” (9). In the first chapter of his book Grinberg focuses on the Russian translations of the German-Jewish writer Lion Feuchtwanger’s novels, and especially his trilogy based on the figure of the historian Josephus Flavius. These novels’ centering, recounts Grinberg, of Jewish protagonists and narratives in ancient Jerusalem supplied the “Soviet Jewish reader” with a compelling narrative of Jewish history that could inform this reader’s Jewish identity in the Soviet present, which had few spaces for such identity formation and expression. Indeed, popularly recounted Jewish history, which became a kind of “Jewish knowledge” in these literary texts, was not publicly available outside the translations of Feuchtwanger’s historical fiction. At the same time, reading these novels, which dwell on Jewish history quite openly, with an eye toward extracting “Jewish knowledge” wasn’t exactly a heavy Straussian lift. 1 1 The fourth chapter of Grinberg’s book discusses social science publications dealing, in requisitely negative and antagonistic ideological terms, with Judaism and the State of Israel; it contains the most clear example of “between-the-lines” reading practices. In this case, writes Grinberg, looking “between the lines” allowed readers to find information about Jewish religion and the Jewish state that could help them build idiosyncratic identities centered on Jewish nationalism and ethnic pride. Moreover, if reading for “Jewish knowledge” were the key metric of Soviet Jewish reading practices—as it is for Grinberg—wouldn’t some Jewish readers in the USSR have also been able to read the aforementioned Sholem Aleichem as a source of “Jewish knowledge”? The six-volume edition did, after all, come with copious endnotes. A reader inclined to extract “Jewish knowledge” from books that contained—on the surface, as it were—literary texts, could plausibly have read them between the lines well enough to establish something resembling a compendium of Jewish religious and folk practices.

Reading “between the lines,” specifically for submerged “Jewish knowledge” in the context of the Soviet state’s suppression of the full scope of Jewish tradition and history, is for Grinberg the key attribute of Soviet Jewish identity. Because the Soviet state had officially inserted Sholem Aleichem into the Soviet canon, the writer’s works, as it were, were not the object of this kind of nuanced reading. 2 2 On the circulation and interpretation of Sholem Aleichem’s work in the Soviet Union, see Gennady Estraikh, “Soviet Sholem Aleichem,” in Gennady Estraikh et al (eds.), Translating Sholem Aleichem: History, Politics and Art (Legenda, 2012) 62-82 and Mikhail Krutikov, “A Writer for All Seasons: Translating Sholem Aleichem into Soviet Ideological Idiom,” in Estraikh et al (eds.), Translating Sholem Aleichem, 98-112. Rather, Sholem Aleichem’s ubiquitous presence on the bookshelves of Soviet Jews, according to Grinberg, merely “validated the idea of Jews as a nation in a prescribed Soviet sense: each legitimate ethnicity had to have its national artist, using Pushkin as the model” (107). The six-volume Sholem Aleichem set on the Soviet Jewish reader’s bookshelf, in Grinberg’s assessment, was not there to read but rather merely to look at and to signal one’s Jewishness to Jewish guests who might drop by in a kind of knowing you’re-one-of-us gesture.

Russian translations of other works of Yiddish literature receive even more dismissive treatment, as when Grinberg simply asserts, in contrast with his assessment of the value of the occasionally published translations from Modern Hebrew, that translations from Yiddish “fell into the unread category, purchased as symbolic markers of Jewishness” (108). If such books were meaningful, he continues, it was because their title pages carried the phrase “translated from Yiddish”—which in Russian literally reads as “translated from Jewish” (perevod s evreiskogo)—emblematic enough to have these items “sought out, brought home, and deposited in the bookcase often never to be opened” (108). 3 3 On Yiddish literature in post-WWII Soviet Union, see all or significant parts of: Gennady Estraikh, Yiddish in the Cold War (Legenda, 2008); Mikhail Krutikov, Der Nister’s Soviet Years: Yiddish Writer as Witness to the People (Indiana University Press, 2019); Harriet Murav, Music from a Speeding Train: Jewish Literature in Post-Revolution Russia (Stanford University Press, 2011). Why doesn’t Grinberg mention the updated publication announcement inside the fourth volume of Sholem Aleichem’s collected works? Nor the increase in the later volumes’ length in response to demand? From pieces of evidence such as these, one might reasonably conclude that readers, beyond attaching symbolic importance to the recognizable brown volumes, were also eager to actually read the texts inside them.

Grinberg’s investment in “reading between the lines” rather than undertaking a more capacious reading of these texts limits the reach of his book as a work of literary scholarship. Claiming to read only “between the lines” presumes that reliable interpretations cannot be found in plain sight and that what is in plain sight was put there to mask, mislead, or deceive. But what if, occasionally, the more apparent evidence can—and should—be taken seriously? What if the 1963 collection of Russian-language translations gathered in the book Poets of Israel was considered not only as a compilation of translations from Hebrew (“the symbolic value [of which] far exceeded translations from Yiddish” when it came to Jewish languages, as Grinberg asserts, 117) but was also interpreted in light of the book’s Yiddish and Arabic content? For example, Poets of Israel—published when the Soviet state was still invested in the heterogenous reality of Israel in its 1948 borders, before Soviet-Israeli relations went truly bad following the Six-Day War—included translations of work by the Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish who was then living in Haifa, publishing in the Arabic periodical of the Israeli Communist Party, and editing an Arabic literary publication associated with the Mapam, Israel’s Workers Party, which sat in the Knesset. 4 4 Boris Slutsky, ed., Poety Izrailia: Perevod s ivrit, idish i arabskogo (Moscow: Izdatel’stvo innostrannoi literatury, 1963) 205-208. Mahmoud Darwish (1941-2008) was born in the Galilee and lived in Israel until 1970. He would go on to be regarded as Palestinian national poet in Arabic similar in stature among Palestinians to that of Yehuda Amichai (1924-2000)—whose work is also published in Poets of Israel (147-149)—among Jewish Israelis in Hebrew. What if the 1965 Russian translation of Franz Kafka were prized not only because, as Grinberg insists at the beginning of his book, its introduction mentioned that Kafka was a Zionist (1-2), thus satisfying the Soviet Jewish reader’s eagerness for seeing this word in print, but also because the volume contained The Trial, which, with its meditation on law, can and has been read as a deeply Jewish text? 5 5 The part of the tenth chapter of The Trial that has often been excerpted in English as “Before the Law” and interpreted as a Jewish parable of sorts, can be found, in the Russian translation, in: Franz Kafka, Roman, novelly, pritchi, ed. by B. Suchkov (Moscow: Progress, 1965) 294-296. What if the Strugatsky brothers, whose science fiction novels Grinberg places on the Soviet Jewish bookshelf, were influenced by the very same Soviet edition of Kafka—which also included “In the Penal Colony”—in their work that obliquely addressed the Holocaust? 6 6 Kafka, 401-435. What if the persistent coming-of-age-as-a-socialist throughline of Alexandra Brushtein’s immensely popular young adult trilogy The Road Runs Into the Distance, published at the same time as the six-volume Sholem Aleichem, were not seen merely as a red herring of a calculating writer’s attempt “to give Jewishness a public face within the accepted Soviet historical narrative” (64) but as itself a compelling and not a historically inaccurate narrative—one of several, to be sure—of the Soviet Jewish experience?

Though he spends the vast majority of his study on the Soviet Jewish reader of the post-Stalin but pre-Gorbachev USSR, Grinberg turns briefly in his epilogue to the Perestroika era when the Soviet policy of glasnost (openness) vastly expanded publishing beyond what had previously been available to the Soviet Jewish bookshelf. Once Jewishness—along with myriad other topics—could be written about in more diverse ways, the skill of reading between the lines became, as it were, less crucial. Grinberg displays a kind of nostalgia for the more limited reading materials and allegedly harder intellectual work of the earlier period, a time before Soviet Jewishness became “just a single piece in the larger sea of overwhelming information”—for instance, about the crimes of the Stalin era and the horrors of the Gulag—raining copiously upon Soviet readers in the Gorbachev years (193). 7 7 Other categories of books that might well have been in a Soviet Jewish home—perhaps, hidden on the bottom shelf of a bookcase if a reader could hold on to them for a while or, more likely, given the short-term circulation of these texts, placed on a nearby nightstand—also escape Grinberg’s attention. Because he examines only literature published through official channels in the USSR during the Stagnation era (the 1960s-1980s) he excludes underground samizdat publications and works published abroad in tamizdat and then smuggled back into the country. Some titles in this category—including culturally influential Jewish-interest ones—have recently garnered robust scholarly attention. See, for example: Yasha Klots, Tamizdat: Contraband Russian Literature in the Cold War Era (Northern Illinois University Press, 2023); Ann Komaromi, Soviet Samizdat: Imagining a New Soviet Society (Northern Illinois University Press, 2022), 122-125; Klavdia Smola, Izobretaia traditsiu: sovremennaia russko-evreiskaia literatura (Moscow: Novoe literaturnoe obozrenie, 2021) and “Jewish Underground Culture in the Soviet Union,” in Mark Lipovetsky et al. (eds), The Oxford Handbook of Soviet Underground Culture (online edition, Oxford Academic, 2021), accessed November 2, 2023.

Grinberg’s Soviet Jewish bookshelf is a concept, a method of literary analysis, an academic argument about reading practices. Despite the title, it is not, nor does it intend to be, an overview of what was, in fact, on some kind of average Soviet Jew’s bookshelf. Thus, Grinberg’s choice to reproduce images of a couple of real bookshelves owned by former Soviet Jews, which he photographed in Israel in 2019, is a bit incongruous. A caption under two images taken in the same apartment describes what we see as, indeed, a “Soviet Jewish bookshelf.” This caption highlights books on the photographed shelves that also feature in Grinberg’s analysis—including, among others, titles by Feuchtwanger, Isaac Babel, Ilya Ehrenburg, and (the presumably unread) Sholem Aleichem. A cursory look at the images, however, also reveals that many more titles are not noted in the caption nor discussed in the book than those that are: general world literature, in Russian translation, by Jaroslav Hašek, Lewis Carroll, Jack London, and James Fenimore Cooper, among others. The images also show the shelves to be places to display things other than books: in this case, a toy monkey, a conch shell, and a Scots Guard figurine. The shelf may contain the staples of what Grinberg considers a “Soviet Jewish bookshelf.” But it also is something larger than that, a cultural commonplace that has been described by Svetlana Boym as one of many “little bookshelf museums.” Quite standard in the homes of many Soviet and ex-Soviet people around the world, such bookshelves are “at once a status symbol of the intelligentsia and a meeting place of personal souvenirs: matreshka dolls, wooden spoons and khokhloma bowls, clay tots, shells from exotic seaside resorts […] and treasures from the trash.” 8 8 Svetlana Boym, The Future of Nostalgia (New York: Basic Books, 2001) 332-333. The books that Grinberg judges to be “unread” and that stand on the shelves apparently unopened are implied to fit in this latter category of material culture only. The volumes that are pronounced to have been read are allegedly valued more highly than the merely displayed. But by what measure does one determine that Feuchtwanger was a book to be read, while Sholem Aleichem was not actually a book but something closer to a tchotchke? As a study based on literary (not cultural or material) analysis, it is surprising that Grinberg does not offer a clearer justification for drawing this distinction.

Most of the book is written in the voice of a dispassionate scholar, but Grinberg occasionally offers personal reflections. Indeed, in one of the photos of a “typical” bookshelf we can see his reflection, smartphone in hand. The juxtaposition of scholarly analysis and personal voice introduces a certain methodological unsteadiness. At multiple points, Grinberg relies on his own memory and family stories when determining whether or not a particular title belonged on the Soviet Jewish bookshelf and, if it was on the shelf, whether it was read or unread. Of course, there is nothing wrong with a scholar’s insertion of their personal voice into their book. However, Grinberg does so without the kind of critical autoethnographic examination modeled in recent key texts in Jewish Studies that work at the juncture of original scholarship and critical autobiography. 9 9 I have in mind titles such as Marianne Hirsch’s Family Frames: Photography, Narrative, and Postmemory (1997) and Nancy K. Miller’s Bequest and Betrayal: Memoirs of a Parent’s Death (1996) that are now classics and, more recently, Laura Levitt’s The Objects That Remain (2020). When Grinberg states in ostensibly objective ways what a “Soviet Jewish reader” did or did not do (e.g., left translations of Yiddish literature unread), there is no clear evidence of whether the claim is based on more than personal experiences or unexamined commonplaces of Soviet Jewish collective memory. Here and there, Grinberg corroborates personal experience through conversations with a small group of colleagues and acquaintances—or an occasional Facebook post. But this group is small and dominated by those in the scholarly subfield of Soviet Jewish studies, so it falls very short of a significant ethnographic sample. Grinberg’s book, then, is a work of literary scholarship whose central claims rest heavily on ethnographic assumptions about actual readers that are not substantiated either by fieldwork or archival evidence.

This oversight did not have to be the case. At least three relatively recent titles provide models for applying qualitative fieldwork to the study of Soviet Jews’ cultural practices—including reading practices. In Soviet and Kosher: Jewish Popular Culture in the Soviet Union, 1923-1939 (2006), Anna Shternshis deftly coupled her analytical examination of published sources (including books) with an oral history project conducted with a significant sample of one-time consumers of such sources; at the time of Shternshis’s research at the turn of the twenty-first century, elderly Jews who had grown up in the early Soviet period were still alive in significant enough numbers to be Shternshis’s informants. Jeffrey Veidlinger’s In the Shadow of the Shtetl: Small-Town Jewish Life in Soviet Ukraine (2013) works with a vast body of oral history to reconstruct the public and collective memory of Jews in small towns in Ukraine, including after World War II. The work of Grinberg’s fellow literary scholar, Judith Deutsch Kornblatt, could have provided an even closer instructive model. Kornblatt’s Doubly Chosen: Russian Intelligentsia, Jewish Identity, and the Russian Orthodox Church (2004) couples analytical readings of cultural texts with the author’s extensive interpretation of the interviews she conducted with the ex-Soviet Jewish protagonists—many of them living in Israel—whose Soviet lives, beliefs, and reading practices the book aims to reconstruct. The Jews—and the bookshelves—Grinberg describes certainly exist, but his assertions about preferences and practices of “the Soviet Jewish reader” would be more convincing if presented alongside analysis of originally conducted oral histories properly documented and critically evaluated as primary sources.

Alternatively—or, perhaps, in addition—at least two scholarly studies of broader Soviet reading practices provide models for analyzing readers as cultural-historical figures. These books by literary scholars rely on printed rather than oral history sources. Evgeny Dobrenko’s classic The Making of the State Reader: Social and Aesthetic Receptions of Soviet Literature (1997), which Grinberg briefly mentions in his introduction but doesn’t engage with, draws on a vast archive of published materials that show what kind of new reader the burgeoning literary institutions of the early Soviet state imagined. This material includes, for example, evidence of attempts to track the reading preferences of Soviet workers through their borrowing activity at public libraries. Polina Barskova’s Besieged Leningrad: Aesthetic Responses to Urban Disaster (2017) examines diaries and memoirs of those trapped in Nazi Germany’s siege of Leningrad during World War II. The book’s final two chapters analyze written evidence of what Leningraders living during the siege wrote about books, whether the ones they burnt for heat or those whose bindings’ glue they ate for calories, or the Russian classics they re-read and derived new meanings from as they starved and witnessed the horrors of the blockade. There is evidence in Grinberg’s book that an approach like Dobrenko’s or Barskova’s could be useful—his chapter on Feuchtwanger makes use of a limited archival record on the question of the German Jewish writer’s relationship with his readers in the Soviet Union—but this mode of inquiry isn’t sustained in the book as a whole.

Grinberg’s book excavates “the Soviet Jewish bookshelf” as a significant site of Soviet Jewish cultural memory that might also be its unreflected commonplace. Future scholars can build on this work when they consider what further methodologies or archives could help substantiate or complicate Grinberg’s picture of “the Soviet Jewish reader” and the cultural site where this reader’s books were kept.

Senderovich, Sasha. “Review of Marat Grinberg's The Soviet Jewish Bookshelf.” In geveb, November 2023:
Senderovich, Sasha. “Review of Marat Grinberg's The Soviet Jewish Bookshelf.” In geveb (November 2023): Accessed Nov 30, 2023.


Sasha Senderovich

Sasha Senderovich is the author of How the Soviet Jew Was Made (Harvard University Press, 2022) and translator, with Harriet Murav, of David Bergelson's novel Judgment (Northwestern University Press, 2017). He is an Associate Professor in Slavic Languages & Literatures and the Jackson School of International Studies, and a faculty affiliate at the Stroum Center for Jewish Studies at the University of Washington in Seattle.