Wednesday, October 4, 2017

The Gates of November by Chaim Potok

The Jews of Russia

“This book is about the Slepak family. It seeks to answer two questions. First. What conditions will drive individuals living in comfort at the very summit of a political system, suddenly to turn against that system and bring ruin down on their lives? And second: Can a single family serve as a microcosm that might shed light on what ultimately happened to all the peoples of the Soviet Union? This was once a land so filled with hope; than a slowly growing skepticism, and a slide into cynicism, disillusionment, alienation, rage, separation, and, in the end, a general disintegration.”

Chaim Potok, p. xiv

The Gates of November (1996) by Chaim Potok. The title is taken from a line in Alexander Pushkin’s famous novel in verse, Eugene Onegin (1833).
Photo Credit: ©2017. Perry J. Greenbaum

Chaim Potok [1929–2002] is best known as a writer of American fiction infused with Jewish themes, found in such novels as The Chosen (1967), My Name is Asher Lev (1972) and Davita’s Harp (1987). This book is neither American nor fiction, but a true recounting of how and why one Jewish family in Russia (Volodya and Masha Slepak and their two children, Alexander and Leonid), part of what is now called the Former Soviet Union (FSU), wanted to leave it. It being a nation that failed to keep the promises of the Old Bolsheviks, one of whom was Solomon Slepak, the father of  Volodya.

A bit of background information on Potok, whom I consider a fine writer with a good moral questioning and critical eye; I have read all of whose books. Given his talent, I am not sure why he is not held in as high esteem as other Jewish writers of his generation like Bellow, Malamud and Roth. It might be that his novels are written for Jews who care about being Jewish, and who struggle with the ideas and ideals of Judaism, including truth and justice and righteousness.

This would undoubtedly make critics uncomfortable; and assimilated Jewish even ones more critical, all for very obvious reasons. I should know, since I too have wandered deeply into the opposing camp, seeking universality, only to eventually turn around to the particularities of what I know, to find comfort and familiarity in der Yidisher heym. After all, a writer can’t change his background, not if he’s honest. Potok was raised in an orthodox Jewish family in Brooklyn, New York, was ordained as a Conservative rabbi and holds a doctorate in philosophy.

It was in 1985, while visiting Russia, that Potok spent time with Volodya and Masha Slepak, this being the times of the Iron Curtain, where it was not a simple matter for Soviet citizens to apply for a visa and then hop on a plane to your desired destination. The Slepaks were dissidents; they were “refuseniks.” The USSR didn’t want anyone to leave, especially Jews. The Slepak Family did not want to stay and the Soviet government didn’t really want Jews like the Slepaks to stay. It was Kafkaesque.

Yet, they refused to let them go for political reasons, making them political prisoners. Such explains much about Soviet ideology during this time: from right after Israel won the Six Day Way in 1967 until the collapse of the USSR a little more than 20 years later. Although the Soviet Union was not Russia it was Russia when it came to the Jews and its systemic anti-Semitism–why it failed can be answered in why it failed the Jews, who at one time, in the beginning, wanted desperately to believe in the promises of the Old Bolsheviks, especially that all citizens were equal and would be treated as equals.

But that lie unraveled over time, the promises unfulfilled; it was doomed for failure from the very beginning, chiefly because it did not allow religious freedom and it persecuted the Jews more than the czarist regime before it did. It so effectively weakened the lines of cultural and religious transmission that a generation or two of Jews did not know what it meant to be a Jew. The Jews in the Soviet Union could not live as Jews; they were, as an example, forbidden to celebrate the holidays and festivals common to Jews around the world (like Sukkot) and all outward expressions of religious affiliation were discouraged, if not outright banned.

Yet, Jews, even if they considered themselves fully assimilated and acted so outwardly, could never be considered as full citizens, as Russians were—only because they were Jewish. All citizens were required to carry internal documents; the fifth line designated nationality or ethnicity. Even without such documents, Russians and Jews alike could generally spot a Jew, at times from a distance, not only by his face, but also by his mannerisms and way of walking and talking. This is what my wife and other Jews from Russia have told me. Jews stand out, even when they don’t want to.

Truly, this was not a place where Jews could comfortably live as Jews, whether religious or secular or in any way in between. A Jew knows this in his deepest soul, the yechidaheven if he does not know or understand this intellectually; he is awakened by the divine spark, dos Pintele Yidthis indestructible core of Jewishness that might be hidden or dormant for decades but can never be completely snuffed out. It is an idea that is steeped in kabbalistic thought. In such thought, the Pintele Yid resists the darkness and can’t accept or rationalize the evil as normal. This can also be viewed as  sparks of righteousness and justice.

The Slepaks were acting in accordance to this Jewish spark, this divine spark, which guided their conscience; they were among a handful of families who let this absurdity be known publicly, no doubt embarrassing the officials of the Politburo, who viewed such inconsistencies and irrationalities as unexceptional. In truth, they were, and very much so. Any hopes of sanity meant not only exposing the facts, but also doing so publicly and collectively, so as to ensure that insanity never returns, or as a minimum to reveal the symptoms of it.

For this reason, this book is also about the disease of totalitarianism (and, one can argue, of atheism), as much as it is about one family’s fight for their right to leave for Israel, and how their fight for freedom became the right for freedom for all Jews not only in Russia, but in all of the FSU. If freedom could not be found in the Soviet Union—and it couldn’t—it had to be found outside of it.

Volodya & Masha Slepak were finally free to leave, 17 years after they applied for an exit visa (their two boys were allowed to leave earlier, in the late 1970s); the couple landed in Israel a day before Volodya  Slepak’s 60th birthday, which was on October 27th, 1987. They were finally home.

Tonight, 15 Tishrei, begins the seven-day holiday of Sukkot (סֻכּוֹת;the “Festival of Booths”), or Succos in Yiddish, where it is traditional for Jews to build a temporary structure adjoining one’s dwelling called a sukkah. Or if you can’t build a sukkah (e.g., you live in an apartment building), you can make sure to visit someone who does have one to eat at least one meal in it. Moreover, most synagogues build sukkot for communal meals. This is one of the three Shalosh R’galim (pilgrimage festivals) cited in the Torah. It is  traditional to eat meals in the sukkah and shake the four kinds (arba minim), reciting the blessing over the lulav and etrog. This holiday is a joyous one.

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