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Is it easy to be a Jew?

The 10th of February marks the 125th anniversary of the birth of Boris Pasternak

“Talent is the only news

That is always living…”

Belonging to “one’s people” – is it a blessing or a burden?

Every Jew, depending on their level of self-awareness, probably asks themselves this question.

Leonid Ashkenazi wrote: “In choosing the Jewish people, you choose a persecuted people, you choose an oppressed people, you choose a load of problems, restrictions, doubts and dangers. Everywhere, all over the world, even in the most prosperous countries, there is always something from this list.”

But what if you’re a poet? Sensitive, vulnerable, a l i v e…

Boris Leonidovich Pasternak, a poet and writer of Jewish ancestry, winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature (1958), was born on 10 February 1890 into a cultured Jewish family, whose lifestyle was entirely focused on creativity: music, painting, literature. The future poet’s parents moved to Moscow from Odessa in 1889, one year before his birth. His father was the art professor Isaak Iosifovich, later Leonid Osipovich. His mother was the pianist Raitsa Srulevna Kaufman, later Rozaliya Isidorovna, a professor of the Odessa conservatory. The Pasternak family traced its genealogy from Isaak (Yitzhak) Abarbanel – a sage, theologian and interpreter of the Bible.

These roots and ancestry made quite a complex mark on the poet’s destiny, who all his life regarded his nationality as a burden rather than a gift.

In any case, it is not so easy to understand the Jewish nature of Boris Pasternak. It is a story full of contradictions, strangeness and secrets, and in itself it would make an entertaining novel.

The poet’s biographer Dmitry Bykov writes: “In 1900, Boris Pasternak learnt for the first time that he was a Jew, and that it wouldn’t mean anything good for him. Jewishness turned out to be much more serious than poverty, lack of connections or illness. <…> Despite his brilliant exam results, pox vaccination and tidy uniform, even despite the intervention of the Moscow city head Golitsyn, <…> Boris was not accepted into the first year of the Fifth gymnasium, as the quota for Jews there was 10 pupils out of 345”.

He did manage to enroll in the following year, but he was exempted from theology. In the graduation certificate, it stated that he was of “Jewish faith”. Although the young poet himself did not observe the rules of Judaism and felt closer to Christianity in his heart. Later, in his only novel, he stresses the supremacy of Christianity over Judaism, although in his interpretation of Christianity he drastically disagrees with the Russian Orthodox faith in the approach to the national principle, and to the role of the Bible.

In 1928 he writes to Maxim Gorky: “I have Jewish blood, but there is nothing more alien to me than Jewish nationalism. Perhaps only Greater Russian chauvinism. In this issue I am for full Jewish assimilation… Remember who you are. That’s enough. Nothing more is needed. Don’t call yourselves the way you used to. Don’t all huddle together, disperse, be whoever you wish…”

Later the poet complains to his cousin (in a letter of 7 August 1949) about his official and public stigma: “What am I worth if the obstacle of blood and ancestry remains insuperable, and I will end up with narrow, secret popularity among cultured Jews, the most persecuted and unhappy of their kind?”

Classifying himself as part of the Russian intelligentsia which were proud of their independence of judgment, Pasternak insisted on the polarity of lyric poetry and history, and also the intentionally apolitical nature of any genuine art.
He rejected violence and revolution as a means of achieving any goals, even the most “correct” ones.

Boris Pasternak wrote “Doctor Zhivago” over ten years, from 1945 to 1955. The author himself called it the summit of his prose. The novel is a canvas of the life of the Russian intelligentsia in the dramatic period from the turn of the century to the Civil War. Filled with poetic spirit, it is accompanied by the poems of the main character, Yury Andreevich Zhivago.

“The surname of the main character in the novel?” Pasternak said to his friend Varlam Shalamov. “It’s a complicated story. As a child I was astounded and agitated by the lines from the Orthodox prayer: “Ty esli vostinu Khristos, syn Boga zhivago” (“If you are truly Christ, the son of the living God”). I repeated this line and in my childish way I put a comma after the word “Bog” (God). This meant that the secret name of Christ was “Zhivago” (“living”). It took a whole lifetime to make this childhood feeling a reality – to give this name to the main character of my novel. This is a true story, the ‘substrate’ of my choice of name. Additionally, ‘Zhivago’ is a fine and expressive Siberian surname (like Mertvago, Veselago (Dead, Cheerful)). The symbol here coincides with reality, it does not violate it, does not contradict it.”

Here are a few episodes from “Doctor Zhivago”.

These are the thoughts of the 11-year-old boy Misha, the son of the lawyer Gordon, an acquaintance of Doctor Zhivago:

“What does it mean to be a Jew? What does this exist for? How is this unarmed challenge rewarded or justified, which brings nothing but misery?... You can recover from a serious illness, you can become strong if you are born puny, you can learn the language of another people perfectly, and learn and observe customs and mores. But it is impossible to escape from Jewishness, although your face and appearance is like everyone else’s. This is irrational, it makes no sense, above all not to young Jewish boys and girls who are trying to understand their existence on Earth.”

Lara says in the novel: “The people who once liberated humanity from the yoke of idolatry and have now devoted themselves in such multitudes to liberate it from social evil, are powerless to become liberated from themselves, from loyalty to an outmoded, antediluvian name which has lost its meaning, they cannot rise above themselves and dissolve without a trace among the others, whose religious foundations they laid themselves, and which would be so close to them, if they knew any better.”

The writer’s ideas expressed by Misha Gordon and Lara condemn Jewishness as a factor that divides people. And generally, the idea of nationality is derided, for “in the new form of society called the Kingdom of God, there are no nationalities, there are personalities.”

Although Pasternak himself explicitly condemned anti-Semitism, these statements, along the complete silence about the catastrophe of European Jewishness (the Holocaust), of which he was a contemporary and witness, and the tendency to blame the Jews themselves for their sufferings, drew a harsh protest from the Jewish community (including David Ben-Gurion), who saw this as a sign of so-called cultured anti-Semitism and apostasy.

The novel, which raises issues of history, Christianity, Jewishness, life and death, also met with a very negative reaction from the Soviet literary world, and it was not allowed to be printed because of the author’s ambiguous position towards the October revolution and the subsequent changes in the life of the country.

The publication of the novel in the West, initially in Italy in 1957 by the pro-Communist publishing house Feltrinelli, and then in Great Britain, with the assistance of the renowned philosopher and diplomat Sir Isaiah Berlin, led to the persecution of Pasternak in the Soviet press, his exclusion from the USSR Writers’ Union and insults from Soviet newspapers. The Moscow organization of the USSR Writers’ Union demanded for Pasternak to be exiled from the Soviet Union and deprived of his Soviet citizenship.

From 1946 to 1950, Pasternak was nominated each year for the Nobel Prize for Literature. In 1958, his candidacy was proposed by the 1957 winner Albert Camus, and Pasternak became the second writer in Russia (after Ivan Bunin) to win the prize.
When he received a telegram from the secretary of the Nobel committee Anders Esterling, Pasternak replied on 29 October 1958: “I am grateful, glad, proud and embarrassed.”

The award of the prize was regarded by Soviet propaganda as a new excuse to increase persecution. Personal pressure was also put on Pasternak, which eventually forced him to refuse the prize. In a telegram sent to the Swedish academy, Pasternak wrote: “In light of the significance that the prize I was awarded has gained in the society to which I belong, I must refuse it. Please do not regard my voluntary refusal as an insult.”

In his poem “Nobel Prize,” Pasternak writes bitterly:

“What loathsome deed did I commit,
I, a murderer and villain?
I made the whole world weep
Over the beauty of my land.”

Was Pasternak’s flight from his Jewishness successful?

In 1958, officialdom persecuted Pasternak as a Jew. Bykov writes:

“They made a poster: ‘Judas, get out of the USSR!”, depicting Pasternak as Judas, emphasizing his Jewish features, and with a bag of dollars next to him, which he was reaching out for greedily.”

He goes on to write: “According to Pasternak, the role of the person is not to make history, but to preserve themselves despite it.” Yes, perhaps the entire history of the Jewish people is the attempt to preserve themselves despite history.

In his last years, Boris Pasternak was seriously ill. His biographer believes that his illness was aggravated by psychological reasons during his persecution. Nevertheless, after several years of silence, the poet once more wrote about the miracle of unceasing life and eternal renewal.

Pasternak’s last poem –

“How I remember solstice days
Through many winters long completed!
Each unrepeatable, unique,
And each one countless times repeated.

Of all these days, these only days,
When one rejoiced in the impression
That time had stopped, there grew in years
An unforgettable succession.

Each one of them I can evoke.
The year is to midwinter moving,
The roofs are dripping, roads are soaked,
And on the ice the sun is brooding.

Then lovers hastily are drawn
To one another, vague and dreaming,
And in the heat, upon a tree
The sweating nesting-box is steaming.

And sleepy clock-hands laze away
The clock-face wearily ascending.
Eternal, endless is the day,
And the embrace is never-ending

– practically echoes Yury Zhivago’s thoughts about the miracle of resurrection in the novel “Doctor Zhivago”:

“One and the same boundlessly identical life fills the universe and is hourly renewed in countless combinations and transformations. You’re worried about whether you will be resurrected, but you were already when you were born, didn’t you notice? Don’t worry about anything. There is no death. Death is not our lot. But you talked about talent, that is another matter, that is ours, it is open to us. And talent in the broadest sense is the gift of life”.

“Life on earth is but a moment,
Only dissolution
Of our own selves in other selves,
As if in contribution”.



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