The Zelmenyaners: Reader Responses

The Zelmenyaners, by Moyshe Kulbak, is the first selection in the 2017 Great Jewish Books Book Club. Here's a sampling of some thoughts about the book, from members taking part in the club's Facebook group.

Kulbak around the World

In the jungle, with Alegría Baltodano Zomer
In Norway, with Erland Aas

Is the Novel Comic or Tragic?

• I'm re-reading the book and appreciating it even more. There are truly some amusing chapters, dealing with electrification for example, but the over-arching tone for me is tragedy. I find the book incredibly sad. The older generation clings to tradition and values—to their culture—while the youngsters (whippersnappers) throw everything of value away without a backward glance. In return for becoming members of the proletariat they lose their Jewish values for a paltry return. — Heather Silverman

• I found the family too mean-spirited. This was not the family picture told to me from my Bubbe about her youth in Poland. Even with all of the political upheaval about them, they never pulled together as Jewish families that I have known, usually do. — Edith Caesar

• I did not find it "comic." The Family Z had no sense of humor, and I prefer to laugh with rather than at people. Jews have been truly oppressed for generations, yet a frequent picture one gets of them in writings is of loving families, even in horrible times. I see no love between the Zs, and I find that very troubling from a Yiddish author. — Roz Diamond

• When I love a book, I kiss it. . . . Last night, I kissed The Zelmenyaners good night. . . . I hope that they are happy in their "modern Soviet apartments" and adapted to modernity. . . . I doubt it, which is good. . . . The remaining Zelmenyaners kept many "things" of their former lives, which I liked. . . . Despite the pressures of "modernity," the "golden chain” of Judaism continues. . . . Their community (should I have said ours?) has survived at least in spirit; while the "Soviet new man" doesn't. . . . Is this book a comedy or a tragedy? I say both. . . . A tragedy because a community and a dream are dead. A tragedy because the younger Zelmenyaners seem crushed under the Soviet machine. A comedy because (as I already said) the spirit of the Zelmenyaners persists. — Ted Schlechter

• While portrayed as a mostly humorous work, I personally found very little in this book that made me laugh other than the way in which the people living in the courtyard began to adapt to the use of electricity. The displacement and marginalization of the older generation, whose lives revolved around simple, ordinary things like weddings, births, and family gatherings set within a world centered pretty much on the synagogue by the younger generation who fully embraced Soviet Communist ideology and who restructured their lives and values around that as a lifestyle was acutely painful to me. — Robert Sternberg

On the Style of the Novel

• I am reading a biography (by James Park Sloan) of Jerzy Kosinski, born and raised in eastern Europe in 1933, who became an American novelist later in life. The biographer's description of Kosinski's writing style and explanation for it may shed some cultural perspective on Kulbak.

This collection of loosely related anecdotes means that the book as a whole has no narrative focus in the ordinary sense. Kosinski's later novels did not have “plots.” The very notion of a plot implies externally imposed coherence, and it was Kosinski's deepest instinct to distrust all externally imposed systems. . . . The vocation of a writer was to act as a cosmological journalist, rendering little anecdotes that put the reader in touch with the true experiences that plot tended to eradicate.

My own thought is that another reason why Jewish authors of the Soviet era might be so anecdotal is that it is hard to prove that they have said anything negative about what is happening. They are just innocently reporting a few observations. Hopefully that is not enough to be shot for. In Kulbak's case, evidently it was enough. — Judy Thornber

• I am still confused as to the uncles and which children belong to whom. I love that the author makes me feel like I am in the corner of the courtyard watching it play out in front of me. — Debra Zuber

• One of the things I had to get used to in reading the book was the fact that there was no main plot with an arc from beginning to climax to conclusion. Rather, the Zelmenyaners are a galaxy unto themselves in the great Russian universe. The "Big Bang" of their creation is the eruption of Reb Zelmele and Bubbe Bashe from "Deep Russia," memorialized as an Eden-like place of perpetual summer, and the creation of the courtyard. Every character in the novel spins in their own orbit around this center of creation: the courtyard exerts a powerful familial and cultural force, but the manic motion of each Zelmenyaner is a counter-force that threatens to split the entire structure apart. This is the central tension of the book, but it's more of a concept than a "story." Another thing I found disorienting was the way Kulbak would interrupt the forward progression of events with a flashback or insertion of an item (e.g., letters, a messenger) relating to something that had happened earlier. Consequently, getting to know the characters in the Zelmenyaners is a process of discovery akin to peeling an onion. — Mara Winn

• There is so much experimentation in Kulbak's style here. The short sections, the lists, the miscellanies, one-sentence chapters, non-chronological narrative, repetition, and more. I love it. For the most part, I think it's smart, delightful, and doesn't take away from the story, but rather is part and parcel of the story. — Lesley Yalen

• From the beginning, the reader is invited to observe the story in such a unique way:

"That's Reb Zelmele's courtyard that you're looking at" (1)
"But let's have a look at Uncle Zishe through his window" (22)
"But where does the danger lurk? Not where you might expect. It lurks in Uncle Itshe's Falke, that where" (63)

I think the translator did an incredible job in terms of tone and voice, which prefigures a kind of cinematic storytelling. Can you think of any other novels comparable to this nudge narration? Maybe Nabokov. . . — Erika Jo Brown

• I get the comparisons between this book and Sholem Aleichem's "Tevye the Dairyman." Modernization, the end of an era, humor and tragedy all wrapped in one. In that same vein, I could maybe even see similarities between this novel and some of Chekhov's plays, although less humorous, there is certainly that end of an era aura (e.g. The Cherry Orchard). But regarding style and theme, I want to say Andrei Platonov's The Foundation Pit, which was written around the same time as Kulbak's The Zelmenyaners also deals with Sovietization. — Elissa Sperling

• One thing that has consistently captured my attention in the Family Z. is the narrator's treatment of fact and fiction. The narrator will report a story as if the truth of it all is doubtless, and then will turn right back around and state that nobody will ever know if this is really how it went, or that this was at least what Folye's wife had to say about it, and so on. In this way, the story of the family becomes more a set of myths than a set of facts. For instance, we are led to believe that it is not the exact happenings in Vladivostok that matter, but rather the range of possible interpretations, investigations, and defenses of those happenings. Another example is the situation of the rabbi's postcard. — Max Weinreich

What Did You Think of the Translation?

• There is a staccato tempo in the flow of the writing. I wonder how much is due to the author’s intention and how much is due to the translation. There is a bit of jumpiness in the transitions of subjects so I think it is partly on purpose, but would still be interesting to know how much the sentence flow was changed in translation. — Lauren Harnett

• I'm back and forth between the English and the Yiddish and find that both versions are choppy. I labeled it as a style of writing in headlines: we're given a teaser, and when the story finally appears it seems out of context. I attribute it to style, sort of like a bunch of short stories strung together. The business of continuity of family saga, family interactions, and family coping with changing political times, adjustment to disintegration of tradition and religious belief, and modernity in general, as the thematic undercurrent that propels the author's view of that part of history and Jewish life. — Paula Burstyn Goldberg

• There's been a bit of good-natured grumbling about the translation, so I'll say this: I really liked the use of chapter openers like "As for Sonya, it's like this. . . ." and "What's eating Uncle Folye?" and "What's with Falke?" and so on. The delivery style of the entire narrative is like that of a rumor which everyone knows but everyone pretends is confidential information—the kind of thing where you lower your voice and make meaningful eye contact as you relate the story, and the listener humors you as if they haven't heard it already. It's a nice formula for recounting a story, and I think the translation really helped there. — Max Weinreich

What Kind of Family Are the Zelmenyaners?

• I've now finished the book and what strikes me is, despite the fact that we're told over and over again that Zelmenyaners have shared characteristics of this or that variety, that in fact the family members know very little about each other that isn't rumor or supposition (e.g., about Bereh's, Tonke's and Falke's adventures, most notably) and don't really understand each other's motivations very well. They fall back on explanations that don't really fit for the most part.

And there's a presumed family bond that really isn't there. They're not just humorously dysfunctional; except for the accident of birth, they're really not very much connected or in sympathy with each other. Despite the myths they live by, they're not much like each other in values, not even the generation of the uncles let alone their more Jewishly alienated children. Could this be Kulbak's point? Anyway, that's my initial thinking after just finishing it. And I have to say I like the book for having this unsentimental view of the Jewish family. — Stewart Alter

• One thing I really like about the characterization so far is the way the Zelmanyaners come across as sort of midway between humans and animal beings. They smell like hay, they prefer simplicity, and live in a yard. There are a few times where animals mirror the characters, like when Kulbak describes a hen as "philosophizing." — Max Weinreich

The Zelmenyaners is, inarguably, a collective portrait of a Jewish family. Where else do we have similarly collective family portraits in literature? If we were going to put The Zelmenyaners on a list of Jewish family stories, what else would we include? Weirdly, or not, the first thing that comes to my mind is Transparent. — Josh Lambert

• I agree they are not a likable bunch. Maybe their poverty is informing their smallness, but even poor families usually have more love and more redeeming virtues. Despite being turned in upon themselves, they do not seem to care for or support one another. — Judy Thornber

• Though many seem to be bashing the Zelmenyaners' lack of love and support for each other, I actually find it a bit comical and realistic. Even the most "loveyist-doveyist" of families (my own included of course!) have those who judge, are jealous, grumble and snipe at each other. This extended family is living in its own courtyard privy to every snore, argument, and kvetching emitted, and is dealing with world changing innovations such as electricity and radio antennas. So naturally they will differ on opinions of the new age taking over the status quo, for good or bad. — Miriam Bradman Abrahams

• I don’t know if I’ve read another book in which a family has been repeatedly described as a collective entity, the way the Zelmenyaners are. According to the narrator, the Zelmenyaners are, among other things: patient; even-tempered; taciturn; uncomplicated; “tall, dark, and broad-shouldered”; not bald; direct; nature-loving; thick-blooded; shrewd; fertile (the women, but they have difficult deliveries); “They are quiet, sluggish types who look at you sideways”; “Yet they sometimes glow like hot iron in a special Zelmenyaner way”; they don’t like Zelmenyaners; they die old.

Of course there are contradictions (some noted, some not) between these descriptions and the pictures Kulbak paints of the various characters. For example: “Although Zelmenyaners are taciturn even when happy, Uncle Yuda’s silence is morose.” And “. . . what irresponsible fraud has scattered his redheaded genes among the Zelmenyaners?” As if there is a core, unchanging (if eclectic and hard-to-pin-down) set of qualities that are essential to Zelmenyanerness, even though individual Zelmenyaners may display contradictory qualities (moroseness, redheadedness, etc.)

I find this whole trope to be charming and clever. And somehow also emotionally affecting. Because rather than creating a big bland monolith of a family, Kulbak is actually creating a structure in which the tension between the individual and the family/collective is in stark relief.

Tsalke’s desire to end his life, despite the fact that “Zelmenyaners commonly live to be a hundred or more. . . ”

Bereh and Khayaleh’s desire to be together, though “Zelmenyaners don’t like Zelmenyaners.”

The near “Zelmenyanercide” between Bereh and Uncle Folye, despite the supposed “even-tempered” nature of the family.

Individual desire pits itself against, but also finds a way to exist within, the collective. It makes me wonder about the narrator—the voice that’s telling us “Zelmenyaners are like this, and Zelmenyaners are like that.” Who or what is that voice aligned with? It’s not the voice of a Zelmenyaner, it seems, but it’s sympathetic to Zelmenyaners. It seems to respect the Zelmenyaner entity in all its contradictions and its attempts to define itself, to rebel against itself, to remain. — Lesley Yalen

The Historical Context

• I found The Zelmenyaners very eye-opening in terms of it being the first novel I have ever read that comes out of Yiddish literature that is grounded in the reality of life in the Soviet Union during the early years of Sovietization. More than anything else, to me, this book paints a clear, heart-wrenching and poignant portrait of the demise of Jewish life under the Soviet regime. . . . I was not surprised at all that this work easily passed the Soviet censors because, in a very realistically human way it more or less promoted Soviet values and made the values of the older generation appear anachronistic. I am quite certain that Sovietization had the same effect on non-Jewish Orthodox Christian families as it had on Jewish families. Moreover, the fact that there were no Zelmenyaners who immigrated to America or Canada, none who embraced Zionism and immigrated to what was then British Mandate Palestine, and none who even fled across the border from Belarus into independent democratic Poland (as did my late mother-in-law and her family) made this Jewish family portrait unrealistic and not entirely accurate. Nearly every Jewish family in the former Pale of Settlement had members of the family who migrated out of there to seek better lives in America, Canada, Argentina, the future state of Eretz Yisroyel and other places, as well as a closer escape into Poland. — Robert Sternberg

• I was fascinated by the way the history of the Soviet Union is woven into the story. It happens at a time when Stalin is trying to move the Jewish Citizens into the Jewish Autonomous Republic. Based on a movie by Yale Strom entitled L’Chayim Comrade Stalin, Jews moved to this area near Korea as they embraced socialism. This was not true for older Zelmenyaners who resisted every attempt to modernize their yard until forced by the younger members to accept the inevitable. I think that this book preserves an important part of Jewish history. — Harvey Shifrin

Similes, Lists, Personification, Satire

• One thing I really like about the characterization so far is the way the Zelmanyaners come across as sort of midway between humans and animal beings. They smell like hay, they prefer simplicity and live in a yard. There are a few times where animals mirror the characters, like when Kulbak describes a hen as "philosophizing." — Max Weinreich

• Can we talk, for a minute, about "The Zelmeniad"? This entire section (Part 2, chapter 12) is brilliant. It really blew me away. It's largely a series of lists. And, like all great lists, Kulbak's are made up of incongruous, surprising, particulars juxtaposed with one another. His lists include items that vary in register and tone, he juxtaposes the silly and the serious, the mundane and the odd. His lists are musical and funny — they are as odd and hilarious for what they leave out as for what they include (as in: “Thirteen species of animal are recognized in the yard…” (191) Only thirteen!)

Another great list in "The Zelmeniad": "The technological artifacts of the yard include axes, knives, saws, a plane, chopping bowls, mousetraps, shoulder yokes, shovels, a sewing machine, thimbles, spectacles, needles, lamps, crowbars, a watchmaker's eyepiece, graters, pliers, pokers, oven lids, frying pans, and pots." (187)

Then there's: "At bottom, according to the yard, the world has three peoples: the Russians, the Poles, and the Peasants. The names of other peoples are difficult to keep straight. The difference between a baron and a Frenchman, for instance, is not quite clear. Zelmanyaners tend to confuse princes, counts, Germans, Frenchmen, politicians, Englishmen, kings, and so on and so forth.” (190)

For me, this collection of absurd and clearly not-comprehensive lists creates the atmosphere of the Zelmenyaners more than any traditional "scenes" composed of dialogue and setting ever could.

Comic writers say that every syllable, every beat, counts for delivering a joke, and I think Kulbak/Halkin (I'm giving them equal credit here) are masters of that kind of precision. There are no extra syllables, no flab. This line made me laugh out loud: "Gypsies are known in Reb Zelemele’s yard, too. They are, however, considered a profession rather than a people.” (191)

I've seen that some people in this group didn't love this book. I will say that at times the plotlessness and actually the nature descriptions (which I know some of you liked a lot) bored me a bit. But then there have also been quite a few moments when I've been stopped in my tracks and thought, "Wow, this is the best sentence I've ever read." — Lesley Yalen

• I realized Kulbak uses simile as a tool to describe things and moods throughout the book, usually in the beginning of sections or paragraphs. I went through and made a list of at least twenty-eight similes in Part One alone. I wonder why he felt this was such an effective way to paint his characters and the weather:  

"Yard seethed like an ant hill. Muscles rippled like living creatures. . . in a strange brown sea. Carrying Tsalke as if he were made of fine china. She stands all day long like a bird in a cage. . . pecking at a piece of bread. Blue air burns like alcohol. Raising and lowering their feet like hammers in their workshops. Big booming hurrah like the rumble of an avalanche. Frosts made days look like moonlit nights and yards turned to cold porcelain. Emotionless tears fell as dully as raindrops on a windowpane." — Janet Greenspan Schenk

• It was a wonderful choice as our first book of the year! Among other things (loved all those similes!), I focused on Kulbak’s use of parody and satire in the book alongside the pathos of the collective. In reference to the latter, we are told about feelings that are shared but not necessarily spoken, in counterpoint to the lapses in solidarity and mutual support in the family that some have already noted. Near the end, for example, we learn about how “the yard felt forlorn and abandoned, like a stone by the roadside” (224), how “Morning found the yard bearing up under a swarm of heavy silence that drifted over it like a sky full of clouds.” (228), how “A flash of pain ran through Reb Zelmel’s old, low, warm yard,” (247). I thought that this silence in combination with distress was an important theme in the book, alongside all kinds of talking and other noises, lights, temperatures, smells, textures and tastes. Like humour, unbearable as well as strategic, silences are of course integral to political reactions in various periods.

I also found Kulbak’s use of parodic and satirical devices to make broader political points to be effective. He reflects on matters ranging from gender equality to bureaucracies and economic planning to war. “Tonke made brilliant use of these statistics. Until now the experts looked down their noses at her, but now Tonke Zinoyevna is considered the last word on economic matters” . . . “Mornings and evenings I devote to housekeeping. Tonke says she hooked up with me so that I could take care of such things, but don’t think, my dears, that she gets away with it. I have the willpower to be independent and I’m not under anyone’s thumb” (119-120). On military horrors, he draws painful, absurd contrasts. Bereh as a soldier of the calvary with their “bayonets frosty against the starry sky” passing “gray peasants [who] watched from burned huts” (136) becomes “freakishly trapped behind Polish lines” after he “walked into town down a birch-lined road in such a good mood that he nearly burst into song” (137). On this side journey, Bereh then goes on to be the object of persuasion of the baker whose family hides him, a baker who has a daughter and now fervently wants Bereh to become his son-in-law.

By cleverly and affectionately poking fun at his main characters’ everyday actions, thoughts, and relationships—even the most serious ones such as violence, self-harm, and suicide—Kulbak suggests that his readers be self-critical about how individuals, families, and communities were and were not dealing with change in the period he is depicting. A timeless message. — Sharon Roseman