A history of Russian Jewry with memory at its core

In "Imagining Russian Jewry: Memory, History, Identity," Steven Zipperstein has embraced a history beyond events, exploring how those who left have mentally revisited the land of their origins.

In this deceptively slim volume, as delicately and lyrically articulated as its title, Zipperstein examines the psyche of history — and historians. He gives history an added dimension by looking at the feelings and perceptions of those who have lived it or written about it.

"There is meaning in perception and imagination," said Zipperstein, professor of Jewish culture and history as well as director of Jewish studies at Stanford University. "These are people's dreams and need to be taken seriously. Very profound things — hard to get at, yet important to get at."

He begins by exploring novels, from the early decades of this century, when works were characterized by an utter rejection of the Old Country, to the mid-1950s, when a "warm subversion of the facts" suffused literature, creating a rich, lacy memory of shtetl life.

"My interest here is in what American Jewish writers saw, or thought they saw, across the waters from their rooftops," he writes.

The book "is a departure for me in that it is a less formal, less academic work," he said.

It will strike a powerful chord for those whose parents were eager to extricate themselves from their past, excising all vestiges of the newly embarrassing manners, language and culture.

"A lot of what I really wanted to explore was the silences, explicit silences," Zipperstein said. "The move was so wrenching, people were so often left behind and there was, consequently, so much guilt. You made a choice to leave. And we all know how easy it is to feel guilty even if there's no real reason to. So, they pictured [Russia] as completely stark to justify why they left. And that need became more acute after the Holocaust."

The book began to take shape in his mind while teaching in Poland in 1995-96 and during a 1993 visit to Russia.

While in Russia, Zipperstein unearthed the massive and unindexed archival files of Piotr S. Marek, a Russian Jewish historian who died in 1920. Town maps, diaries and volumes of letters had been stuffed into unmarked envelopes in random order.

Put together, the papers provided an intimate picture of childhood and community life, schooling and gender issues — including the lives and education of young girls — previously unavailable to historians. And that picture provided a rich and telling counterpoint to the transmogrifying memories of transplanted Russian Jews and their chroniclers.

The novels of Anna Yezierska provide the foreground for this discussion. In "Bread Givers," she probes the relationship between a young Jewish woman and her father — a brutal, scholarly patriarch who is unwilling (no doubt, unable) to adapt himself to America and who expects his wife and daughters to satisfy his needs. In "Red Ribbon on a White Horse," the culture's treatment of women — shabby, by Yezierska's earlier accounts — is barely noted.

In his much more academic second chapter, "Reinventing the Cheder," Zipperstein reports on the usually dim, airless and frigid schoolhouses in which a captive audience of young boys spent as much as nine hours a day.

Zipperstein, buoyed by a bounty of research, reports that the melameds responsible for schooling the children made for wretchedly inadequate teachers — and that illness and untimely death ran amok among the students. Yet the most vehement critics became ardent defenders during a period of reform after the turn of the century.

"It was widely believed that a dangerous cultural slippage was taking place," he writes.

In Odessa, where, by the late 1870s, most Jewish-owned businesses were open on the Sabbath, with observance shriveling to perfunctory ritual. In the family of a successful exporter, "the only moment of true passion he recalled was the terror that gripped his family at the prospect of economic catastrophe during the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-78, when the outlet from the Black Sea was closed and grain shipments were disrupted."

Rich in historical detail, the book is also enormously personal.

"This book was built around three main concerns," he said. "To give readers a fairly intimate glimpse of what it is to write Jewish history, to suggest a clear sense of how Russian Jewry has been seen by historians and others, and the way historians have influenced perceptions beyond their desks."

Zipperstein has written about Odessa in the past and is the author of "The Jews of Odessa: A Cultural History," and "Elusive Prophet: Ahad Ha'am and the Origins of Zionism." He is now writing a biography of writer Isaac Rosenfeld, who died in the mid-1950s in his 30s.

He will return to Russia, once the Marek archives have been indexed. "In Russia, things change very quickly," he said. "And since I now have two young sons, I thought I would wait a bit."

Rebecca Rosen Lum

Rebecca Rosen Lum is a freelance writer.