Text/Context, July, 2009: Yoke of Exile

“Let us now praise famous men, and our fathers that begat us.” So begins the 44th chapter of Ecclesiasticus, an ancient Jewish book also known as the Proverbs of Ben Sira. The photographer Walker Evans and the writer James Agee took the first half of this verse to name their American classic of 1941, which documents the hard lives of three “tenant families” — cotton sharecroppers — in Alabama during the Great Depression. The title is both ironic and heroic: the book’s subjects are anything but famous, yet are worthy of fame, now provided by the authors. In his preface, Agee called the work “an independent inquiry into certain normal predicaments of human divinity.”  

My great-grandfather, Yehoshua Zvi Shovman, was also a tenant
farmer — in the Jewish Pale of Settlement, in a village called Chereya in White Russia, today’s Belarus. He was born around 1856, making him a contemporary of other praiseworthy Jews born within a decade of him, such as Sigmund Freud, Ahad Ha’am, Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, Simon Dubnow, Gustav Mahler and Theodor Herzl.

Three of these men were Zionist leaders, three were not: Dubnow, a great historian, doubted that Palestine could house a Jewish polity and instead advocated what he called “Diaspora Autonomism.”

(His vision came true, mutatis mutandis, in Monsey, Boca Raton and Hollywood.) Mahler, the musical genius, dealt with Viennese anti-Semitism by becoming an unhappy Catholic. Freud was, at best, uneasy about Zionism. As he wrote in a letter to Albert Einstein: “It would have seemed more comprehensible to me to found a Jewish fatherland on new, historically unencumbered soil.” Besides, if everyone made aliyah, what would Freud do for patients?    

And what of my great-grandfather? I have studied the biographies of these famous men, their letters, essays and journals. But all I have to go on, in my effort to divine the historic predicament of Yehoshua Zvi, is a single text — one photograph — buttressed by oral tradition and the historical context of Herzl, Dubnow et al. My forebear wasn’t a rabbi or scholar or psychoanalyst; he was just a farmer, and I don’t know what crops he grew. Would we have liked each other? Of course we would. Unless he spoke Hebrew — which I doubt — we’d have lacked a language in which to argue.

We don’t dress alike, but I like his look:
 He was an adherent of Chabad, but does the photo tell us that? He wears a big kipa, but if you add an imaginary cross below the beard, he could be a Russian Orthodox monk. I’ve been combing the archives, and the closest visual analogue is an 1887 painting of Leo Tolstoy by the Ukrainian artist Ilya Yefimovich Repin.

Yehoshua Zvi is younger than he looks. I know that he died before the Shoah, unlike Simon Dubnow, who was shot in Latvia in December 1941. In the photo, he could be as young as 60: if I grew my beard for a year or two, it would look the same. But he doesn’t farm anymore: look at his hands. His sons do, for now.

And now take a closer look: the eyes. There is fear in them.

What’s he afraid of? A reasonable guess would be the photographer. Was the picture taken in backwoods Chereya, population 3,039 by an official 1897 census, 1,829 of whom were Jews without money? More likely, it was shot in a studio, perhaps in the city of Orsha, 50 miles away? The flash goes off. He is startled, anxious. Why is he being photographed? Not for a passport, in this pose. Perhaps it’s a present from his children, born after 1880: moderns. What would the rebbe say?  
Yehoshua Zvi is thinking about two of his sons: Shneur Zalman and Sholem Yitzhak. What will become of them? The world is fast changing, people are leaving for America. (He is too old, he thinks.) Shneur Zalman, now living in Latvia, has spent time in the goldeneh medineh, and is planning to return to Brooklyn with his young family. Sholem Yitzhak is home on the farm, but for how long? My late father, born in 1912, made one childhood trip from Latvia, before the Russian Revolution, to Chereya, and never forgot his uncle, dressed like a muzhik, a Russian peasant. In 1991, I visited Chereya, and found no family gravestones, but rather a state monument to the Soviet citizens who were murdered there in 1942. But in Orsha, in the Jewish cemetery, I saw a stone listing 10 Jews who had been killed in a nearby town called Oboltse on June 5, 1942, and one of them was S.G. Shovman: Uncle Sholem. I snapped a picture.

I doubt my great-grandfather was a Zionist, and that’s understandable. In his day, only a few young men from the Pale, where Orthodoxy was normative, had the gumption to go off to Palestine. (Ben-Yehuda was one who did, landing in Jerusalem in 1881.)  Yehoshua Zvi was likely swayed by the Lubavitcher rebbe of his day, Sholem Dov Baer Schneersohn (born in 1860), who railed against Herzl’s heretical Zionists. To survive the “yoke of the Exile,” decreed the rebbe, Jews needed to remain “submissive” and “soft,” and were “not permitted to hasten the End even by reciting too many prayers, much less so by corporeal stratagems.”  It was left to my grandfather Shneur Zalman to rebel: in the 1950s, he made aliyah with my grandmother, and in the ‘70s, my parents did the same.

“Look at the generations of old, and see,” says Ben Sira, “did ever any trust in the Lord, and was confounded? Or did any abide in his fear, and was forsaken?” For many American Jews, the pious Yehoshua Zvi is a representative man, the ancestor of us all. Photos like his sit framed on the mantel, or molder in yellowed envelopes, in our comfortable homes. We hold onto them, and hand them down, out of nostalgia or a dutiful sense of continuity, even as we have little active empathy with the world they still inhabit. What we do recognize, or ought to, is that we, today, are lucky survivors — as some of our forefathers were, and many others were not. 

 --    Stuart Schoffman, a senior fellow of the Shalom Hartman Institute, moved from Hollywood to Jerusalem in 1988. Among his screenwriting credits is “The Wordmaker,” a drama for Israel TV about Eliezer Ben-Yehuda