“Are You a Jew?”
Alexander ZHOLKOVSKY (USC, Los Angeles)
“M.K. Tikhonova said of [Yuri] Tynyanov that he turned Griboyedov into a Jew.” (From
Ginzburg’s journal.)  “He even turned Pushkin into a Jew!” O[mry] Ronen exclaimed. Only later (Moscow News, June 1996) . . . was [Nikolai] Khardzhiev quoted to the effect that Tynyanov’s favourite object of meditation was which Russian writers were Jewish and the extent of their Jewishness. Lydia
They say that when Hemingway was a kid he was a Jew, too!
From a song
The work is easy but disgusting. Personally I loathe being the favorite of Rabindranath Tagore, while the prophet Samuel is always asked to answer the same questions: ‘Why is there no butter on sale?’, or, ‘Are you a Jew?’
Ilf and Petrov, The Little Golden Calf 
Over the course of his journal entries it transpires that Gasparov was Jewish, too. As for me (to satisfy Tynyanov’s curiosity), I’m three quarters Jewish, including the two quarters that count for Jews—my grandmothers. I was raised in a one hundred-percent Jewish family, moreover one that had suffered for its Jewishness. My maternal grandparents both died at
Babi Yar, while my stepfather (L.A. Mazel) was fired from his job in 1949 during the campaign against “rootless cosmopolitanism.”
But in our family—intelligentsia, atheist, and (Soviet) internationalist to the core—one didn’t talk about things Jewish. Or if there was such talk, it went on when I wasn’t in the room. So I grew up without an ounce of Jewish self-consciousness.
The first time anyone called me a yid was when I was about ten. It happened in the front yard of our building, on the
Moscow streetthen known as Metrostroevskaya (Ostozhenka).
“Yid, yid, and your lover Irochka Shangayt is a yid, too,” chanted the aspiring young hooligans next to the sledding hill. They didn’t back up this anti-Semitic statement with physical violence and so the impression it made on me was of a purely philological nature.
First of all, it was interesting to try on the word yid for size, to see how it fit me personally. Until that moment I knew it only as something abstract, as part of the poetic line: “The yid, the yid runs along a rope.” (Another version of the saying—“The yid, the yid shivers on a rope”—was ominous but no less mysterious.)
Second, I was puzzled by the word “lover,” which sounded way too grown-up for me.
Third, I had finally learned the name and surname of the cute girl, half my age, who used to come to our yard with her sled. I would eagerly pilot her down the hill, keen to the sympathy I read in her eyes. Thanks to the extraneous gaze that had linked the two of us, her face has stuck in my memory. When I examine it in retrospect I recognize Semitic traits, despite the light hair and a nose that had only just begun to bud. The girl was already a bit chubby, and I fear that later on she must have become altogether well upholstered.
Fourth, I was intrigued by the exotic-sounding surname Shangayt. Did it derive from
? Only much later did I realize it was Jewish—a Russian transliteration of the German (and hence Yiddish) word for beauty: Schönheit. Shanghai
Even when, during my university days, I became a fan of Viktor Shklovsky, Boris Eikhenbaum and, later, Sergei Eisenstein, I didn’t group them together along ethnic lines. (Perhaps the phrase “Russian formalists” affected me in this regard.) When I had learned to do just this, I left Tynyanov out of the mix for a long time. (His surname got in the way.) As for Propp, it was quite well known that despite his dubious first name and patronymic (Vladimir Yakovlevich), he was an ethnic German.
As the Thaw progressed and I grew up a bit, my stepdad thawed out in his conversations with me. When he told me about the persecution of the “rootless cosmopolitans,” whose alleged ringleaders included the theatre critics Abram Gurvich and Iosif Yuzovsky, he recalled the bon mot of Boris Tomashevsky, who had also been caught up in the witch hunt. “You’re Jewish only now,” Tomashevsky told them, “but I’ve been Jewish my whole life.” (He wasn’t Jewish, but that hadn’t saved him from getting a good working over.)
It was fashionable to see in Tynyanov’s curly locks a resemblance to Pushkin. (Apparently, Tynyanov himself encouraged this comparison.) It took time and a radical shift of optics, however, to see Tynyanov—and a Jew to boot—in Pushkin. It was even harder to see myself as Jewish. My departure from
, on an Israeli visa, didn’t decide matters, either. The process is a slow one, and it’s not clear what it means to be Jewish without Jewish culture and religion. Russia
When I finished my book about Mikhail Zoshchenko, I asked Mark Kompaneyets, a young artist, to do the cover illustration. To get a better grip on the writer’s image, Mark, who grew up in
, took the ambitious route and read Zoshchenko in the original. California
At my request Mark seated Zoshchenko (taken from Bronislav Malakhovsky’s famous 1935 caricature) on a bicycle. The drawing wasn’t bad at all, but Zoshchenko’s eyelids were oddly half-closed, and the nose was on the long side. The artist, though, hotly defended his vision. I pled with him:
“But Mark, he wasn’t Jewish!”
“How’s that? The way he writes, he seems like a Jew to me.”
I wasn’t able to break the young genius’s creative will (see the cover of my book), and his words were etched into my brain. They’ve come back to me now, as I reread Gasparov’s journal. In my own portrait of Zoshchenko I had used my stepdad as a model for Zoshchenko’s mistrust. Had I turned him into a Jew?
 Lidiia Ginzburg, Zapisnie knizhki. Vospominaniia. Esse [Notebooks. Memoirs. Essays] (
: Iskusstvo-SPB, 2002), p. 387. Saint Petersburg
 M.L. Gasparov, Zapisi i vypiski [Entries and Extracts] (
: NLO, 2001), p. ??? Moscow
 Ilya Ilf and Eugene Petrov, The Little Golden Calf. A Satirical Novel, trans. Charles Malamuth (New York: Frederick Ungar, 1961), p. 70.