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Was Vladimir Jabotinsky the Zionist Nabokov?

A look at the fearsome ideologue’s brilliant Odessa family novel, ‘The Five’

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(Photoillustration by Tablet Magazine)
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One staple of the classic, often hagiographic, biographies of Vladimir Jabotinsky is the idea that his life was split into two while his transformation from a Russian journalist and aesthete into a Zionist was decisive and irrevocable. Yet more recent portrayals of Jabotinsky, in Russian and in English, paint him in a more nuanced light. As Hillel Halkin puts it in his new biography of Jabotinsky, regarding this transformation, “Whether his politics were ultimately coherent—whether his life had a deep inner consistency or was at bottom a tragic contradiction—depends on whether this paradox makes sense to us or whether, like … historian Michael Stanislawski … we regard it as rationalization, ‘at best a non sequitur, at worst nonsensical.’ The deeper debate about Jabotinsky starts here.” Halkin ultimately seems to conclude that Jabotinsky “was a man of contradictions.”

Yet what both his contemporaries and later generations viewed as a “paradox,” Jabotinsky recognized at his deepest as a seamless continuity and union. As a politician and a polemicist, he was a man of unequivocal statements and drastic distinctions, but ultimately his thought betrays “a deep inner consistency” between his earlier and later journalism and, most important, his Zionist philosophy and his art embodied to the fullest in his Russian novels, which brings to mind the famous formula by which one Russian Jew, the writer Viktor Shklovsky, identified the Russian Jew and writer Ilya Ehrenburg: “Saul failed to become Paul. He remains Paul, son of Saul.” The dynamic of Paul/Saul speaks to the inability, which may be seen as weakness or strength and fluidity, to separate the Jew from the gentile, the Russian from the Jew, or the European from the Jew. The “Paul, son of Saul” formula does describe Jabotinsky well and also makes him terribly relevant on this 74th anniversary of his death. His whole life projected the idea that one could be both: an artist and a politician, a Zionist and a citizen of the world.

The most complete and beautiful expression of this duality is his swan song novel The Five. Published in Paris in Russian in 1935, it seems to be an aberration; “what is such a melancholy work about the turn-of-the-century Odessa doing in the oeuvre of this militant Zionist?” is the question often asked of it. Do we also wonder why Chekhov the short-story writer produced a study of penal colonies in Sakhalin or how to reconcile Dostoevsky the novelist with Dostoevsky the journalist? We do, but we realize that complex thinkers can do two things at once and that different genres call for different strategies. We should realize the same about Jabotinsky. In The Five, his true will and testament, he provides hints about the positive and nonreductive unity of his life and thought and the very idea of change in individual lives and history.

The Five is a work of intersections—Russian and Jewish, classical and biblical, autobiographical and generational, lyrical and religious—on the highway of memory. In recreating or rather reimagining the world of the Odessa of his youth, Jabotinsky was closest to how Vladimir Nabokov—who in 1935 was on the move from Berlin to Paris—was also conceptualizing memory. Nabokov realized that the past could be arrived at only via imagination and consciously, contrary to Proust’s involuntary wave of memories. “The act of vividly recalling a patch of the past” to capture “suspended and wondering tonalities of the past” is how Nabokov describes the process in the later Speak, Memory. This is precisely what Jabotinsky is doing in The Five, creating, as one reader pointed out, again about Nabokov, “less a nostalgic ache for what has been lost than an ecstatic re-living.”

What Jabotinsky also realizes, however, is that as beautiful as this work of memory can be, it is also deeply imperfect and fleeting, since, as he admits at the start of the novel, “memory often fails me, and there’s no time to make inquiries.” No time, because he senses his own approaching death, but also because it’s 1935 and, as Jabotinsky foresaw early on, Jews as a whole could soon become a distant memory to the world. These two contexts—that of Nabokov and of the impending catastrophe—are paramount for understanding The Five.

The prism through which Jabotinsky views the past in the novel are the Milgroms, the parents and five children. The narrator remembers them “because with this particular family, like a textbook example, the entire preceding period of Jewish Russification—both good and bad—got even with us.”

The key here is that “good and bad” are intertwined. Jabotinsky does not divide Jewish history into the “bad periods” of assimilation or “good periods” of staying true to tradition. The Milgroms who speak Russian and yet fundamentally think of themselves as Jews are for him an indelible and irreplaceable part of Jewish experience. He valorizes the three of them, Marusya, Marko, and Seriozha, who, while hardly perfect, embody “the spiritual radiation,” which the writer and fellow Odessan Kornei Chukovsky noticed in the young Jabotinsky. All three meet tragic ends—Marusya the ferocious beauty, turned a beautiful mother, dies protecting her children; Marko drowns in an icy river, rushing to save a girl, a figment of his imagination; and Seriozha, desiring to experience life to the fullest, loses everything. It’s not surprising that Jabotinsky repeatedly calls their mother “my Niobe,” a character of Greek tragedy.

What is especially interesting is how in the novel Jabotinsky, an undoubtedly secular figure, presents Judaism. At home, after Marusya’s funeral, the narrator finds her father sitting on the floor unshaven and reading from the book of Job, as is traditionally done during the period of mourning. Like the rabbi of old, Milgrom begins to query Scripture:

The main thing in it is the following question: if something like this happens, what should a person do—rebel, summon God to court of honor, or else stand at attention like a soldier, hands at his sides, or salute, and shout to the whole world: “Very pleased to suffer, Your Excellency!” The question, in my opinion, is to be understood not from the point of view of justice or injustice but altogether differently: from the point of view of pride. Human pride, Job’s … yours and mine. Do you understand: which is prouder—to declare a rebellion or to salute?

This passage is an ideal illustration of the unity of Jabotinsky’s thought and the harmonious reconcilability of Jabotinsky the writer and Jabotinsky the Zionist. The idea of pride is at the core of Jabotinsky’s worldview. In his early Russian play The Foreign Land, the Jewish character Honta recalls how one night he pretended to be a Russian, thus liberating himself from the suffocation of the ghetto. As a result of this experience, he forges his own tablets of the law, which speak “the commandment of pride,/ cold,/ insatiable, insurmountable,/ stale, bottomless pride of a king,/ deprived of his throne and crown.” This is Jabotinsky’s vision of a proud Jew, who would one day reclaim his monarchical status, in other words, his individuality. The philosophy of Betar, Jabotinsky’s Zionist youth movement, is inseparable from this goal. In The Five, remarkably, a great example of such a stoic pride is the old Milgrom, who derives it from Jewish tradition, to which he returns as a result of trauma.

In the debate between rebellion and saluting to God, even when one suffers, Milgrom falls on the side of saluting. While contemplating the logic of the mourners’ Kaddish, he imagines the following scene, which conjures up Rabbi Akiba’s thinking:

Rabbi Akiba … a very clever man, indeed. He reasoned as follows: here now, a misfortune has occurred, some orphaned merchant of the second guild stands before the abyss, everything is lost and there is no reason to live. He stands before the abyss and mentally presents God with an account of his damages and losses; he’s so angry—he’s just about to raise his fists and curse the heavens. Satan squats right behind the next grave marker, waiting for this very moment: that he would begin to curse and would acknowledge openly once and for all: “You, Lord, excuse me for saying so, are simply a petty tyrant and a lout, in addition, You’re heartless. Get out of here. I don’t even want to know You!” Satan’s merely waiting for this: as soon as he hears it, he’ll record it, fly off to paradise and report to God: “Well then? You got Your ears boxed, didn’t you? And from whom? A Jew—one of Your own representatives and managers! Time to retire, old man…”

Instead, like Rabbi Akiba, Milgrom “begins to assign to the Lord the highest possible marks, one after another; without any sense—what good is sense? Merely to offend the devil, humiliate him, annihilate him once and for all. … It’s the very same idea … as in the book of Job: the Jew is God’s partner.”

This profoundly moral and existential stance of a simple Jew, which fuses overall human and Jewish suffering with ancient rabbinic meaning, is Jabotinsky’s concept of a Judaic pride, which ties together the seemingly disparate ends of his life. Like yet another Russian Jew and poet, Osip Mandelstam, who marveled at the great Yiddish actor Solomon Mikhoels’ play as the union of “the leader of the ancient Greek chorus” and “the power of Judaism,” Jabotinsky places Greek tragedy and Job with the rabbis on one footing.

It’s fascinating that Judaism was on Jabotinsky’s mind in these last years of his life. Like so many other modern Jewish thinkers who while divorced from observance continued to dwell on the Bible and the divine, Jabotinsky too was rediscovering it. As his earlier essays demonstrate, he was always preoccupied with the Bible and Jewish lore, and so his attempts in the 1930s to make Judaism part of his Zionism’s political and ideological platform shouldn’t be seen as something completely new and unusual. The Five takes this revisiting of Judaism to a new philosophical and poetic level, for in it Jabotinsky was writing both an elegy and a eulogy. Not only was it an elegy about and a eulogy to the Russian-Jewish experience, but also the whole Jewish world which, to reiterate, Jabotinsky sensed was on the edge of extinction.

The Five admonishes that the past can be reimagined but never returned to. Jabotinsky, an avid reader of Russian poetry and a Russian poet himself, undoubtedly learned this truth from the 19th-century Russian elegy. Change, as the great Russian elegist Yevgeny Baratynsky formulated it, is inescapable and sad; hence what we once felt, we’ll never feel again. This is what Jabotinsky means when he says at the end of the novel about Odessa, “There’s no reason to regret that I’ll never get back there.” This is an elegiac stance of resignation in a nutshell, both ironic and heartfelt. One way to temporarily remedy it is again through imagination, and this is what Jabotinsky resorts to, as in this breathtaking passage about what his return to the native city would be like:

If it were possible, I’d like to arrive not at the Razdelnaya Station but on a steamship, in summer, of course, and early in the morning. I’d rise before dawn, while the lighthouse on Bolshoi Fontan was still shining, and I’d stand all alone on deck and look at the shore. It would still be covered in mist, but by seven o’clock two colors would emerge: the reddish yellow clay and the barely grayish greenery. I’d try to pick out from memory various locales: Bolshoi Fontan, Srednii, Arkadiia, Malyi; then the Langeron, and beyond it, the park. From the sea, if I recall correctly, the black column of Alexander II is visible from afar; well, they’ve probably removed it by now, but I’m talking about old Odessa.

What matters here are the vivid details and the impossibility of ever making them tangible.

The narrator’s two main opponents in the novel are Torik, the youngest Milgrom son, who pragmatically converts to Lutheranism and decides that Judaism is dead, and the lawyer Rovensky, who condemns the Milgrom children for their immorality, believing that they are merely a phase on the way to the complete erasure of Jewishness. The narrator mentally argues with them and suggests that “disintegration,” pivotal for understanding the Milgroms and their bygone era, is “fascinating … and sublime.” He adds:

I’m in the camp that struggles against disintegration; I don’t want neighbors; I want all people living on their own islands; but—who knows? One historical truth has already been well demonstrated: one has to pass through disintegration in order to achieve regeneration. That means, decline is like fog before the birth of the sun, or like an early morning dream. … Whose verses are these? “The still imperceptible prophecy of dawn… thus I dreamed the still unsung words, perhaps, of an unborn poet, a singer of a country not yet fashioned by the Creator…” I’m afraid these are my own verses…

It is here that Jabotinsky’s Zionism acquires its most existential dimension, making it a safeguard against disintegration or even decomposition (the Russian word is raspad), Jewish and everyone else’s. What Jabotinsky has in mind is the fundamentally universal: the tragedy and inevitability of change and ultimately demise and decay. Once part of the melting-pot of Odessa, Jabotinsky sees separatism as one possible historical antidote against the pernicious passage of time. This separatism, however, does not at all mean blocking oneself from the rest of the world.

There’s more than a hint of messianism in Jabotinsky’s recollection of his poetic lines. The sources for them are twofold: one Russian and one Jewish. The first is the elegiac vision of Baratynsky, who in his poem “Desolation,” returns to his family estate—his “island”—to only recognize that what he once held dear has fallen into mournful decay. This gloomy picture is redeemed by his vision of his dead father, “whose spirit lives, still palpable, still here,” prophesying to the son “there will be a land where one day” he “shall find a springtime without end.” Not surprisingly, in the novel’s last paragraphs, Jabotinsky imagines running into the Milgrom children in Odessa, whose spirits still roam there.

The second source for Jabotinsky’s messianism is potentially Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook (1865–1935), who was becoming Jabotinsky’s ally at this time. Revolutionarily Kook saw all secular Zionists as the harbingers of redemption. In tune with his egalitarian vision of Jewish history, Jabotinsky sees the secular non-Zionist Milgroms as such harbingers as well. Who is the “unborn poet”? What is the “country not yet fashioned by the Creator?” Fittingly, the elegist does not spell out the details. But it’s comforting to think that Jabotinsky clung to this messianic vision, as his attempts to save European Jewry from the oncoming horror by returning them to their old family estate were hitting a wall.

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Was Vladimir Jabotinsky the Zionist Nabokov?

A look at the fearsome ideologue’s brilliant Odessa family novel, ‘The Five’