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Ludmila Ulitskaya’s playful new novel focuses on a Jewish Christian saint, a human contradiction who strives to bring peace and compassion to a plagued world

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Ludmila Ulitskaya. (Courtesy Overlook Press)

Throughout her career, the acclaimed and widely translated Russian writer Ludmila Ulitskaya has perfected the craft of weaving together complicated plots around a core enigmatic figure. Two of her earlier novels available to the English-language reader follow this organizing principle: In The Funeral Party, published in 1999, Ulitskaya assembled a motley crew of mismatched Russian émigrés in New York around a dying artist, a Russian Jew, people connected through his past romances, infidelities, friendships, and betrayals in the Soviet Union and in the United States. Medea and Her Children, published in 2002, was a tale of a Greek family in the Soviet Union, the novel’s many peripheral plots stitched together in a similar fashion around the book’s title character.

Similarly, the protagonist of Ulitskaya’s latest translated novel, Daniel Stein, Interpreter, released earlier this year by the Overlook Press, is a similar unifying force for fascinating characters and historical moments. Subtitled “A Novel in Documents,” the book is based on the real-life story of Oswald Rufeisen, a Polish Jew who, through a string of odd circumstances, ended up as an interpreter for the Gestapo and managed to rescue 300 Jews from a ghetto in Belorussia during the Holocaust. On the run from the Germans, Rufeisen, reimagined here as an interpreter named Stein, hides out in a convent among Carmelite nuns, is baptized by them, and, after the war, becomes a Catholic priest known as Brother Daniel. In the late 1950s, Brother Daniel (both fictional character and historic figure) makes his way to Stella Maris, Haifa’s Carmelite monastery, and appeals against Israel’s decision not to grant him citizenship under the Law of Return. Having been born a Jew, he argues, he had every right to automatically become a citizen in the Jewish state similarly to any other ethnic Jew. He loses the case, and, as a result, the Law of Return is amended to exclude Jews who converted to other religions. In telling this extraordinary story, Ulitskaya weaves together letters, diary entries, transcripts of conversations, and secret-police reports, some real and some fictitious, and offers a gallery of real-life and made-up characters.

She couldn’t have assembled a more diverse cast: a middle-aged woman born in the forest to Jewish partisans during the Holocaust; her gay son and her Communist mother; a Jewish widow of a doctor whom Brother Daniel saved from the ghetto; an Israeli Arab gardener and his secret lover, a German woman who devotes her life to living in Israel to overcome Germany’s role in the Holocaust; secret-police agents (of the Soviet, Nazi, and Israeli variety); and even Pope John Paul II, who is Brother Daniel’s friend from postwar Poland. Pulling them all together is Daniel himself: The interpreter-turned-priest, Ulitskaya suggests, is the “living body” that “had been the sole bridge between Judaism and Christianity.”

Such an ecumenical position, of course, doesn’t come easily, and much of the book focuses on Daniel’s desire to transcend both the interdenominational battles of Christianity as well as centuries of Christian prejudice toward the Jews. Reminding others that early Christians saw no contradiction between following the teachings of Jesus and being Jews, Daniel seeks a religion free of later church doctrines, such as the holy trinity, a religion that would retain all of the central tenets of Judaism. Needless to say, Daniel’s version of Jewish Christianity attracts the ire of dogmatic followers of Catholicism, Russian Orthodoxy, and Judaism alike, some of whom soon try to excommunicate the renegade priest and others use obscure kabbalistic practices to lay a curse on him.

Not all of Ulitskaya’s characters display intellectual and spiritual flexibility similar to Daniel’s. One of the novel’s characters is a woman who believes that her child, born with Down syndrome, is the next messiah; another is a Russian man convinced that Jews have concealed the truth from the world by presenting Christianity as a poor substitute for the real faith. Jewish zealots also abound, represented by Gershon Shimes, a Russian-born settler with a violent streak. Through the character of Shimes, who in Ulitskaya’s novel is complicit in the massacre of 29 Palestinian Arabs by Baruch Goldstein in Hebron in 1994, the writer traces a trajectory—not without a good deal of accuracy—of a certain subset of Soviet Jewish refuseniks who turned to extreme views once they relocated to Israel.

Of all of Ulitskaya’s characters, however, the most important one, arguably, is the author herself: Throughout the novel, a character named Ludmila Ulitskaya shares her reflections on writing the novel in letters to her friend, the writer Ulitskaya’s real-life agent. Born in 1943, Ulitskaya is one of a number of Russian Jewish writers and intellectuals who, motivated both by spiritual yearnings and by their experiences as dissidents in the Soviet Union in the 1960s and the 1970s, converted to Christianity. “Converted” is not an entirely appropriate term for this phenomenon, eloquently described in Judith Deutsch Kornlblatt’s study Doubly Chosen: Jewish Identity, the Soviet Intelligentsia, and the Russian Orthodox Church. Because the Soviet understanding of “nationality” was entirely decoupled from religion, Jewishness, as an ethnicity, was perceived as having nothing to do with Judaism, a religion. Consequently, being a Russian Jewish Christian was not a contradiction: Ulitskaya, and others like her, identifies culturally and ethnically as a Jew, and religiously as a Christian. This rich and complex approach is everywhere reflected in Ulitskaya’s provocative novel.

It’s an approach that has won the book many fans. Shortly after its original publication in 2006, the novel won the Russian Booker prize, and it has enjoyed both critical and commercial success. The acclaim may be attributed to socio-political circumstances even more than to pure artistic merit: With Christianity becoming a fashionable state religion under the Russian system’s current corruption and authoritarianism, a protagonist drawn in the image of the author herself—a Russian Jewish Christian—the product of historical circumstances now long gone—emerges as a polyglot preacher of tolerance, a modern-day saint.

And if Brother Daniel is a saint, the miracle he performs is translation, an act of inter-cultural and inter-religious understanding that seeks to leave ample space for individual difference.

Sasha Senderovich is a Mellon postdoctoral fellow at the Center for the Humanities at Tufts University.

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Yaakov Hillel says:

Being A Jew is a religion. This religion is based on the old Testament alone. Christianity has actually erased the old testament with all its laws and commandments and left themselves with the New Testament, each one telling its story of Jesus’ feats, generally attributed to other previous prophets. In the Books of the New Testament there is no mention of the godly trio, Which tried to fill the emptiness of the religion with out Holidays and without its daily routine on serving God. It breaks many specific laws of the bible in order to bring more sheep into its folds. There are people born Jewish and brought up athiests. There are people who are uncircumsized they are pushed out of the Jewish fold, their obligation to retain their Jewishness is on condition of their being circumsized. A person (male) who wants to become Jewish, circumsizion is a must. For an adult this is far more a problem then a 8 day old baby whose nerves in the specific area are not yet complete. If a person eats bread on passover or is healthy but does not fast on Yom Kippur he has left the Jewish fold as the Bible says, he will be cut off from his people. About atheists you find in the final song of deuteronomy is written, “they try to anger me with a no God, and I will anger them with a no nation,(Palestinians) made up of five different groups from the area, and many more from far away. The British would not let Jews into the country they received a mandate to turn into a Jewish State, even when they were being slaughter by Nazis. They on the other hand let in hundreds of thousands of Moslems from all over the African and Asian continents. Now you can understand how there came about so many Muslims in Israel. One of the miricles that the percentage of Jews as opposed to the percentage of Muslims did not change over the last sixty years. With the growing amounts of Muslims on the European continent hundreds of thousands of Jews will have no choice but to return to Israel.

Gene says:

“Being a Jew is a religion ” is a Christian concept. It has nothing to do with Judaism. Jew is a person who was born to Jewish parents. Therefore “Jew” first and furthermost is an ethnicity. The definition of the religion: “the personal and/or institutional set of beliefs in God”. But “Jew” is not a person who believes in certain set of religious practices, or in God, or in truthfulness of Torah, etc. The “Jew” is a person who was chosen by God. Everybody who did not realize that yet must to realize. “Loud and clear”. According to the Christian set of beliefs each individual can choose God for himself: one could become Christian, Jew, Muslim, or whoever, depending on his own choice. In Judaism God choose the people and it is not up to them to make changes in his choice. And since the covenant was made not only with the people who were present at that time at Sinai but with all their descendants, then every newborn to Jewish parents child automatically becomes a “Jew” (“the chosen one”), he likes it or not and, nobody, nor he nor anyone else (besides God) has the power to nullify that. According to the Jewish religion Jew does not have “freedom of choice”. Many Jews, who grew up among Christians, accepted Christian values and concepts and don’t realize how different they are. Therefore Reform and Conservative “Judaism” are not branches of the Jewish religion. They are different religions despite of the fact that majority of congregants are indeed “Jews” – chosen by God people just because they were born to Jewish parents.

Jessica Cohen says:

I read this review three times to make sure my eyes were not deceiving me, but it’s true: the review is entitled “Translations,” it discusses a book in translation, it comments on the fact that the main character is an interpreter and observes that “the miracle he performs is translation,” and yet fails to say a single word about the translation of the novel or even to mention the translator by name!

For the record, the translator who surely devoted a great deal of time and creativity so that English-language readers could read this novel, is Arch Tait.

It should be the editorial policy of Tablet to ensure that reviews of works in translation always give credit to the translator.


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Ludmila Ulitskaya’s playful new novel focuses on a Jewish Christian saint, a human contradiction who strives to bring peace and compassion to a plagued world

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