Jewish landscape writers and painters of the Russian fin de siècle

In this, the first of Land Lines’ 2021 ‘long reads’ series, Steven Lovatt (author of the Wainwright prize-nominated Birdsong in a Time of Silence) reflects on the relationship with nature of a number of Russian-Jewish painters and writers of the late 19th and early 20th century.

Yehuda Moseevich Pen, 1919 (?), Khudozhnik I. Turzhanskii za rabotoi [‘The Artist I. Turzhanskii at Work’] Belarusian Museum of Arts, (Kasovskii, G, Khudozhniki Vitebska: Ieguda Pen i ego ucheniki, Moskva: Imidzh, [199-]). (Source: Susan Tumarkin Goodman (ed.), Russian Jewish Artists in a Century of Change, 1890–1990, New York: Prestel, 1995).

Joseph Roth’s 1930 novella Job contains a scene of two Jews walking through the wintry Russian landscape:

The snow became thicker and softer as the day wore on, as though it fell from the sun. In a few minutes the whole country was white, even the isolated willows along the way, and the scattered groups of birches among the fields, white, white, white. Only the two young Jews, striding along, were black. The snow also fell on them but it seemed to melt much more quickly on their backs. Their long black coats flapped. […]

Peasants who passed them walked slowly, with bent knees. They were white; on their broad shoulders lay the snow as upon thick boughs, at once heavy and light. At peace with the snow, they walked about in it as in a home. Sometimes they stopped and looked back after the two black men as if they were unusual apparitions, although the sight of Jews was not strange to them.

In this passage Roth delicately portrays the ambiguity of the young Jews’ presence in the Russian landscape. Unlike the broad-shouldered Russian peasants, who trudge through the snowy country ‘as in a home,’ the Jews, in the traditional black garb of rabbinical Orthodoxy, seem incongruous, additional. In the passage’s finely weighted last sentence, Roth even suggests that there is something of the unheimliche about them, so that the peasants, for whom the sight of Jews ‘was not strange,’ nevertheless feel compelled to look at them.

There is no indication of hostility in the peasants’ gaze, but the mere fact of their scrutiny implies something intrusive and in this way calls to mind the general situation of the Jews in Tsarist Russia. The object of ever-changing and often inconsistent proscriptions, prohibitions, disabilities and quotas, the Jews who lived within the Russian Empire were at all times observed. Discussion within government and in the daily and periodical press of ‘the Jewish Question’ customarily posited the Jews as an alien presence within or upon the Russian national body: they constituted a ‘problem’ that could be solved perhaps by ‘compulsory assimilation’ or else kept out of sight (if never out of mind) behind discriminatory legislation.

Much has been written about this, but almost no attention has been paid to the way in which the Jews themselves perceived their situation. In particular, there is no study – certainly not in English – of the Jews’ perceptions of and responses to the Russian landscape in which they lived, worked, travelled and died.

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With rare exceptions, the entire Jewish population of the Russian Empire (approximately five million people) was confined by law to the so-called Pale of Settlement, an area of some three quarters of a million square kilometres occupying all of present-day Ukraine and Belarus as well as parts of Lithuania, Poland and Moldova, but very little of Great Russia. Therefore, when considering the Jews’ relationship to the Russian landscape, it’s important to say that very little of this landscape was properly Russian at all. To a great extent, however, the image of the ‘Russian’ landscape that had been constructed during the nineteenth century relied heavily upon responses to specifically Ukrainian space, with the result that there was in practice no distinction made between Russian terrain within and without the Pale.

Given its extent, it’s not surprising that the Pale encompassed a great variety of landscapes. The two Jews in the passage from Job are just an hour’s slow, snow impeded walk from the village of Yurki in the Poltava governorate, and the fragment of landscape described, of fields edged with willows and birch spinneys, is typical not only of that district but of much of central Ukraine. Other parts of the Pale were more thickly forested, or covered in vast marshes.

This territory was watered by countless rivers and streams, the largest being the southward-flowing Dnieper, Dniester and Southern Bug (all of which drain into the Black Sea), the eastward-flowing Prut and Pripyat, and major tributaries of the Dnieper, such as the Desna. During the nineteenth century, two rivers were of particular importance as borders, the first being the Western Bug, which traditionally marked the boundary between Russia and Poland, and the second the Zbruch, which divided the Russian from the Austrian empires until 1918.

Surrounded as they were by these landscapes, the question yet remains to what extent the Jews of the Pale came into regular contact with them. A powerful strain of Judaophobic propaganda asserted the Jews’ lack of connection to the Russian soil, but Joseph Roth, too, wrote that ‘For the most part, Eastern Jews experience the countryside only as beggars or vagrants. The majority don’t understand the soil that feeds them.’

According to the Russian census of 1897, more than half of the Empire’s Jews lived in rural districts or small towns (shtetls) of a semi-rural character. It’s often maintained that these people were forbidden to work the land, but in this as in most other aspects of government policy toward the Jews, the de facto situation was complex and inconstant. Despite a statute of 1807 explicitly depriving Jews of the right to own or farm the land, contrary currents of thought within the Russian administration led, throughout the nineteenth century, to sporadic attempts at the establishment of Jewish agricultural colonies. Some of these colonies thrived to the extent that by 1900 it is estimated that there were 100,000 Jewish agricultural colonists in the Pale.

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The strict religious upbringing of the majority of young Jews (both Rabbinical Orthodox and Hasidim) tended to minimise their contact with and appreciation of their natural surroundings at the expense of immersion in scripture. The American critic Irving Howe, the son of Jewish emigrants from the Pale, wrote of his relation to the natural world:

Nature was something about which poets wrote and therefore it merited esteem, but we could not really suppose it was as estimable as reality – the reality which we knew to be social. Americans were said to love Nature […but…o]ur own tradition, long rutted in shtetl mud and urban smoke, made little allowance for nature as presence or refreshment. […] Nothing in our upbringing could prepare us to take seriously the view that God made his home in the woods. By now we rather doubted that He was to be found anywhere, but we felt pretty certain that wherever He might keep himself, it was not in a tree, or even leaves of grass […] What linked man and God in our tradition was not nature but the commandment.

Ecocritic Andrew Furman cites the judgement of the twentieth-century rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik to the effect that the Jew ‘must not be “overly curious” [about the natural world]; rather, he views the natural world only through the prism of the Law’. Furman rightly explains the Jewish suspicion of nature as a fear of a regression into pantheism. Again quoting Rabbi Soloveitchik, he writes that ‘Girded with the “rules, judgements, and fundamental principles” of the Law, a Jew stands little chance of confusing the created with the Creator – of, in short, idolizing nature.’

The precariousness of the Jews’ existence at the mercy of ‘host’ peoples provided another, more practical reason to avoid attachments to natural landscapes. As Furman puts it:

‘The mountains, the sea, the forest – Jews at any given moment might be ripped from their presence. All it took was the evil capriciousness of mufti, king or czar. It made pragmatic sense, then, to spurn any emotional or spiritual investment in the natural world, because Jews could never really count upon it. They were constantly reminded that the physical world did not belong to them, but to their host country. What Jews could rely upon, what would always be theirs, was the Torah and their status as the “Covenanted”.’

So much for the landscape itself, but even greater deterrents faced those Jews who actually wished to depict it in pencil or paints. The Torah appears to forbid representational art no less than seven times, most directly in Exodus XX:4. The Avodah Zarah section of the Mishnah, which deals with idolatry, further reinforces this ban, although it may have been significant to some Jews that Maimonides, in the Mishneh Torah, interpreted the Torah interdicts as allowing ‘images of cattle and all other living beings, with the exception of man, and forms of trees, grasses and similar things [to] be formed’.

The original reasoning behind these bans was to prevent Jews from falling into idolatry, but in the context of the Pale they also served as a way of reinforcing religious and cultural distinctness and integrity in the face of a host religious culture – Russian Orthodoxy – whose religious aesthetics were very different, and which many Jews (wrongly) believed to permit the worship of images. Whatever the rationale, the effect of these prohibitions was chastening. The painter Chaim Soutine, when safely removed to Paris, frequently recalled the verbal and physical abuse he had received in his native village when he made it known that he wished to become an artist. Soutine’s father and brothers were among his worst persecutors, and the beatings they administered were often accompanied by the refrain ‘A Jew must not paint!’

Religious interdicts aside, material poverty and the absence of a tradition in the plastic arts also deterred would-be painters. Marc Chagall recalled that ‘In our little provincial ghetto, among the petty traders and craftsmen that my family knew, we had no idea of what it meant to be an artist. In our own home, for instance, we never had a single picture […] Until 1906, I had never had occasion to see, in Vitebsk, such a thing as a drawing.’

Jews could generally overcome these barriers only if they were willing to be completely disowned, or else if the culture of their family was touched by the Haskalah, the so-called Jewish Enlightenment. But at least the hardy or fortunate few could take inspiration from the host culture, since in the period roughly between 1870 and 1910 there arose a realist school within Russian art whose practitioners, the peredvizhniki (Itinerants), specialised in landscapes. The practical example of the peredvizhniki, though, was complicated by ideology, for the Itinerants’ choice of subject, and the manner of its portrayal, was obscurely but powerfully associated with a nativist conception of a unique bond between soul and soil.

The key concept here was rodina (‘native land’ or ‘motherland’). This notion, itself semantically slippery yet emotionally compelling, proved capable of subsuming without resolving all of the various competing meanings that were projected onto the Russian countryside. The ideology of rodina gave rise to the question, If this was an exclusively Russian passion, then how could it accommodate Jewish painters of the Russian landscape? To what extent did Russian Jewish artists share this sense of affinity with the rodina? After all, if a Jew’s soul could be stirred by the sight of a birch grove or gleaming backwater in exactly the same way as that of a Russian, then what grounds could there be for excluding Jews from equal membership of the spiritual nation? And if Jews were ‘real’ Russians, then why were they treated as strangers?

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Something of the variety of responses to the practical and ideological context of Russian Jewish landscape painters, and their reception by non-Jewish Russians, can be shown by looking at three artists: Yehuda Pen (1854–1937), Abram Manevich (1881–1942) and Isaac Levitan (1860–1900). Pen is a particularly fascinating figure because he combined an absolute devotion to art with strict Jewish observance, ceasing work on the Sabbath and continuing to attend synagogue. In 1897 he founded Russia’s first Jewish art school, encouraging his students (including Chagall) to accompany him on walks and to make plein air studies on the outskirts of Vitebsk.  Paintings such as Kupenie Koniia (Bathing a Horse) depict Jews in traditional religious dress interacting with the Russian landscape.

Yehuda Moseevich Pen, 1910. Kupanie koniia [‘Bathing a Horse’] Belarusian Museum of Arts, (Kasovskii, G, Khudozhniki Vitebska: Ieguda Pen i ego ucheniki, Moskva: Imidzh, [199-]). (Source: Susan Tumarkin Goodman (ed.), Russian Jewish Artists in a Century of Change, 1890–1990, New York: Prestel, 1995).

Manevich is now not well remembered beyond the United States, but in the early twentieth century his work was popular enough to warrant solo exhibitions in Moscow and Paris. His style, midway between naturalistic and decorative modes, is a good match for his favoured theme of villages and town outskirts glimpsed in patches of colour through the crazy branches of trees, the combination of strong colours and crawling lines sometimes recalling stained glass.

Abram Anshelovich Manevich, 1912, Vesna na Kurenivtsi [‘Spring in Kurenistsi’] National Art Museum of Ukraine, (Lyl’o-Otkovych, Zoriana, Ukrains’kyi peizazhnyi zhyvopys: XIX pochatku XX storichchia, Kyiv: Baltia-Druk, 2007). (Source: Susan Tumarkin Goodman (ed.), Russian Jewish Artists in a Century of Change, 1890–1990, New York: Prestel, 1995).

Manevich’s love of the rodina illuminates his art, yet the fraught situation of Russian Jewish artists remains apparent in how his early work is received. Of the more than twenty artists treated in Zoriana Lyl’o–Otkovych’s beautiful book on fin de siècle Ukrainian painting, it is only Manevich (the sole Jew) whose great patriotism to his ‘motherland’ is emphasised. Could it be that the seemingly special need to refer twice to Manevich’s patriotism is grounded in the same evasiveness that causes Lyl’o-Otkovych to gloss the murder of Manevich’s son in a Ukrainian pogrom as an unspecified ‘personal tragedy’?

The uncertain position of Russian Jewish landscape artists is nowhere more apparent than in the case of the most famous – Isaak Levitan. Levitan’s landscapes were incredibly popular, and a sumptuous monograph emphasises his status in Russia’s patriotic firmament by interspersing reproductions of his paintings with stanzas of verse from such guardian spirits of the rodina as the poets Lermontov, Tiutchev and Fet.

Isaak Il’ich Levitan, 1896, Osen’ [‘Autumn’]. State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow, (Sergeev, A.A., Isaak Levitan, Bolshaia kollektsiia: istoriia zhiznennogo puti i tvorcheskoe nasledie, Moscow: Belyi gorod, 2005). (Source: Averil King,  Isaak Levitan: Lyrical Landscape, London: Philip Wilson, 2004).

Levitan, although born within the Pale, was eventually able to settle in Moscow, and his cultural connections (notably his friendship with Anton Chekhov) freed him from some of the travel restrictions that confined the majority of Jews. Levitan painted landscapes all over European Russia, and, although some of his more well-known paintings convey a mystical sense of the overpowering sublimity of nature, he seems to have been equally enchanted by humbler subject-matter, such as a birch copse at sunset or a pond overgrown with summer vegetation. He wished ‘to locate in my country the most simple, the most intimate, the most commonplace and the most emotionally moving [landscapes], those which often cause a sense of melancholia. The spectators should be touched in the depths of their soul.’ Levitan’s very popularity as a Russian Jewish landscape artist exposed him to all of the tensions bearing on that category. As David Jackson has put it, ‘It would be small wonder if Levitan didn’t feel both the restrictions and the ambiguity of his position as an ‘outsider’ within his native land.’ It seems that Levitan was admitted to the Russian landscape canon either as ‘the exception that proves the rule’ or by dodging his Jewishness. True, Levitan painted little on explicitly Jewish themes, but these obscurities repay critical attention.

The painting Evreiskaia nadgrobnaia plita (Jewish Tombstone) is very infrequently reproduced; I have encountered it only once, printed in grainy black and white. The painting shows a section of a cemetery in which birch and alder trees grow. The trees’ naked branches and the roughly painted ground, indicative perhaps of churned mud, make it possible to guess that the season is either spring or autumn, with the quiet melancholy of the scene suggesting the latter. Dominating the central foreground is a tall tombstone obelisk, flanked along a line of diagonal composition running from the right foreground to the left rear by two tall silver birches. The tombstone, engraved with illegible letters and standing on a pedestal, is enclosed by iron railings that rise to nearly half its height. So powerful is its presence that it’s easy overlook the other, lesser tombstones arrayed behind it.

The painting emphasises the contrast between the living, supple trees and the unyielding stone monument raised above the Jewish incumbent of the tomb. The yearning melancholia that many critics have read in Levitan’s paintings is present in abundance, but the drooping birch twigs overhanging the tomb seem tender and protective as well as grieving.

This is a rare depiction of an encounter between Jewishness and the Russian landscape. Whether or not it can be taken as evidence of a hitherto overlooked aspect of Levitan’s relationship to his Jewishness is an open question. A case against such a reading might point to the absence of Jewish subject matter in his other paintings and the strong possibility that what appealed to Levitan was the general mood of the graveyard scene rather than anything specifically Jewish.

Isaak Il’ich Levitan, ca.1881, Evreiskaia nadgrobnaia plita [‘Jewish Tombstone’], present location unknown, (source: Susan Tumarkin Goodman (ed.), Russian Jewish Artists in a Century of Change, 1890–1990, New York: Prestel, 1995).

It’s possible, however, to interpret Jewish Tombstone in quite a different way – one descriptive of the tension between Jewishness and the Russian landscape. The birch has long been the symbol of the Russian rodina. In a 2004 article Averil King pointed out that ‘Isaak Levitan made telling use of the silver birch in his landscape painting. As a motif, it was lyrical, expressive and, above all, calculated to evoke feelings of affection for the Russian Motherland.’ With this in mind, the contrast in Jewish Tombstone between the trees and the monument becomes not only material but national. The very prominence of the tombstone now whispers at exclusion and vulnerability. Why is the obelisk screened from the rodina by an iron fence? Why is it exposed on a pedestal? Why, indeed, is the painting not entitled ‘Jewish Cemetery’? Could it be that this enclosed monument, imposing but starkly alone, marks the only Jewish grave in a Christian cemetery? That seems unlikely, but the very possibility of the question reveals the new sense of ambiguity, or even unease, that now pervades the painting. Perhaps all the questions about identity that it invokes can be reduced to one – the same that underlies the passage from Job with which I began – namely, what is the stone (and the man that it commemorates) doing here, a stranger in a strange land?

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The religious proscriptions on the graphic representation of living things did not apply to verbal or written art, and consequently the literary history of the ‘people of the book’ stretches back continuously over three thousand years. Nevertheless, the two Jewish languages of the Pale each came with a set of difficulties. For different reasons, neither Hebrew and Yiddish was adequate to describe the internal world of subjective emotion or the external world of landscape. Hebrew possessed only words that figured in the Torah and other sacred texts, and thus sounded horribly stilted when applied to nineteenth-century reality, while the vocabulary of Yiddish, having evolved in the urban ghettoes of Central Europe, did not stretch to nice distinctions between, say, an aspen and a birch. Rich, expressive, euphemistic and malleable, by the time of the absorption of Eastern European Jews into the Russian Empire Yiddish had become the common vernacular, spoken and understood by all, yet it was also looked down on as a literary language.

Mendele Moykher-Sforim, recalling his emergence as a writer, dramatised the problem in this way:

I observed the life of my people and wished to provide them with stories in the Holy Tongue based on Jewish sources. Most of them, however, did not understand this language, because they spoke only Yiddish…Our writers…were interested only in the Holy Tongue and not in the people. They looked down upon Yiddish. If one in ten ever remembered the ‘accursed tongue’ and dared to write something in it, he did so behind seven locked doors […] so that his shame might not be uncovered to damage his good name. How great then was my dilemma when I considered that if I were to embark on writing in the ‘shameful’ tongue, my honourable name would be besmirched!…My love of writing, however, overcame my hollow pride, and I decided: come what may, I will write in Yiddish, that cast-off daughter, and work for the people.

Moykher-Sforim (‘Mendele the book-peddler’, often referred to simply as Mendele, 1836–1917) was the nom de plume of Sholem Yankef Abramovich, whose fateful decision to write in Yiddish earned him the sobriquet ‘the grandfather of Yiddish literature.’ A maskil, or follower of the Haskalah, he began writing in the early 1860s in the period of optimism following the abolition of serfdom and the removal of many of the most hated anti-Jewish policies of Tsar Nicholas I.

Mendele’s writing, though typically possessing a tendentious social subtext, evinces a great love of the Russian countryside, and these two motivations combine in his remarkable project of translating into Hebrew a three-volume compendium of texts on the natural and biological sciences, culled from contemporary Western European treatises, which covered respectively mammals, birds, and reptiles and amphibians. To fully appreciate this achievement it’s necessary to bear in mind that Mendele was obliged to invent words for these animals, the existing vocabulary for wildlife in Hebrew not having advanced much beyond ‘every thing that creepeth upon the earth’.

But Mendele’s interest in the Russian landscape was also personal and lyrical. In 1889 he published a series of autobiographical sketches entitled Notes for My Biography in which he emphasised the dramatic impact of his childhood encounters with the landscape of the Pale. He wrote of his birthplace, the shtetl of Kapulye in the Minsk governorate: ‘God did not bless the town with riches and treasure, nor did He favour it with trade and business. Instead, He endowed it with natural beauty, lovely forests, tranquil life, valleys, and beautiful fields all around.’ After a period in his early teens spent studying at various religious schools Mendele moved to the small town of Mel’niki, named after the mill beyond its outskirts which his stepfather owned. At Mel’niki Mendele rediscovered the natural world, which he associated thereafter with his own creative talent. It’s worth quoting from his reminiscences of Mel’niki at some length:

The house in which my stepfather lived was surrounded by forests, large ancient woods. Wild animals lived there. Wolves howled at night, and even bears were seen from time to time. There were nests of all kinds of birds that twittered in the branches; there were wild geese and waterfowl that screamed in the marsh grass. A wide river wove its way between the trees, flowing in a rush to the mill, where it dropped like a waterfall. […]

Here, in this isolated place, my Muse – the beloved of my youth from the time when I sat in yeshivas with other poor youths, my beloved, whom I had lost hope of ever seeing again – reappeared. She revealed herself to me in all her glory […] At her urging I made a covenant with the trees in the countryside, with the birds and the fruits of the earth. She taught me to understand their language and observe their mode of life. My heart was drawn to these friends of mine. They told me about the mysteries and events of their world, about the greatness of God, who had created and watched over them, and I told them about my feelings.

Much in this passage is remarkable. Most generally there is the mere fact, which runs counter to many stereotypes of the Jews, that the young Mendele should have been so enraptured by nature, and that his elder self should write of his experiences in such a romantic fashion. Romantic also, of course, is the way in which Mendele links his experiences of landscape to his creative powers as personified by a female ‘Muse’. Despite his reference at the end of this passage to a monotheistic creator god, there’s no question that the way in which this Muse appears to supplant the functions of the god of Moses would have alarmed an observant Jew. Mendele’s very language seems provocative – most evidently when he writes of the ‘covenant’ with nature that was encouraged by his Muse, but also when he gives her the credit for teaching him ‘the language of nature’. More subtle is the passage’s undertow of pantheism: his Muse urging him to bond with, but ‘the trees […] the birds and the fruits of the earth.’

In a complementary passage, Mendele reiterates his positive image of landscape with the difference that nature itself is now personified as a woman, without the mediation of a Muse. He writes that ‘Nature drew me to her with clarity and beauty. I fell in love with her and delighted in her as a groom in his bride […] I sought my love in the dense forests and sparse woods, on the fields of grass and at the river. She showed me all she possessed […] The nightingale sang for me, and the voice of the turtledove stood out in the chorus of birds.’ This extract is striking because of its resonance with and commingling of the Western European Romantic tradition and the Song of Songs. The nightingale, the emblematic bird of Romanticism is mentioned in the same breath as the turtledove: ‘The flowers appear on the earth; the time of the singing of birds is come, and the voice of the turtle is heard in our land.’ [Song of Songs 2:12]. Both Mendele’s reference to nature as his ‘bride’ and his description of going forth to seek his beloved are also strongly reminiscent of passages from the Song of Songs (3:1–2, 5:1).

Mendele’s biblical language raises the intriguing idea that his perception of the Russian landscape may have been mediated by imagery encountered in his years of studying scripture. In much the same way, then, as Russian artists and writers, in attempting to describe their native landscape, struggled first to ‘see’ it at all outside conventional European representations of Arcadia or the picturesque, so Jewish perceptions of the Russian landscape may well have been coloured or overlaid with biblical imagery. The close relationship between nature and scripture is made beautifully plain in another passage from Mendele’s Notes in which he writes metaphorically about his childhood experience of reading the Aggadah:

I came to love strolling in the garden of Agadah. This is not like an orchard fenced in with gates and locks in which trees are tall and planted in straight rows, each kind in its own bed, so that Nature is hemmed in by elaborate pickets. No, it looked like a broad expanse of field and forest which has no end and no fence, where there is no order, and the growth is dense and intertwined. Countless flowers grow there […] The lily is the lily of the valley of Sharon, and the rose – the rose of the valleys, wreathed with a growth of green grass.

In Notes for my Biography, the Romantic and biblical frames through which Mendele views the Russian landscape seem unconscious and inadvertent, but in a delightful passage from his novel Fishke der Krumer (Fishke the Lame, 1869) Mendele reveals that this is far from being the case. The passage describes a scene in which, after becoming involved in various hectic misadventures, four Jews lie down in a field to take their ease:

Had a talented writer seen us out that fine morning, he would have found ample material for a poem. This would have been a poem about four married Jews and how they lay unbuttoned on the grass, enjoying the day in silence. Also included would be a sun and its warm rays, a sky, nature, dewdrops, songbirds and horses, each prettier than the last. Such a writer should, of course, be generous enough to add some products of his own imagination too: a flock of sheep grazing in the meadow, a clear running brook at which “Jews do break their thirst.” He would doubtless place flutes in our mouths on which we would trill a song of praise to the beloved bride in the Song of Songs, just like the shepherds of yore.

Mendele’s playful and ironic subversion of both European and Jewish perceptions of landscape is consistent with his wider programme of freeing people (whether Jew or gentile) from lazy preconceptions and inherited viewpoints. Nevertheless, he often acknowledges in his fictional works the sometimes uneasy relationship to the landscape on the part of Jews whose religious and social background never encouraged them to feel at home or take pleasure in it. In a seemingly semi-autobiographical passage from Fishke the Lame, his youthful protagonist writes of the struggle for his soul conducted between his ‘Good Mentor’ and Satan, who tempts him to lift his head from his prayer book to witness the ‘exquisite panorama’ of nature, comprising ‘Fields peppered with blooming buckwheat as white as snow…embroidered with stripes of golden-yellow wheat and pale green stalks of corn.’

Another founder of Yiddish literature, maskil and ardent defender of Jewish culture was Isaak Leib Peretz (1852–1915). In the course of a long career as a journalist, social critic, playwright and author of short stories and novels he, like his contemporary Mendele, regarded the Jews of the Pale with an eye that was both sympathetic and somewhat removed. Like Mendele too, Peretz left memoirs of his youth in which his experience of the landscape figures prominently. Most of Peretz’s later life was spent in Warsaw where he became arguably the most important figure in the development of modern Jewish culture, but in 1890 and again in 1904 he undertook journeys into the Polish provinces of the Pale that later formed the basis of his Impressions of a Journey Through the Tomaszow Region.

Peretz was born and grew up within the culturally cosmopolitan, fortified town of Zamość. Situated politically in the contested borderlands of Russia, Poland and Austria, Zamość was a town with a large Jewish minority that was surrounded by woodland, marshes and fertile cultivated land watered by the river Wieprz. Only three miles beyond the town’s walls was the Jewish agricultural colony of Zhdanov, although by Peretz’s time this was very much in decline. In common with the children of other pious Jewish families, Peretz began to study Torah almost as soon as he was able to speak. Despite the enticing proximity of the countryside, his daily routine kept him largely confined to the interior of the elementary school or cheder. In his memoirs Peretz wrote that:

There is very little nature in what I remember. I saw very little of it in those early years which are expected to nourish the mature man. I was a Jewish child born in a fortress, walled in from forest and field by gates and ramparts. I had already been deeply moved by the Sabbath hymn in praise of God the Creator of Nature and by other biblical passages of nature description before I ever saw a living blade of grass […] Only once, on a hot day, when I went down to the damp cellar to cool off, did I see anything sprouting from the potatoes.

Here, then, is another Jewish child whose earliest experiences of nature were baffled by Torah and Talmud. The cheder itself, in the accounts of Peretz, Mendele, S.Ansky and many others who in later life became maskilim, was a sort of incubator of pallid and etiolated Jewish tubers, from which these writers felt fortunate to have escaped into the hothouse of modern European culture. A memoir left by Grigory Bogrov (1825–1885), a Russian Jew of an earlier generation, confirms this general picture:

We lived in the countryside, in a deep forest. Some cottages, some huts, the ever-smoking distillery in the distance, a rivulet winding between tall pines, horned cattle, boars grown fat on the waste from the distillery, eternally grimy peasant men and women – that picture is etched in my memory and has not faded to this day […]

Once I turned five, an assistant of my father’s, a gangly Jew, began to teach me the Hebrew alphabet. How I hated my teacher and his notebook! But I was afraid of my strict father and sat at my writing for hours, although the sun shone so brightly in the yard, the pretty little birds chirped so merrily, and I so wanted to run away and dive into the thicket of tall, succulent grass.

This contrast between nature as it is encountered in texts and as it is experienced in real life was something that the older Peretz was well aware of:

I suppose that nowadays you can’t easily imagine a childhood or adolescence like mine. You would find incredible this creature with his head full of the sweetest-smelling scents of “the field that God has blessed,” of mandrakes and Mount Lebanon, of the rose of Sharon and the lily of the valley, who hadn’t raised a single living flower to his nostrils.

It wasn’t until early adulthood that Peretz had the opportunity to venture out into the landscape, when he accompanied his father into the forest: ‘I made my first acquaintance with the forest and with the Bug River […] As soon as we entered the forest I was under its spell. The trees were gigantic, so heroic that they made me feel insignificant…’ Here again we see that the description of nature approaching what we might call religious or Romantic awe. For a child raised in the unshakeable belief that what mattered in the universe was only the relationship between man and God, the experience of being dwarfed by huge trees or dazzled by vast uncultivated distances could have been astonishing to comprehend.

Impressions of a Journey Through the Tomaszow Region in 1890 is a hybrid literary work. Part sociological survey, part reportage, it was undertaken with the intention of gathering objective data about the Jews of the Polish shtetls that could be used in their defence against Judaophobic defamation, but it is also of great value for its subjective account of the voyage of discovery made by a maskil intellectual who returns to his half despised and half beloved roots.

Peretz is accompanied on his journey through the western Pale by various local people who act as his guides, hosts, coachmen, interviewees and informants. In many of the conversations that he records, Peretz registers the gap that still exists between Jews and the land. On the way back towards Lublin from the small town of Tishevitz (Tyszowce) where he has been gathering data, he and his coachman take a rest near the latter’s village:

By now we have left Tishevitz behind. A breath of spring wafts toward us from the fields. He draws me to a tree and we sit. It occurs to me that this is where he must have sat with his mother. She must have taught him what was grown in the townspeople’s narrow furrows, because he recognises wheat, rye, and potatoes.

A theme that arises again and again in accounts of the experiences of Russia’s rural Jews is the tension between their aesthetic appreciation of the beauty of the landscape (to which they seldom seem insensible, in spite of the influence of their religious upbringing and stereotypes to the contrary) and their sense of it as concealing some vague threat. Sometimes the source of this fear becomes reified: Peretz records a conversation with one Jewish villager who is planning to travel to leave Poland and try his luck abroad:

‘“Where are you going?”
“To London. I was there once, made good money, sent my wife ten roubles a week, was able to live like a human being myself. My bad luck dragged me home again.”
His bad luck, I assumed, was his wife.
“Why didn’t you take your family with you?”
He doesn’t answer. “Something within me drew me back. London is as dark as midnight. Every time I began to doze off, I would dream about the shtetl – the brook, the woods. I felt I was choking, and I kept being pulled back home.”
“Clean, fresh air – no charge. With God’s help we’ve been swallowing the air for three years now. I’m leaving with my wife and children. We can’t take any more.”
“Won’t you miss the woods again?”
“The woods?” He smiles bitterly. “When my wife went into the woods the day before yesterday to pick berries, the locals gave her their special welcome – accompanied by a few touches of the whip.”’

The restlessness of Peretz’s interviewee also marked the life of Uri Nissan Gnessin (1879–1913), whose wanderings led him to the great cities of Europe (including months spent living in poverty in London’s East End) only for him to return, ‘time and again […] to the remote shtetl of Pochep [..] and to the pines of his native land […] its surrounding hills and the wonderful river.’

Even in translation, Gnessin’s short stories evidence a talent that by rights ought to assure his place among the great European modernist writers. Although their haunted, melancholic atmosphere is quite unique, the stories also indicate Gnessin’s youthful absorption of Russian prose, particularly that of Chekhov, some of whose tales he later translated into Hebrew.

Gnessin shares with Chekhov a concern for the inner life of his characters that relegates surface events, ‘action’ and ‘plot’ to a slightly unreal condition, as though the external world were only a residue of consciousness, a two-dimensional sheen of images cast by the mind. This emphasis upon mood and inner spiritual states does not mean that there is anything vague about Gnessin’s descriptions of the external world, and in fact his prose is much more precise, concrete and lucid than that of Mendele or Peretz, both of whom, in spite of their talent and awareness of trite conventions, occasionally slip into clichéd formulations when attempting to render details of landscape.

A recurrent motif in Gnessin’s stories is the contrast between the confining, airless interiors of cheder schoolrooms and cramped, rented lodgings on the one hand, and on the other, the beauty and vastness of the world beyond the shtetl streets. The stories’ heroes, sensitive and spiritually homeless young maskilim, barely scraping a piece of bread and herring by teaching while daydreaming all the while of founding periodicals and becoming respected authors in the big cities, find balm for their souls on walks to the edge of town or beyond into the fields and woods. The link between the natural world and the emotional state of the protagonist is usually made explicit, as in these two extracts, the first from Hatsidah (Sideways, 1905) and the second from Beinatayyim (Meanwhile, 1906):

Yet soon it was nearly spring and the days were filled with light. Patches of soft blue showed through the clash of silvery cymbals in the sky. The sun was new and warm again; golden puddles gleamed underfoot and glimmering streams bubbled gaily. The newly let-out cows rubbed against the walls of houses, seeking their stored warmth. Hagzar cut back on his lessons. Whenever he could he went for long walks through the paths and fields, splashing pleasurably through the slick bogs from which a damp glitter arose, breathing in the soft decay of the rutting earth as it warmed, surrendering himself to the steamy mist exhaled by the fat, rank soil.

In the irrigated fields, behind the nearby river, a bird on foot began to screech moderately and confidently. The measured, considered screeches entered the silence and spread out in it and, together with it, penetrated Naftali’s absorbent soul. Suddenly his ear discerned clear words in that screech: – Flee-ee! Flee-ee!

One consequence of the intense, cloistered religious education that Jewish boys were expected to embark upon from their earliest years was a troubled relationship, in later life, to their own inchoate sexuality. From the point of view of those Jews (including all of the writers here discussed) who later looked back critically upon the traditional communities from which they had emerged, this issue was exacerbated rather than resolved by the customary practice among ‘unenlightened’ Jews of marrying off their sons and daughters on the very cusp of puberty. There is some evidence to suggest that the seemingly universal psychological correlation between the fertility of the natural landscape and the awakening of human libido was reinforced, in the case of these young Russian Jews, by the absence of early opportunities to become familiar either with the opposite sex or with the fertile world beyond the cheder or yeshiva walls, and this may help account for the feminine identification of nature in the writing of Mendele, Peretz and Gnessin.

For the Jews of the Pale, the outbreak of the First World War inaugurated a series of cataclysms that would see them, by the middle of the twentieth century, all but exterminated from their ‘step-motherland’. This war, and the Russian Civil War that followed on its heels also represented an environmental disaster, with pillaging armies destroying harvests, hacking down forests, and polluting rivers with corpses. Remarkable records of  these wars, and in particular of the destruction visited upon the Jews and the landscape, ruined together, have been left by S. Ansky (Shloyme Zanvl Rappoport, 1863–1920) and Isaak Babel (1894–1940).

Ansky travelled through Galicia with the Russian army in 1915 on a mission that had the dual purpose of documenting what was occurring there and distributing relief to its terrorised Jewish communities, while Babel joined the cavalry war against the Poles and Tsarist loyalists in 1920, in the capacity of war correspondent for the Soviet press. The diaries he kept during the campaign, in addition to their intrinsic documentary value, provided the material for Babel’s best-known collection of short stories Konarmiia (Red Cavalry, 1926).

Ansky witnessed the anguished position of the Red Army’s Jewish soldiers who fought alongside Judaeophobic Russians. In the shtetl of Husiatyn, Jewish soldiers of the Red Army  managed to save the synagogue only by threatening to torch the Church and Christian homes if it were not spared. They were unable, however, to prevent the pogrom that occurred in both districts of this border town, divided into Austrian and Russian sections along the line of the river Zbrucz since the first Polish partition, which left only twenty-three of the formerly seven hundred Jewish homes still standing. Ansky records that ‘during the pogrom and the fire, […] six hundred families had fled to the surrounding villages and forests and stayed there.’ Thus did the Russian forests, for generations a source of superstitious trepidation for the Jews of the Pale, become the last place of refuge from their neighbours.

Babel’s terse and impressionistic diary entries, brief sketches of personalities, encounters and events, are interspersed with a surprising number of references to the landscape. Sometimes his contact with natural beauty seems to afford him a sense of peace in which he feels able to record otherwise rare moments of personal reflection. During five days spent quartered in the relatively unscarred vicinity of Belyov, for example, Babel records the following impressions:

I feel lighthearted out in the fields, my 27th year. Thinking, the rye and barley are ripe, the oats look very good in places, the poppies are fading, no cherries left, the apples aren’t ripe, a lot of flax, buckwheat, a lot of fields trampled down, hops.

They’ve started mowing. I’m learning to recognise plants. My sister’s birthday tomorrow.

Babel’s interest in the landscape is filled with love and yearning. In his autobiographical short story Awakening, written about ten years earlier, he wrote of his regret that, through being ‘nailed to the Gemara [a Rabbinical commentary]’ he had come late to the ‘essential things’ of life, these being identified with exposure to and knowledge of the natural world. In one passage from the story, the young Babel, an aspiring ‘scribbler’ is interrogated by the knowledgeable Nikitich, proofreader of the Odessa News and a man with a sound knowledge of the natural sciences.

“What you lack is a feeling for nature.”
With his stick he pointed out to me a tree that had a reddish trunk and a low crown.
“What kind of tree is that?”
I did not know.
“What’s growing on this bush?”
I did not know that either.

[…]

“And you presume to write?…A man who does not live in nature as a bird or animal lives in it will never write two worthwhile lines in all his life…Your landscapes are like descriptions of stage scenery. The devil take me, what have your parents been thinking of for fourteen years?”

[…]

Back home, at dinner, I did not touch my food. It would not go down.
“A feeling for nature,” I thought. “My God, why did I never think of that before? Where am I going to find someone who can explain the calls of the birds and the names of the trees to me.”

As a twenty-seven year old man, Babel, in the midst of a war zone, belatedly, incongruously and movingly began to acquire some knowledge of botany. He reports that he is ‘studying the flora of Volhynia,’ and seems to take pleasure in being able to name the crops that he encounters. Not that his interest is limited to cold botanical nomenclature, for Babel also expresses his dismay at the effect of the war upon the Volhynian forest: ‘The forest. Magnificent, shady, ancient forest. Fierce heat, shade in the forest. Many trees felled for military needs – damn them – bare patches bristling with stumps at the forest’s edge. The ancient Volhynian forests of  Dubno.’

The despoilation of the landscape and its inhabitants witnessed by Babel found in his modernist prose a vehicle fit to describe all its jarring horror:

Fields of purple poppies flower around us, the noonday wind is playing in the yellowing rye, the virginal buckwheat rises on the horizon like the wall of a distant monastery. The quiet Volyn is curving. The Volyn is withdrawing from us into a pearly mist of birch groves, it is creeping away into flowery knolls and entangling itself with enfeebled arms in thickets of hops. An orange sun is rolling across the sky like a severed head, a gentle radiance glows in the ravines of the thunderclouds and the standards of the sunsets float above our heads. The odour of yesterday’s blood and of slain horses drips into the evening coolness.

From the gentle shtetl paintings of Yehuda Pen to the lucid modernist imagery of Babel’s short stories, this brief introduction to Russian Jewish art of the fin de siècle shows how problems of cultural and national identity can never be entirely detached from the ostensibly apolitical subject of landscape depiction. Yet it would be no less of an error to frame this art only in terms of ideology and conflict. The more closely this subject is examined, the clearer it becomes that the variety of Russian Jewish artists’ responses to their native landscape is simply too great, and encompasses too much of the incommunicable inner life of the individual, to be parcelled into prefabricated boxes.  Certainly, Russia’s Jewish population made use of and engaged with the landscape so variously as to disprove cliches of the deracinated urban Jew. Jews not only worked the land for food and crossed it for business, but also saw it variously as a sacred text, a source of spiritual nourishment, a pagan temple, a site of leisure, an object of nostalgia or superstitious dread, a trysting-place, a mass grave of their people and also, yes, as a place of eternal nourishment, the rodina.

Steven Lovatt

Steven Lovatt is a writer and editor living in South Wales. He is currently editing a collection of Welsh travel writing for Parthian Books, copyediting a book about microbes and reviewing poetry for The Friday Poem https://thefridaypoem.com/about/#newsletter.

Responsibility for the reproduction of paintings lies with the author and every effort has been made to acknowledge the use of the images appropriately.

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