The Arty Semite

Back in the Old Courtyard

By Sasha Senderovich

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Courtesy Eilat Gordin Levitan

Between 1929 and 1935, Yiddish writer Moyshe Kulbak (1896-1937) published a comic novel called “The Zelmenyaners” serially in the Minsk-based Yiddish language monthly Shtern.The novel told the story of a family courtyard in Minsk, in Soviet Belorussia, which was being progressively transformed through aggressive Soviet modernization.

As I will explain in an April 13 lecture at YIVO titled “Ethnography of a Vanishing Courtyard: Moshe Kulbak’s Zelmenyaner,” the novel offers great insight into official ethnographic discourses about Jews produced in the 1920s and ‘30s as part of Soviet policy.

“The Zelmenyaners” offers a multi-layered commentary on the persistence of Jewish difference in a period of increasing attempts at ideological homogenization. One particular character, Tsalel, is engaged throughout the novel collecting and preserving the linguistic and behavioral peculiarities of his family — a clan of Zelmenyaners named after their patriarch, Reb Zelmele.

Tsalel functions as a kind of amateur ethnographer of his transforming courtyard and, in particular, a practitioner of salvage ethnography. His work is a recovery of traits that appear to be threatened by modernization, and that themselves threaten the efforts of the Soviet state to integrate and modernize its Jewish population.

Kulbak was engaged with these ideological imperatives as an editor in the Jewish section of the Belorussian Academy of Sciences; he was also attuned to the cultural developments of his time and included in his serialized text references to specific events in Minsk and in Soviet culture more broadly.

While seemingly the story of a stubbornly traditional and static family finally dislodged by the progressive forces of Soviet modernization, Kulbak’s novel casts doubt on the supposedly stable nature of the courtyard to begin with, and expresses ambivalence about its ultimate demise.


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