Zhabotinskij's Pjatero and the Jews of Odessa

Michael Katz, Middlebury College

Vladimir (Ze'ev) Zhabotinskij - Russian-Jewish reporter, novelist, activist, orator, soldier, Zionist—was born into an acculturated and assimilated middle-class family in the city of Odessa in the year 1880. He wrote two full-length novels (in Russian). The first, Samson Nazarit (1926), is, on the surface, a Jewish epic, an adventure novel, set in a time and place far removed from issues of Russian-Jewish identity in late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Odessa. On the other hand, the theme of this work is actually the relationship of a Jew to the Gentile culture surrounding him.

His second Russian novel was written in 1935 and published in Paris in 1936. Pjatero is a very different sort of work than Samson: it is a fin de siècle decadent novel: a sense of decay and decline are pervasive; sexuality is both more explicit, including a ménage-a-trois, and more mysterious. First and foremost, this novel is autobiographical (see Shmuel Katz, Lone Wolf): Zhabotinskij penned a love letter to the Odessa of his youth, a nostalgic portrait of a place that no longer resembles what it was. Secondly, it is a poignant tale of the total disintegration of an assimilated Russian-Jewish family, in particular of the children; by the end of the novel all five are lost both to the family and to the Jewish people.

This paper will examine the main characters of the novel, parents and children, and will argue that each is portrayed lovingly and empathetically. The author expresses no censure, no condemnation, only love and pity. Zhabotinskij's theme is that the Mil'grom family (and, by extension, the Jews of Odessa) are doomed: they have no future, only a past. The paper will show that the portrait of the past is both complex and compassionate, subtle and ambiguous. Although written by a passionate Zionist, the novel has no explicit Zionist message; the Zionism is, as Michael Stanislawski argues in his recent study (Zionism and the Fin de Siècle), "interstitial"—there by inference. If the dream of Russian-Jewish assimilation was defunct even in Odessa, what other choice could there be?

Toward the end of the novel, the narrator converses with a lawyer, a "former" Jew recently baptized, the defender of the wronged husband-father who had assaulted the eldest son SereZha. Their conversation contains the fullest, most explicit disquisition of the author's complicated view of Jewish assimilation. As Zhabotinskij makes clear in this passage, the fundamental cause of SereZha's heinous crime is not to be found either in his character or in his ideology. Rather, it is the spiritual and ethical void that has resulted from the abandonment of received tradition, the loss of Jewish identity. The paper concludes with short excerpts from this pivotal conversation in my own new translation-in-progress.

Pjatero deserves to be read and appreciated by a larger audience: it can shed considerable light on the history of Odessa's Jews at the end of the nineteenth century, on Zhabotinskij's personal history and intellectual background, and, most important, it can help to explain the complex reasons for his embrace of Zionism.