A familial tragedy

The heart-wrenching tale of a Russian Jewish family’s decision to emigrate to Israel is available in a new English translation.

UNIVERSITY STUDENTS take part in a mass rally in Tel Aviv in 1969 in support of the Jews of the Soviet Union. (photo credit: MOSHE MILNER / GPO)
UNIVERSITY STUDENTS take part in a mass rally in Tel Aviv in 1969 in support of the Jews of the Soviet Union.
(photo credit: MOSHE MILNER / GPO)
Between 1989 and 2000, from the fall of the Berlin Wall until the rise of Vladimir Putin, nearly a million Jews left the former Soviet Union for Israel. Today, these immigrants and their descendants account for 20% of the population of the country, having forever changed its politics, culture, norms and ideals. The target of stereotypes and the butt of jokes, and taken advantage of by the political establishment, they have become, as evidenced by the current Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman, the political establishment themselves.
But throughout the complex integration of the largest wave of immigrants in Israel’s history, their past and the rich and rooted lives they lived before has remained largely absent from the public conversation. Israeli society exerts a powerful pressure on immigrants not only to integrate, but to renounce, at least publicly, all previous selves and identities; perhaps some of the stereotypes these immigrants have had to face appear precisely because they have refused to do so.
Russian Jewish novelist David Shrayer- Petrov’s Doctor Levitin, now available in a new translation, can serve as a remedy to this erasure, at least for readers in English. The novel tells the story of Soviet refuseniks through the captivating, heart-wrenching tale of one family’s decision to emigrate to Israel in the late 1970s – and that decision’s terrible consequences.
The novel’s Herbert Anatolyevich Levitin is a respectable, assimilated Jewish doctor, wrapped in a happy cocoon of domestic tranquility and professional success. He persuades his non-Jewish wife Tatyana to leave Moscow and the Soviet Union for the sake of their teenage son, Anatoly: to rescue him from Russian antisemitism and to provide him with a better life. Levitin is confident that the family’s departure for Israel will be easily accomplished – a tiresome official process, nothing more – and convinces his skeptical wife of the same. However, the decision sets off a chain of death and destruction through the instrument of the bureaucratic terror of the state. Levitin loses, in the end, his profession, his family and his sanity.
Woven between the chapters on the Levitin family’s tragedy are passages in which the narrator reflects on what it means, personally and spiritually, to be a Jew in Russia. Rather than interrupting the narrative flow, these sections add a deep, warm bass note that complements the operatic aria of the main plot.
Written in Moscow between 1979 and 1984, Doctor Levitin is based, in part, on the author’s own life. Shrayer-Petrov was himself a prominent medical scientist and Soviet writer who applied for, and was denied, an exit visa to Israel in 1979; fired from his academic job and expelled from the Union of Soviet Writers, Shrayer- Petrov wrote the novel while driving a gypsy cab at night.
Doctor Levitin has been translated before, but this new English version by professors Anna B. Bronstein, Aleksandra I. Fleszar and the author’s son Maxim D. Shrayer is a model work. The language is flowing and precise, both familiar and strange as a novel from long ago and far away should be, and the text is supplemented with an appendix filled with copious references and explanations for curious readers.
Reading Doctor Levitin from Israel, though, one can’t help but notice that something is missing. The Levitins talk constantly about Israel, among themselves and with friends. The “Israel” of their minds, though, seems to be a fantasy place whose contours and content are only barely defined. There is no notion that they need to learn Hebrew, or anything at all about the culture and politics of their new country. The fact that the Levitins’ is a mixed marriage, and that Anatoly is not halachicly Jewish, never comes up. To the extent that they picture Israel at all, they imagine stepping off the plane immediately into comfortable professional roles.
It is true that Israel of 1979 was less religious and more open to Soviet immigrants, then seen as heroes, than a decade or two later. Nevertheless, the characters’ myopic focus on getting out, on passing safely through the state’s rings of fire, and on the ongoing dramas of family life strikes one at first as exasperating. Don’t they care about where they’re going? Don’t they know it’s no picnic here? The novel’s apparent incuriosity of post-emigration life in Israel is like a mirror image of Israeli culture’s incuriosity for pre-emigration Soviet Jewish life.
But this is precisely what makes Doctor Levitin a great novel. As in the best works of Russian literature – and it is no accident that the name Levitin resembles Levin from Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina – Shrayer-Petrov’s characters are blind not just to their Israeli destination, but to the consequences of all their decisions and passions, and to the fragility of existence. Israel is no more than a fantasy, but so too, Shrayer-Petrov tells us, are the seemingly solid foundations – the job, the family, the liberty – of everyday life. At a whim, all can be demolished, all taken away.