Three generations, three languages: A former refusenik on language and identity

Ha’aretz has an interview with Soviet refusenik writer David Markish, who immigrated to Israel in 1972. Thirty-six years later, Markish still writes all his books (15 so far, though almost none available here) in his native Russian.

Markish’s father, Peretz Markish, a prominent Yiddish writer, was executed by the Soviet regime and the family was sent into exile until Stalin’s death. If prominent Yiddish writer plus USSR sounds like an oxymoron, it’s not—in the early decades of the regime, Yiddish culture was encouraged by the authorities as a means of Sovietizing the Jewish population and undermining the centrality of religion in Jewish life. It seems counter-intuitive, but that process is at the root of Soviet Jewry’s transformation and eventual disconnect from Judaism as a religious identity. That’s another post for another day, but a good read on this is Soviet and Kosher: Jewish Popular Culture in the Soviet Union, 1923-1939, by U of T professor Anna Shternshis.

As for Markish, one can imagine what it’s like to live in a country that speaks one language and still be writing in another nearly four decades later. What’s more, he explains, between his father and his son lies not just a generation gap, but several languages: “My father spoke Yiddish, I spoke Russian and my children speak Hebrew … The circle has closed.” Ultimately, for Markish, language circumscribes and shapes not just the more obvious questions of identity, but where and how to live. Israel? Russia? North America? And who better to hash out these questions than someone cut off by language from those before and after him? He strikes me as emblematic of Russian/Soviet Jewry in the last century—from the Yiddish-speaking generation (a branch of the one which came to America), to a Russian-speaking middle age, and into the Hebrew future of post-Soviet Israeli-Russians.

Markish also touches briefly on the question of being a Russian vs. Jewish writer, using the protagonist of his newest novel, a barely disguised Isaac Babel, as a foil for this and other questions of identity, immigration, Diaspora and exile.

The interview is a little light, but still an interesting read: Tongue-tied on the page
(Be warned, the questions are not highlighted, making for a confusing read)

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