Monday, March 14, 2016

Russian Jewish Painters and Poets: Marc Chagall and Yiddish Tales (no. 32)

 by Larry Witham


WHEN YIDDISH LITERARY scholar Dara Horn heard about the 2001 theft of a small Marc Chagall painting from the Jewish Museum of New York, she had her theme for a novel. The result is The World to Come (2006), a work of fiction that combines modern art with aspects of Yiddish culture, that is, the language tradition of Eastern European and Russian Jewry.
            The story opens with the theft of a Chagall painting in Manhattan, setting the contemporary stage. Just as often, though, the novel flashes back to Chagall’s early art career in the Soviet Union. The people back then will have ties to the modern-day characters, of course (this being a kind of family saga novel), but there is a third distinct layer to The World to Come as well.
            This is the layer of Yiddish fairy tales, or “symbolist” stories, that Horn incorporates in the narrative, tying them to Yiddish poets associated to Chagall. The Yiddish stories, being dreamlike, often dissolve the clarity of the novel’s plot. Yet they are consistent in this: they tell of how suffering people find solace in these Yiddish fantasies—imaginary tales that are often as cheerful as Chagall’s paintings.
            In the present, we meet Ben and Sara Ziskind, a brother and sister who are children of Russian émigré parents now deceased. Ben and Sara are the hub of a brainy family circle. Despite his childhood spinal problems, Ben is a prodigy with encyclopedic knowledge, “the Wizkind . . . cripple” at school. Sara, a skilled painter, also has a PhD in art history and marries Leonid, a brilliant mathematician.
            One evening, Ben attends a cocktail party at the (fictional) Museum of Hebraic Art. On the wall he sees a Marc Chagall painting that used to be in his mother’s living room. His mother, Rosalie Ziskind, had been a well-known designer of children’s books, illustrating Yiddish-type stories with watercolors.
            Persuaded that the painting belongs to his family, Ben steals it and takes it home to show Sarah. At the museum, Ben had met Erica Frank, a staff member and his future girlfriend. She logically concludes that he must be the thief (she finds paperwork saying the painting’s original owner had been Rosalie Ziskind, Ben’s mother).
            The mystery in the plot is how Ben's mother, Rosalie, had obtained an original Chagall, now worth a million dollars, and, in turn, how it came into the possession of a Russian museum official who had loaned it to the Manhattan retrospective exhibit. Again, this takes the story back to the early days of Chagall, when he painted in Moscow in the 1920's, soon after the Russian Revolution.
            As Soviet history recounts, painters and Yiddish poets were given leeway in those years before the rise of Stalin. In parts of this novel, we read of Chagall’s life as a teacher in a Soviet art collective. He also paints large murals for the Moscow State Jewish Theater. Chagall's friend is the Yiddish poet Der Nister and his art student is Boris Kulbak, to whom he gives a small painting (the one in question in the future theft).
            In time, however, the Soviets crack down on both artists and Jews. Chagall emigrates to Western Europe. Before the deadly purge begins, Boris the artist gives the Chagall painting to his daughter. And Der Nister conceals his handwritten Yiddish stories in the lining of the Chagall murals. The artwork and writings disappear into the dark political chaos—until Ben and Sara begin to figure things out in New York.
            Their mother, Rosalie, had indeed owned the Chagall painting. As we learn, she is actually the daughter of Boris, originally named Raisya. Her name was changed to “Rosalie” on her arrival in New Jersey as a Russian émigré. Years later, when Rosalie’s husband died, she needed money to keep the house and send the children to college. So she sent the Chagall painting to a post-Soviet Russian art dealer for an appraisal.
            The Russian dealer is corrupt, and even worse. On receiving the painting, he wrote back to Rosalie that it was a fake (fairly common with Chagall’s) and must be destroyed. Horror of horrors, he is also the very Soviet lackey who had sent Boris (Rosalie's father) to the gulag, and now is lending the painting to the Manhattan Chagall exhibition. Given these horrendous facts, Ben’s theft is justified. Erica Frank, the museum staffer, now takes his side. Sara, a skilled painter, forges a replica of the on-loan Chagall and Erica re-installs it at the museum (as if it never left).
            More than this, however, Erica has begun to probe a collection of old Chagall murals in the dark, cavernous basement of the museum. There she finds the handwritten stories of the Yiddish poet Der Nister stuffed in the murals. A new realization comes: Rosalie Ziskind, who had accepted professional praise as the "author" of the Yiddish children’s books, had simply copied the lost Der Nister stories. “Your mother, whose work I very much admired, is a plagiarist and a fraud,” Erica blurts out, at least at first.
            The family, and Erica, again confront the puzzle of art and forgery. They realize that if Rosalie had not reconstituted Der Nister’s work as her own, the old Yiddish stories would have been lost forever, a loss to the Russian Jewish heritage. (Rosalie had tried to get them published, in fact, but there was no market for the arcane literature. Under her name, they became popular).
            Besides containing the dreaminess of the Yiddish fairy tales, and despite the obvious talents of Ben and Sara, The World to Come is a novel about the constant threat to Jewish survival, both physically and culturally. Early on, Ben despairs over the end of his family line: “Don’t you get it? Our family is finished, Sara,” and therefore he stole the painting as the only thing they had left. What is more, the novel frequently cites a Yiddish tale, “All-Bridge,” an imaginary span that “leads from the deepest depths of the abyss to the highest heights of heaven.”
            Perhaps fittingly, if darkly, the narrative ends with Erica in the basement hoping to revive the Chagall and Yiddish heritages. At that very moment, however, a terrorist bomb destroys the museum. Ben rushes down into the smoldering dark, but it’s too late.
            The novel closes with yet another Yiddish story, much like a Chagall paintings. Happy Jewish people are crossing bridges in the sky, floating above ghetto buildings, and ultimately finding a better world to come.

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