A Jewish family weathers persecution in Tsarist Russia in this bombastic but engrossing historical epic.
For Jonah Chernov and his twin sister, Zeena, life is hard in the Ukrainian village of Krivoser, circa 1882. Ever-present discrimination and violence from an anti-Semitic society are bad enough, but there’s also the endless bickering with their shrewish, controlling mother, Sarah. Jonah passively accepts his lot–dead-end work as a tailor, arranged marriage with local girl Leah–with the help of advice from the Talmud and his kindly father Reuben, but headstrong Zeena denounces shtetl constraints with all the dudgeon she can muster. (Which is a lot–â€œThis place sucks out your life and takes and takes and takes until there’s nothing left...[t]hen it kills you, and after you’re dead, praises you for becoming nothing,” goes one of her tirades.) Pregnant by a handsome anarchist, Zeena escapes a forced marriage to a loathsome money-lender and goes to St. Petersburg seeking excitement. She finds it when she’s blackmailed by a lecherous nobleman and falsely accused of plotting the tsar’s assassination. While Jonah enlists international Zionism in her defense, Zeena puts her hopes in Alexi Malinovitch, a secret-police official with a hidden Jewish background, equal parts ruthless calculation and guilty conscience. Berman’s is a very 19th-century style of melodrama, with touches of Dumas, Dostoevsky and Deuteronomy. (â€œLet me tell you of the mothers who sank on the earth with their hands extended to this God to send fire onto the heads of the soldiers so their children might escape,” Alexi thunders during a four-page speech to a mortally wounded enemy.) He mixes in 21st-century explicitness; there’s a brutal gang-rape during a pogrom, and Jonah’s defloration of Leah is a six-page thrust-by-thrust. Still, for all the hyperbolic–and sometimes ponderous–rhetoric and plot contrivances, Berman makes us care about his passionate, tormented characters and their broad-canvas adventures.
A rousing, if often lurid, saga and a gripping portrait of life in the pressure-cooker of Russian anti-Semitism.