On the run

Rachel Baren­baum’s de­but novel fol­lows the lives of four Rus­sian Jews in 1914, des­per­ate to es­cape the war clos­ing in around them

The Jerusalem Post - The Jerusalem Post Magazine - - BOOKS - • ELAINE MARGOLIN

First-time nov­el­ist Rachel Baren­baum is a gifted writer. She in­stinc­tively un­der­stands pace, plot, char­ac­ter­i­za­tion and the sub­tle in­tri­ca­cies that sup­port a good sto­ry­line. You im­me­di­ately lose your­self in her de­but novel, A Bend in the Stars, which fol­lows the lives of four fraz­zled mod­ern Jews on the run in Rus­sia in 1914 hop­ing to find sanc­tu­ary some­where as World War I beck­ons and an­ti­semitism erupts.

Al­though Baren­baum holds you firmly in her grasp, she of­ten for­gets about the sur­pris­ing reck­on­ings that can erupt be­tween char­ac­ters when a writer feels con­fi­dent enough to re­lin­quish their grasp for a while and al­low things to evolve spon­ta­neously. But Baren­baum isn’t quite there yet.

The novel be­gins in­nocu­ously enough in a mu­seum in Philadel­phia in the year 2000. Ethel Zane, an el­derly and melan­choly Jewish wo­man, has brought her grand­daugh­ter to an ex­hibit about their fam­ily’s life in Rus­sia be­fore the First World War. The ex­hibit was mostly about her Un­cle Vanya, whom she had never met, and who spent the bulk of his years work­ing on im­prov­ing Ein­stein’s the­ory of rel­a­tiv­ity.

Vanya had been cer­tain that Ein­stein’s the­ory had es­sen­tial flaws within it, re­lated to the way light bends, some­thing he was cer­tain Ein­stein had missed. Vanya’s math­e­mat­i­cal notes had re­cently and ac­ci­den­tally been dis­cov­ered, and had prompted this ex­hi­bi­tion about the many sci­en­tists who had com­peted in the race to prove rel­a­tiv­ity. But Vanya never got to fin­ish.

Ethel Zane’s mother, Miriam Abramov, was Un­cle Vanya’s sis­ter and spec­tac­u­lar in her own right. She was the first fe­male sur­geon at the Jewish hos­pi­tal in Kovno in 1914. Ethel is over­whelmed by see­ing the pic­tures of her fam­ily on the wall in the mu­seum. See­ing the im­ages of so many Jews who suf­fered so heinously and died way too early.

Baren­baum seems to be hint­ing that Ethel wants to be able to im­part an op­ti­mistic mes­sage to her grand­daugh­ter, but is over­come with the re­al­ity of the fragility of Jewish lives back then; and even now. Words don’t come eas­ily to her.

“Life doesn’t travel in a straight line,” Ethel says in­stead. “Know­ing the end doesn’t mean you can fol­low it back to the be­gin­ning.”

Within sec­onds, Baren­baum thrusts us back­wards in time to Kovno, Rus­sia. It is 1914.

Vanya worked as a pro­fes­sor at the univer­sity, where he was known for his lec­tures that were al­ways over­flow­ing with students eager to watch him work out loud while he scrib­bled his half-baked the­o­ries on the black­board while lost in thought. He would for­get the students were present, but they re­mained spell­bound, un­der­stand­ing they were wit­ness­ing a ge­nius con­sumed by his own in­spi­ra­tions. His su­pe­rior, Kir, would of­ten steal his pre­lim­i­nary findings and pub­lish them un­der his own name, and when Vanya ob­jected, Kir would say sim­ply, “Re­mem­ber, you’re a Jew.” Vanya knew he was com­ing closer to fig­ur­ing it all out, and wanted to travel across Rus­sia to meet an Amer­i­can pho­tog­ra­pher who

was com­ing to Rus­sia to pho­to­graph the eclipse. It was this pic­ture that Vanya felt would prove his new the­o­ries about rel­a­tiv­ity; about how the uni­verse re­ally worked. Per­haps too, this col­lab­o­ra­tion with the Amer­i­can might buy his fam­ily pas­sage to Amer­ica, which was now cru­cial if they were all to save them­selves from what was com­ing.

Vanya’s sis­ter, Miri – Ethel’s mother – was spend­ing her time at the hos­pi­tal where she worked tire­lessly as a sur­geon. She was en­gaged to Yuri, whom she loved, but re­sented, too, for she found him over­bear­ing. Miri was ten­der-hearted but fiercely strong and con­nected to Rus­sia, which had al­ways been her home. The talk of war and leav­ing her home­land up­set her, but she saw first­hand what was hap­pen­ing on the streets; par­tic­u­larly to the Jews who seemed to al­ways be the first tar­gets. Just that day, she had tended to the fish mon­ger; a man who brought her fam­ily his catch ev­ery Mon­day. He was brought to the hos­pi­tal with “the word ‘Jew’ scrawled on his chest with so much hate that the char­coal used to write it cut his skin. The let­ters oozed red. His ribs were cracked and Miri was sure his spleen was pierced.”

BOTH VANYA and Miri had been raised to be lov­ing, but al­ways wary by their beloved Babushka. She was a match­maker in the com­mu­nity, but so much more.

“While on the sur­face the gen­eros­ity of Baba’s mar­ried cou­ples made it ap­pear Miri’s fam­ily, the Abramov fam­ily, was in­te­grated into the Jewish com­mu­nity, they weren’t,” Baren­baum writes. “Kovno’s poorer Jews thought the Abramovs were above them and the richer Jews be­lieved they were be­low them, but both agreed Baba’s po­si­tion went be­yond match­maker – she was the an­chor that held the com­mu­nity to­gether. And they needed her and her sit­ting room where they could gather be­cause above it all, Kovno’s Jews were united by ideas, by the belief they could as­sim­i­late and be­come Rus­sian Jews, not just Jews.”

Babushka coun­seled the Jewish women who came to see her and she kept their se­crets. She was loved and trusted and re­paid with lav­ish gifts for ar­rang­ing mar­riages for their chil­dren. But in pri­vate, Babushka was cau­tious; trau­ma­tized by what had hap­pened to her in Odessa, and de­ter­mined to sur­vive. She al­ways had at least one es­cape route at the ready; knew which gen­tiles she could bribe; and re­mem­bered that al­most ev­ery­one had a price.

A plan is hatched that will take all of them into mor­tal dan­ger, cling­ing – as Jews al­ways have – to the slimmest of hopes that some­how they can out­run a fate that seems to have al­ready been de­cided. Their plans are quickly dis­rupted by un­fore­seen com­pli­ca­tions that throw ev­ery­thing into dis­ar­ray. New plans are put in place and they per­se­vere. Vanya and Yuri are al­ready on the run in pur­suit of the Amer­i­can pho­tog­ra­pher who is com­ing to pho­to­graph the eclipse; un­aware that many who wish them ill are al­ready search­ing for them.

Babushka has found tem­po­rary sanc­tu­ary with a rel­a­tive while she waits for her grand­chil­dren to come for her. And Miri has taken off with a man she found ac­ci­den­tally when he jumped from a mov­ing train into the river and in­jured his arm, which she stitched back to­gether for him. His name is Sasha and he of­fers to go

with her in search of her brother and her fi­ancé. He had been con­scripted into the czar’s army and his com­mand­ing of­fi­cer was tor­tur­ing him when he made the im­pul­sive de­ci­sion to jump from the train hop­ing the wa­ter would shield his fall. Miri is wary of him at first, but their un­ex­pected re­la­tion­ship blos­soms into some­thing sur­pris­ing spec­tac­u­lar; a love af­fair that forms al­most or­gan­i­cally hid­ing be­neath burlap sacks on rail­road cars in terror that the Rus­sian soldiers aboard will find them. Or sleep­ing side by side in freez­ing barn­yards of peas­ants who some­times let them stay the night in ex­change for an ap­ple or a piece of cheese. The war with the Ger­mans is tak­ing a fierce toll, and Jews are sim­ply col­lat­eral dam­age.

Baren­baum’s char­ac­ters grow on you. They are for the most part all wounded souls; car­ri­ers of se­crets; and not who they ap­pear to be when we first meet them. But still, strange and un­ex­pected al­liances form. Those who are thought to be trusted al­lies are of­ten re­vealed to be dou­ble deal­ing. Ev­ery once in a while, a right­eous man steps up and does some­thing that is truly heroic. But war doesn’t bring out the best in peo­ple; it brings out the worst, and Baren­baum doesn’t hes­i­tate to show us the ug­li­ness and vi­o­lence that re­mains at its core. More im­por­tantly, she un­der­stands the im­por­tance of the per­sonal pre­oc­cu­pa­tions of the in­di­vid­u­als re­gard­less of their cir­cum­stances. Her char­ac­ters re­main cen­tered on them­selves and their own ob­ses­sions and long­ings and in­se­cu­ri­ties; even as the war blows up around them. Such is the ba­nal­ity of the hu­man con­di­tion.

Baren­baum spent many years work­ing as a suc­cess­ful hedge fund man­ager and a spin in­struc­tor be­fore flee­ing to the sub­urbs of New Hamp­shire with her hus­band and chil­dren in order to write. A pho­to­graph on­line shows a wo­man with sparkling eyes hold­ing a binder that reads “Al­ways keep your pro­tag­o­nist in trou­ble,” a mantra she clearly heeded in this first novel. It is good writ­ing ad­vice, but it is also a sand trap; one she some­times can’t seem to see. Be­cause the al­most dizzy­ing fran­tic mo­men­tum of her novel is what threat­ens to bury it. Speed can’t re­ally com­pen­sate for con­tem­pla­tion or per­cep­tion or in­tro­spec­tion.

Her novel gives her ac­cess to very im­por­tant Jewish themes; the whole no­tion of Jewish es­trange­ment since the on­set of moder­nity and the psy­cho­log­i­cal cost upon Jews from the his­tor­i­cal and emo­tional con­straints that have hin­dered Ju­daism for the last few cen­turies. But she ne­glects to ex­plore ei­ther of these at great length. Her hand re­mains, dare I say, too steady. Her gaze too di­rect. Her fo­cus too fix­ated on the fin­ish line. We don’t sense her pres­ence in any of her char­ac­ters nor do we de­tect her own Jewish vul­ner­a­bil­ity. And this press­ing ab­sence ul­ti­mately pre­vents her char­ac­ters from pierc­ing our hearts.

‘Life doesn’t travel in a straight line. Know­ing the end doesn’t mean you can fol­low it back to the be­gin­ning’

(Wikimedia Com­mons)

A PHO­TO­GRAPH of Jewish girls in Sa­markand, in what was then Rus­sia some­time be­tween 1909 and 1915.

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