Russian Bestsellers

Welcome Ludmila Ulitskaya, one of contemporary Russia’s best-selling authors. Among her 16 books published in Russian are two novels investigating the uncomfortable intersection of ethnic identity and religious choice.

The Funeral Party (Schocken Books, $14.95, translated by Cathy Porter) is set in 1991, in the summer of the putsch that ousted Gorbachev and brought Yeltsin to power, a summer when a world was dying and it was unclear what would replace it. In a dingy apartment in Lower Manhattan, the dying artist Alik, a secular Russian Jew, is surrounded by friends, family, current and former lovers: Valentina of the celebrated breasts; Gioia, who reads Dante to him; Nina with her gold cross; Irina, circus acrobat in Russia, now a prosperous lawyer in New York — all drawn to the charisma of a man physically paralyzed, financially dependent and overlooked as an artist. Present in the crowd is a priest ready to baptize Alik before his death and a rabbi Alik has summoned to help balance the scale. The rabbi presents Alik with a choice: “You can be nobody, which I understand to mean a heathen. You could become a Jew, which you have every reason to be by virtue of your blood. Or you can become a Christian, take the crumb that falls from the Jews’ table.” Averting any choice, Alik compels the rabbi and priest to drink together. Transcending ethnic, religious, economic, and physical boundaries to unite those around him, Alik resembles a bohemian Christ among Russians in exile.

Ulitskaya’s Daniel Stein, Interpreter (Overlook, $27.95, translated by Arch Tait) appeared almost a decade after The Funeral Party, and is a more elaborate meditation on a similarly universalist protagonist. Daniel Stein is a fictionalized version of Oswald (“Daniel”) Rufeisen (1922-1998), who indeed lived a life worthy of a novel. Obscuring his Polish-Jewish identity, Rufeisen worked as an interpreter for the police in the town of Mir during WWII, and managed to save some 300 Jews from the ghetto liquidation. He was arrested, but escaped to a convent, where he converted to Catholicism before leaving to fight with the partisans. He later became a Carmelite monk while remaining a Zionist, and renounced his Polish citizenship to immigrate to Israel as a Jew. In a series of famous court cases in the 1950s and 60s, he was denied citizenship under the Right of Return on the grounds of his conversion from Judaism. He remained in Haifa, preaching largely to mixed Jewish-Catholic families from Eastern Europe and delivering Catholic Masses in Modern Hebrew.

Ulitskaya intended to translate into Russian Nechama Tec’s 1990 biography of Rufeisen, In the Lion’s Den. What emerged instead was Daniel Stein, a far looser rendition of Rufeisen’s life, which unfolds through fictional documents: letters, diary entries, fragments from speeches and conversations between characters, many of whom are East European Jews who have adopted Christianity. All are seeking faith in a world where ethnicity is supposed to determine belief. Teresa, a former nun married to a Jewish-born Orthodox priest, Efim, writes proudly of her husband’s congregants, “How amazed Efim was when he discovered several Jews from Russia among his new parishioners…. Two large Bedouin families also came, several Greeks, and a Japanese man married to a Russian-Israeli woman.” A version of the author writes letters that appear alongside those of Daniel’s other followers, in which she hints at a fear of the irreconcilability between Judaism and Christianity: “When he died it became evident that his living body had been the sole bridge between Judaism and Christianity.”

It is tempting to view Brother Daniel, like Alik in The Funeral Party, as a modern day Christ figure, a renegade bearing a cross formed by the awkward intersection of cultures. But Ulitskaya chooses to portray him as a translator, a master of finding new forms to express a common meaning. In this sense the book is less about Daniel than it is about the spiritual crises of East Europeans in the twentieth century, and this helps to account for its immense popularity in Russia amidst the post-Soviet enthusiasm for religious awakening.

Daniel’s insistence that he is a Jew by nationality and a Christian by belief suggests that diverse peoples — Russians, Jews, Bedouins, and others — might be united by a generously interpreted belief in Christian grace. His ethnic identification as a Jew is familiar to Soviet Jews whose identity came from discrimination rather than religion. Understandably, some Jewish readers have been disturbed by the book’s underlying theology — Daniel’s Christianity obviates ethnic particularism. If ethnic Jewishness and religious Judaism are separate entities, is there a place for religious continuity or Jewish culture? By setting the novel in Israel, Ulitskaya suggests that neither Judaism nor Jewish culture is at risk. Still, it is difficult to read Ulitskaya’s multiple conversion narratives without recalling the many forced baptisms in Russian Jewish history. Some readers are liable to form an opinion of the book before opening it, knowing that Ulitskaya, a Jew by birth, openly professes Orthodox Christianity.

Ulitskaya’s novel might best be understood as an argument in favor of freedom from a religious tradition. She writes in her Afterward, “I hope my work will lead nobody astray but serve only to encourage personal responsibility in matters of life and faith.”

Amelia Glaser is an associate professor of Russian and Comparative Literature at the University of California, San Diego.