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Natan Sharansky, The Novel

Natan Sharansky, The Novel

Set in Israel and the Crimea, David Bezmozgis’ new novel looks at some of the choices (moral and otherwise) faced by Soviet Jews.

Sandee is the arts and culture editor at the Jewish Week.

Leaving Israel recently on a late-night flight, the lines through security were crowded with Russians — relatives of Israelis, nuns on religious pilgrimages (who are also relatives of Israelis) and tourists with bulging shopping bags. I remembered their faces as I read David Bezmozgis’ brilliant new novel “Betrayal” (Little, Brown), which chronicles a very quick trip out of Israel to the faded resort of Yalta in the Crimea.

Near the end of the very long day over which the novel is set, Baruch Kotler, former dissident turned Israeli politician who is now disgraced, is sitting in an Internet café in Yalta. He observes the unsmiling vacationers dragging their suitcases, and then leaps to thoughts about the end of the long chain of Crimean Jewry, as he has earlier encountered the man who is probably Yalta’s last Jew.

“A chain that stretched back more than a thousand years to the Khazars, the last Jewish warriors and emperors, if legend was to be believed. The Khazars, the Krymchaks, the Karaites. And, in the past century, the doomed farming colonists and Yiddish poets who had imagined a homeland in Crimea, a New Jerusalem to supplant the Old. Now it was coming to a close, like all Jewish stories came to a close, with suitcases.”

As the novel opens, Baruch arrives in Yalta — where as a 10-year-old he once spent an idyllic month with his parents — along with his young mistress, escaping the publicity surrounding their affair that is all over the front pages of Israeli newspapers. They arrive undercover, he with a large white hat and dark sunglasses, introducing themselves with their former Russian names, omitting their last names. For the first time since leaving prison he presents himself as Boris Solomonovich; she is Leora Isaacovna, for the first time since her days in a Moscow kindergarten.

The 63-year-old Baruch could have avoided the humiliation by agreeing to a clandestine offer by one of the Israeli prime minister’s handlers to change his opposing position on a controversial bill to unilaterally withdraw from the settlements. He would not, and photos were released to the press. Through an unpredictable series of events in Yalta, he meets up with Chaim Tankilevitch, his former friend whose betrayal sent him to the Gulag.

It took a couple of brief chapters into the novel to begin thinking that Kotler resembled Natan Sharansky, the world’s best-known former dissident who spent more than a decade in a Soviet prison on false espionage charges before moving to Israel, where his wife had been leading an international campaign for his release. Like Kotler, Sharansky also entered Israeli politics, although he left and now serves at the Jewish Agency, as chairman of the executive.

Bezmozgis, a writer and filmmaker who is the author of the story collection “Natasha” and novel “The Free World,” has said that Sharansky is his closest model for Kotler, and that Tankilevich is modeled on Sanya Lipavsky, the person who denounced Sharansky, and about whom little is known. He wondered what happened to Lipavsky, and about the differences between these two men and how their lives turned out.

Bezmozgis isn’t poking fun at Sharansky, but rather imagining an episode in the life of someone with the background and principled stance of the dissident leader, and imbuing him with Sharansky’s charisma, posture and wry, subversive humor. Baruch’s manner is characterized by “joviality in the face of adversity, that was the secret of his success.” And, he realizes, it was also his undoing.

The novel unfolds from several points of view; the reader comes to understand Baruch and Leora, as well as the long-suffering Tankilevitch and his gentile wife Svetlana. Over the course of the day, Baruch speaks with family members in Israel, his independent-minded teenage daughter who takes after him, his son serving in the Israeli army and struggling over whether to obey army orders to evacuate the settlements, and his religious-leaning wife, whom he had met in Moscow 40 years earlier in a secret Hebrew class, and who had led the fight for his freedom.

Through language (the dialogue is richly Russian-inflected), a sense of place (creeping along the Yalta countryside on a trolleybus, a relic of the Khrushchev era) and striking details (Bezmozgis can capture much of Russian history in a hotel clerk’s stiff, morose and disdainful expression), the author asserts his talents as a writer. He engages the characters — and readers — in matters of moral principle, sacrifice, loyalty, memory and the possibility of forgiveness.

Baruch says, “This is the primary insight I have gleaned from life: The moral component is no different from the physical component — a man’s soul, a man’s conscience, is like his height or the shape of his nose. We are born with inherent propensities and limits. You can no more be reviled for your character than for your height.”

For Baruch, individuals walk hand in hand with fate. “We choose to follow it or pull against it, depending on our characters. But it is character that decides, and the trouble is, we don’t decide our characters.”

In 13 years in prison, he saw the human character “in its naked form” — at one end a narrow rank of villainy, and at the other end a narrow rank of virtue, with everyone else in the middle. “And I understood that the state of the world is the result of the struggle between these two extremes,” he says.

Bezmozgis was born in Riga, Latvia and moved with his family to Toronto in 1980, when he was 6. Growing up, he was the family’s translator and letter writer. He attended an Orthodox Jewish day school for eight years and then a public high school. After graduating from McGill University in Montreal, he received an MFA in film. He worked in Los Angeles for five years as a documentary filmmaker before moving back to Toronto, where he now lives. The author and screenwriter has been a fellow at the Sundance Labs, where he developed his first feature, “Victoria Day,” and has been a Guggenheim Fellow, a MacDowell Fellow, a Dorothy and Lewis B. Cullman Fellow at the New York Public Library, and a Radcliffe Fellow, and was included in The New Yorker’s “20 Under 40” issue in 2010, recognizing the most promising young fiction writers.

He has said that the goals of this book are both to look at what mark the Soviet Jews will leave on history and to look at their place in the present moment. In fact, “Betrayal” is a culmination of what he began with his two earlier works of fiction: “Natasha,” a more personal story of Soviet Jewish immigration to North America from the point of view of a young person, and then “The Free World,” a broader view of the situation of Soviet Jews over the last century, as they made choices about leaving. “The Betrayers” is set in the present, in Israel, and back in Crimea.

There are no Americans in this novel — they are felt only in the context of their donations to the agencies that support the charitable organizations in places like Simferopol, three hours by trolleybus from Yalta, where the synagogue no longer has enough men for a minyan. And then on Baruch and Leora’s trip back to Israel, on a Ukrainian flight that is “like a little flying shtetl, a Sholom Aleichem story come to life,” there are Jews of every derivation — rival chasids, Hebrew and Russian speakers, intellectuals like themselves “with their grand philosophical visions,” and “the young American Jews, carefree, heedless and a little dim, cushioned from history and entrusted with too much.”