The Jewish Century
Yuri Slezkine, 2004

I audited Yuri Slezkine's class on the history of the USSR last spring. I hadn't really planned to — I'd lined up classes to try out on the first day of the semester that lasted from 12:30 to 6:30 pm, and at the last minute threw this 11 am class onto the list. Then it turned out to be the best one so I wound up having to wake up early twice a week. Serves me right, I guess.

The class was good enough that when I saw that Slezkine had written a book that was intended at least in part for general audiences, I thought I'd give it a try. It turns out to be one of those books, like Generations by Neil Howe and William Strauss, that attempts to set forth a simple framework for understanding a major aspect of history. In this case, the argument is as follows: People spend way too much time talking about the distinction between the Apollonian and Dionysian aspects of humanity, when the Dionysian is simply an Apollonian on a holiday. Instead, we should talk about the distinction between the Apollonian and the Mercurian. Apollo was god of both livestock and agriculture, so herding and farming both fall into the Apollonian sphere — and historically, the overwhelming majority of civilized people have been herders or farmers. When Thomas Jefferson envisioned America as a country made up almost entirely of small farms, it didn't really take a lot of imagination because that had been pretty much the entire world up to that point. And there were basically only three other occupations that society considered respectable: aristocrat, priest, and soldier. These Slezkine considers Apollonian as well.

All other occupations — doctor, lawyer, scholar, and especially merchant — were considered unfit for respectable people and were largely left to outsiders. In Southeast Asia these outsiders were the Chinese; in East Africa, the Indians; in Latin America, the Lebanese. In Europe, there were three main groups who filled this niche. One of these specialized in "pariah entrepreneurship" — jewelry-making, fortune-telling, street theater, begging, theft — and consequently became Europe's untouchables, the lowest of the low: these were the Gypsies. The other two were highly educated (indeed, almost universally literate) and became the richest people in Europe even as they were forced to accept second-class social status. These were the Armenians and, more visibly, the Jews.

Having established the idea of "Mercurian" groups living on the edges of "Apollonian" societies, Slezkine moves on to the next phase of his argument, contending that the modern "service economy" is almost entirely Mercurian in nature. To put my own spin on it: my day job is teaching standardized test prep, and on the grad side, the four big tests are the MCAT, the LSAT, the GRE, and the GMAT. These tests open the door to a career in medicine, law, academia, and business, respectively. And people sign up for these classes because these Mercurian fields are the elite occupations of the modern industrialized world. Even if you're not elite, you're part of a Mercurian system. Three hundred years ago, being part of the "working class" meant you were a peasant: you scrabbled around in the dirt trying to make stuff grow, like hundreds of generations of Apollonians before you. A hundred years ago, peasants had become proles, and you worked in a factory or a mill, the industrial age equivalent of Apollonian work. But now? Now you work in a store. You poke at a cash register at Wal-Mart, or pass meat and bread products through a window at Burger King. If you're upper working class — what the Bolsheviks would have called a kulak — maybe you get to work in an office as a receptionist or something. In any case, you're doing work that until relatively recently would have been done by Jews. Modernity, Slezkine contends, means everyone becoming Jewish.

This meant more than merely adopting Mercurian trades. I remember that when I was a small child I told some elderly relatives that I had learned some Spanish — counting to ten, I think it was — and one of them asked, "Do you speak any English?" and I said no because I had never heard of "English" before and they all had a chuckle. In pre-modern Europe, though, my response would have been typical of most adults. They didn't know what language they spoke, because nearly everyone they knew spoke the same way; like Jim in Huckleberry Finn, they figured they just "talked like men." They didn't imagine themselves as belonging to a particular nation — they knew they were subjects of this or that local lord, and perhaps of some distant king, but their ideological allegiance, if any, was to Christendom. For centuries, the only people most Europeans knew who identified as members of a distinct tribe, with its own customs, its own religion, and its own language, were Jews. But time went on, and gradually they all started doing it. And in identifying as French, or Russian, or German — in accepting that they were members of a nation with distinct national practices — they all became Jewish.

Which meant that Jews were no longer useful if despised outsiders: as the former Apollonians entered the Mercurian sphere, the Jews who dominated that sphere became competitors and anti-Semitism took a more vicious turn. Meanwhile, the Jews hardly remained unchanged themselves. Part of what makes a Mercurian a Mercurian is flexibility, and many Jews turned against their parents' ways. They embraced their local national cultures, and being more educated, were better equipped to appreciate new national icons like Goethe and Pushkin than ethnic Germans and ethnic Russians were. But many soon found that assimilation was a dead end and elected to leave. And the vast majority of those who left went one of three places. The most conventional of the emigres, those who wanted to continue playing the Mercurian role but this time in a society that wasn't founded as the homeland of a particular ethnicity, went to the United States. There they became massively successful, overrepresented by several orders of magnitude at the highest levels in the worlds of finance, medicine, scholarship, the arts, law, and politics. Others decided to try to buck the tide of history and become Apollonians. They would return to their ancient homeland and start up farms. This relatively small migration was the seed that eventually grew into the state of Israel.

But many Jews at the beginning of the 20th century wanted to explode the Apollonian/Mercurian system entirely. They didn't want to belong to the outsider tribe or the dominant tribe; they wanted all tribes to become one. They didn't want to fill the interstices of a society based on a pyramid of exploitation or recreate such a pyramid in some distant land; they wanted to remake the world into a utopia where everyone pitched in to do the work that was needed and shared in the reward. They became communists, engaging in a third great migration, this one from the Pale of Settlement into Moscow and the other large cities of the future USSR. True, most Jews were not communists, and most communists were not Jews — but Jews were greatly overrepresented among the Bolsheviks, and Slezkine argues that the huge role played by Jews in founding the Soviet Union, and the way the Soviet government turned on them under Stalin, is one of the key threads in the story of the Jewish Century, one that is often overlooked.

So he spends the last three quarters of his book laying it out, which I guess is what you'd expect given that he specializes in Soviet history. One of the interesting things about Slezkine's tests (which I didn't take, but which I went to the review sessions for) was that there was always an essay in which he would describe someone demographically and assign the test taker to write that person's biography. ("It is 1938 and you are a 46-year-old Ukrainian woman living in Kiev. Write the story of your life.") This is basically what Slezkine does in the second half of the book, as he uses the daughters of Tevye the Milkman to represent each of the different paths out of the shtetl. So if you want to learn about modern Jewish history, you may want to read this book. But if you've been searching for Fiddler on the Roof fanfic, well, your prayers have been answered.

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