Years ago, the latter seemed much on point: our participants, though Jewish to their cores, were women and lesbians, outsiders identifying with other outsiders. Today, in the ascendancy of Trumpian blood and soil anti-Semitism, the former understanding seems immediate as well.
This year we were asked to volunteer the name of a Jewish woman who "participated in the rebirth of her people." I hesitated to join in this exercise. This is not my show ...
Nadezhda Yakovlevna Mandelstam was born into a middle class Jewish family in southern Russia in 1899. Her family sought to rise in their world, moving to Kiev (now Ukraine) and converting to Christianity. In Kiev, the young Nadezhda met the prominent poet Osip Emilyevich Mandelstam, who also came from attenuated Jewish roots. They married and moved to Russia proper. They supported the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, but quite quickly came to realize that it was delivering a vicious dictatorship, not the renewed society which they had sought. Osip wrote a satirical poem condemning Stalin's totalitarian state and was henceforth marked for literal erasure. It certainly didn't help them that to Russians, conversion be damned, their Jewish ancestry marked them as outsiders.
Hope against Hope is Nadezhda's memoir of the couple's years spent watching an inescapable fate chasing them. The poet was arrested twice; the second time in 1938, he died as so many of Stalin's victims -- those who escaped a bullet to the back of the neck -- did: of disease, hunger and cold in a camp in the frozen hinterland.
Nadezhda memorized all Osip's poetry, not daring to commit it to paper, and spent decades scraping by in Russia's eastern towns, sometimes only a step ahead of eager functionaries who sought a scalp from denouncing her. She was only able to return to civilization -- to Moscow -- in 1964. And there she wrote Hope Against Hope. The title is a pun; Nadezhda means "hope."
Her story is a rising crescendo of horrors, made the more powerful by matter of fact, seeming simple, narration.
On what they lost and learned amidst Revolution and terror:
She reflects on how the people of her privileged intellectual circle came to wish for something better than czarist Russia -- and found themselves flotsam in the aftermath of war and chaos.
On her long-delayed return to the Russian capital in the 1960s, this survivor of terror encounter a surprise.
This is not a hope-filled book. It's a barely-alloyed encounter with personal and social despair. It can only serve to express hope, if one believes, as Nadezhda seems to, that an unflinching, truthful, encounter with reality is the sole route forward. From that stand point, counter-intuitively, I found this volume a source of hope in a bad moment.