Friday, September 14, 2012

The Fugitive

Originally published by Jewish Ideas Daily in May 2010. Revised and expanded.

Popular Jewish fiction in America began to absorb other Jewish literary models at a surprisingly early date. Ezra Brudno’s novel The Fugitive, published in 1904 by Doubleday, Page, is a pioneering American example of what Alan Mintz calls the “novel of apostasy.” A sprawling first-person chronicle written in the style of 19th-century Hebrew fiction and autobiography, it recounts an Eastern European childhood of poverty and persecution, a narrow and harsh early Jewish education, the arrival of sin (represented by sex and Spinoza), and the scrape with modernity that ends in an irreversible loss of faith. Brudno also tosses in a blood libel, the influence of the Jewish Enlightenment [Haskalah] and Zionism, and the first account in English-language fiction of a pogrom.

Ezra Selig Brudno was born in Volozhin, Lithuania—home of the famous yeshivah—in 1877. Descended from a distinguished rabbinical family (his great-grandfather had studied with the Vilna Gaon), he emigrated to the U.S. as a child, attended Yale and Western Reserve Universities, and practiced law in Cleveland where he became an assistant district attorney and was known as a Progressive Republican.

The theme of The Fugitive can be summarized as “Once a Jew, always a Jew.” The protagonist, Israel Abramovitch, becomes an orphan when his father is lynched for the ritual murder of a Christian child and his mother soon dies of grief and exhaustion. After a fire destroys his native shtetl, Israel becomes a wanderer. Beaten unconscious by Lithuanian swineherds, he is taken in and nursed back to health by a Christian magistrate, only to be sent packing upon discovery with the magistrate’s blonde daughter. A brief spell in the yeshivah at Javolin (a phonetic anagram of Volozhin), cut short when “forbidden books,” including Spinoza’s Ethics, are found in his room, leads to his forming the ambition of becoming a doctor. Embarking on his studies in Kiev, he runs into the magistrate’s daughter and undertakes to convert for her sake.

But Israel’s plans are disrupted by the May 1881 pogrom, which destroys the city’s entire Jewish district. Concluding that Russia holds no future for him, he heads West, eventually finding his way to America. Once there he labors in a sweatshop, gets himself arrested as an anarchist, and finally goes to work for a Christian missionary who puts him through medical school in return for literary services. In New York he is again reunited with the magistrate’s daughter and marries her—without benefit of conversion.

Unlike Emma Wolf’s Other Things Being Equal, The Fugitive is not a romance of intermarriage. Rather, Israel and his girl have passed beyond Christian-Jewish enmity into what, in a dream-vision, he has glimpsed as a joint “symbolism of the innocent blood.” Just as the martyred Jesus is “the symbol of His people,” so too are the victims of blood libels and pogroms the symbols of the Jews. For Israel to marry an innocent Christian girl is thus not only to find happiness but to accept his own symbolic status as a Jew.

If a modern reader is unlikely to warm to Brudno’s vision (“Side by side[,] the life of the Crucified and the life of my race among the nations”), the reason may be that the Kiev pogrom is the most powerful scene in the novel. “The street,” writes Brudno, “was filled with gesticulating, brawling peasants, who gave vent to volleys of oaths as only descendants of Tartars know how, and rapaciously attacked Jewish shops and dwellings.” A piano is pushed from a second-story window. On the floor above, a peasant leans out, swinging an infant by its feet and shouting, “Catch it! Catch it!”:

    “Ho! ho! ho! ho!” cheered hundreds from the crowd below. “Throw down the Jewish brat!”
    With the exultation of conquest the screeching babe was flung high in the air, like a ball, and it came down upon the pavement with a splash of blood that bespattered the bystanders.
Two rioters drag an old man by his feet down the road, “the Jew’s white hair sweeping the stones of the pavement and painting their sharp edges red with flowing blood.”

Israel himself is a victim of this pogrom, nearly killed in trying to prevent the rape of a Jewish maiden. Two months later, convalescing in the home of a friend, he hears about Zionism for the first time. His friend explains why he has decided to leave Europe for Palestine:The nations that teach love in the name of the crucified Jew do not practice it. They never practice it. The Crusaders, the auto-da-fé, the Russian knout, the German press—they are all pursuing the same end in the name of Christian brotherhood.And yet, though his “conscience and self-esteem as a Jew” have been “aroused by the recent massacre,” Israel cannot join his friend, turning his face instead to the New World.

In short, Brudno seems to have conceived his book as a piece of propaganda for cultural assimilation. But in undermining its thesis with starkly contrary evidence, as well as in its ease with Jewish religion, Jewish sources, and Jewish idiom, the novel’s effect outruns its conception and establishes its lasting importance as a precursor to such better known (and more accomplished) works as The Rise of David Levinsky and Call It Sleep. Not incidentally, The Fugitive also serves as a useful reminder of a perennially relevant fact: Jews in the United States have never been terrorized by blood libel or pogrom.