1. “‘What’s in the world,’ Shmuel said, ‘is in the shtetl—people, their trials, worries, circumstances. But here at least God is with us.’”
Shmuel is trying to convince Yakov not to forsake God and not to leave the security of the Jewish shtetl or village to which he belongs. His argument is that, as a Jew, Yakov will not find a better world outside the Pale (Jewish zone) in Russia. Because he is Jewish, he will still experience the same trials he has in the shtetl, and maybe even more trials. All of the suffering of the Jews is worth it, he seems to be saying, if they have God.
2. “‘The weight of evidence is against you.’”
“‘Then maybe the evidence is wrong, your honor?’”
“‘Evidence is evidence, it can’t be wrong.’”
In this exchange, Prosecuting Attorney Grubeshov tells Yakov that there is a great deal of evidence that he committed the murder of Zhenia Golov. Yakov, however, knows he is innocent and suggests that the evidence is false. Grubeshov replies that evidence is by nature not false. Beneath his words is another meaning: “Evidence against a Jew can’t be wrong because all Jews are evil.”
3. “‘A Jew is a Jew, and that’s all there is to it. Their history and character are unchangeable. Their nature is constant. This has been proved in scientific studies by Gobineau, Chamberlain, and others. We here in Russia are presently preparing one on Jewish facial characteristics. Our peasants have a saying that a man who steals wears a hat that burns. With a Jew it is the nose that burns and reveals the criminal he is.’”
Grubeshov’s words reveal deep Russian anti-Semitism. The Russians are willing to go to any length, including finding experts who will manufacture scholarly proof that Jews are inherently evil. Such a misapplication of science and logic is chilling to Yakov. What chance does he have against such people?
4. “One dark night a thick black web had fallen on him because he was standing under it, and though he ran in every direction he could not extricate himself from its sticky coils. Who was the spider if it remained invisible? . . . Yet he knew there was something from the outside, a quality of fate that had stalked him all his life and threatened, if he wasn’t careful, his early extinction.”
Yakov cannot understand why he, of all people, should be imprisoned and mistreated for a crime he did not commit. He tries to find a reason this has happened to him. He feels like prey in a spider’s web, yet he cannot determine whom to blame. All his life, he has been struggling against an unseen force that seems bent on keeping him down. Is the force God, or Fate, or is it Yakov himself, destined to make bad choices?
5. “He [Spinoza] had died young, poor and persecuted, yet one of the freest of men. He was free in his thoughts, his understanding of Necessity, and in the construction of his philosophy. The fixer’s thoughts added nothing to his freedom; it was nil. He was imprisoned in a cell, and even in memory, because so much that had happened to him during a life that had perhaps, at times, seemed free, now seemed designed to lead to this imprisonment. Necessity freed Spinoza and imprisoned Yakov. Spinoza thought himself into the universe but Yakov’s poor thoughts were inclosed [sic] in a cell.”
When he left the shtetl, Yakov firmly believed that he had the power to make himself better through study and hard work. He read the philosophies of Spinoza and was inspired by them, hoping to use them to come to his own free thinking. These thoughts, this wish to be free, only served to lead to Yakov’s imprisonment. If he had not sought freedom, he would not have been in Kiev, and he would not have been the Jew chosen as a scapegoat for all Jews. Yakov sees his life as a chain of events leading to misfortune; he is no philosopher, like Spinoza, and cannot rationalize what has happened to him as some sort of internal freedom. He is in jail, both in his thoughts and in his body.
6. “So he suffers without either the intellectual idea of God, or the God of the covenant; he had broken the phylactery. Nobody suffers for him and he suffers for no one but himself.”
Yakov has compared the Jewish God to the intellectual concept of God put forth by Spinoza, and he has found that neither seems realistic or comforting. Neither God, Yakov believes, will save him. He begins to believe, therefore, that no God exists. Yakov is at the mercy of men.
7. “Then he thinks in the dark, how can I die for him if I take my life? If I die I die to fuck them and end my suffering. As for Shmuel, he’s already out in the cold. He may even die for my death if they work up a pogrom in celebration of it. If so what do I get by dying, outside of release from pain? What have I earned if a single Jew dies because I did? Suffering I can gladly live without, I hate the taste of it, but if I must suffer let it be for something. Let it be for Shmuel.”
Yakov has a moment of clarity in which he sees that his suicide will do nothing but release him from his misery—it will otherwise be useless. Up to now, Yakov has thought only of himself and the injustice done to him. Now, he begins to think of others. In Shmuel he sees the whole of the Jewish people, and he sees that he, Yakov, has some power. All along he has felt powerless, but by keeping alive he has the power to possibly save other Jews. Suddenly, his suffering has a purpose.
8. “‘Where you came from nobody knew, or who you were, but you came just in time. I understand you came on a horse. When they saw you they pounced, and that’s why we’re sitting here now. But don’t feel too bad, if it weren’t you there’d be another in your place.’”
Yakov’s first lawyer, Julius Ostrovsky, explains to him that the Russians are out to get the Jews, and Yakov just happened to have been the unlucky Jew they pounced upon and charged with murder. If Yakov had not been in the wrong place at the wrong time, then another Jew would have been.
9. “Yet though his young mother and father had remained all their poor lives in the shtetl, the historical evil had galloped into murder them there. So the ‘open,’ he thought, was anywhere. In or out, it was history that counted—the world’s bad memory. It remembered the wrong things. So for a Jew it was the same wherever he went, he carried a remembered pack on his back—a condition of servitude, diminished opportunity, vulnerability. No, there was no need to go to Kiev, or Moscow, or any place else. You could stay in the shtetl and trade in air or beans, dance at weddings and funerals, spend your life in the synagogue, die in bed and pretend you had died in peace, but a Jew wasn’t free. Because the government destroyed his freedom by reducing his worth. Therefore wherever he was or went and whatever happened was perilous. A door swung open at his approach. A hand reached forth and plucked him by his Jewish beard—Yakov Bok, a freethinking Jew in a brick factory in Kiev, yet any Jew, any plausible Jew—to be the Tsar’s adversary and victim. . . .Why? because no Jew was innocent in a corrupt state, the most visible sign of its corruption its fear and hatred of those it persecuted.”
After Ostrovsky’s visit, Yakov contemplates his situation. The truth of the matter is that “no Jew is innocent in a corrupt state,” and therefore Yakov will always be guilty in the eyes of the Russian state because he is Jewish. In the shtetl, the Jews are imprisoned by poverty and discrimination against them. Outside the shtetl, they are still imprisoned by poverty and discrimination.
10. “One thing I’ve learned, he thought, there’s no such thing as an unpolitical man, especially a Jew. You can’t be one without the other, that’s clear enough. You can’t sit still and see yourself destroyed.”
As Yakov’s carriage takes him closer to the courthouse and his trial, he thinks about how he came to Kiev believing he could act independently of his heritage and make his way through hard work and study. He wanted to be a freethinker, not a Jew or a Christian or a Revolutionary or any other political identity. However, Yakov was naïve. He has discovered that nowhere in Russia is one truly untouched by politics of one sort or another. And if one is a Jew, his politics are a given: he is Jewish and will be treated as such, no matter how strongly he adheres to his faith.