Brother Daniel, Sister Ulitskaya
When I was a freshman in high school, a very friendly girl asked me to join her philosophy club. "We're going to talk about ideas, about life, and God, and ethics," she said. "And Stan will be there." Poor Stan was the object of my adolescent yearning, which mostly manifested itself in attempts to lend him books. An interesting conversation, an interesting boy—I went to the girl's house. "Oh," I realized, thirty-eight minutes and myriad invitations to picnics and pastor rap sessions later, "they want me to join their church." Reading Ludmila Ulitskaya's new novel, Daniel Stein, Interpreter, reminded me of that night.
The novel, which won Russia's highest literary prize and comes to the US in an elegant translation by Arch Tait, is based upon some of the events in the life of Daniel (Oswald) Rufeisen. That life is certainly a fascinating one, filled with narrow escapes and stunning reversals. Born into a Polish Jewish family, Daniel Rufeisen was able to pass himself off as a Gentile when the Germans invaded. Escaping to Mir, in Belorussia, he found work translating between the Gestapo and the local police. When he overheard plans for a mass killing, he helped 300 Jews flee the Mir ghetto. In the wake of this "treason," Rufeisen hid in a convent, where he converted to Catholicism.
After the war, he was eventually able to immigrate to Israel, where he sought admittance as a Jew under the Law of Return. In one of the most famous cases that has ever come before the Israeli Supreme Court, the judges decided that his conversion had obviated his status as a Jew under Israeli law, even if Jewish law held otherwise. Rufeisen nevertheless remained in Israel and eventually became a citizen through the ordinary naturalization process. He lived as a monk and founded a "Jewish Christian" church. It is on this later, calmer portion of his life that Ulitskaya's novel focuses.