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The Orientalist

Solving The Mystery Of A Strange And Dangerous Life

by Tom Reiss

Hardcover, 433 pages, Random House Inc, List Price: $25.95 |


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Tom Reiss

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Book Summary

Describes the complex life of Jewish writer Lev Nussimbaum, detailing his birth into a wealthy Jewish family, his transformation into a Muslim prince, his success as an author in Nazi Germany, and his premature death.

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Excerpt: The Orientalist

The Orientalist

Random House

Copyright (C) 2005 by Tom Reiss
All right reserved.

ISBN: 1400062659

Chapter One


Chapter 1


Lev Nussimbaum was born in October 1905, the moment when the tolerant, haute capitaliste culture of Baku began to fall apart. On October 17, Czar Nicholas II promised his people a constitution, a false promise designed to short-circuit a growing call for revolution, and across the country rioting, looting, and murder were the order of the day. In Baku, the Cossacks rode through the streets attacking citizens, ostensibly to restore order, while Azeris and Armenians turned their cosmopolitan city into a medieval war zone. Elegant villas were besieged if their occupants were of an ethnic or religious group that inflamed a particular mob.

Like many writers born in the last years of a dying empire, Lev would idealize the world that finally collapsed just after his fifteenth birthday, its inhabitants running for their lives, leaving dinner on the table. Lev looked back on Baku as a place whose benevolence stemmed from the antiquity and relative weakness of the authority that ruled it. He would spend his life opposing the revolutionaries who swept away the complex web of the old religions and empires and replaced it with their new, totalizing creeds. For Lev, the forces of revolutionary political change would always be remembered as “a raging madness into which the city fell, the grimaces the people suddenly wore instead of faces. Everything infernal, everything animal, everything dull-witted that human nature is capable of stood written in these grimaces. It was as though the movable features of the face, once forcibly subdued, had now likewise attained their true freedom and now were clothed only by dull-witted, animal, “free” expressions. . . . Bolshevism began with the transformation of the human face into a grimace.

The city of Baku has no record of the birth of Lev Nussimbaum in its files. Nor, for that matter, do the cities of Tiflis, Kiev, Odessa, or Zurich. Lev suggested in one of the many accounts he published of his early life, this one in a Berlin newspaper in 1931, that he was actually born noplace:

Born in . . . ? Already here the problematic nature of my existence begins. Most people can name a house or at least a place where they were born. To this place, or to this house, one makes pilgrimages in one’s later years in order to indulge in sentimental reminiscences. In order to indulge in such reminiscences I would have to make a pilgrimage to the carriage of an express train. I was born during the first Russian railroad strike in the middle of the Russian steppes between Europe and Asia, when my mother was returning from Zurich, the seat of the Russian revolutionaries, to Baku, the seat of our family. On the day of my birth, the czar proclaimed his manifesto in which he granted the Russians a political constitution. On the day of my arrival in Baku the city was engulfed in the flames of Revolution, and the slaughtering of the mob. I myself had to be brought to my father in a water trough, whereupon my father wanted to throw me out together with my nursemaid. So began my existence. Father: an industrial magnate in the oil industry; mother: a radical revolutionary.

In this version of his birth story, Lev is in every way smack in the middle of the historic upheaval that formed his life, and in his many accounts of his family and origins, he would never deviate from these basic facts.*

And as absurd as it sounds, the story may actually be true. Some of it is echoed by other independent sources, including Lev’s German governess, Alice Schulte. Frau Schulte composed her memories of Lev in a neat, careful hand in the 1940s, in the convent in northern Italy where she went to live after watching the boy she had followed around her entire life become a hunted man. She seemed to feel an obligation to put the facts of his confusing life in some order, but the document is frustratingly brief, and as Frau Schulte was buried in a pauper’s grave near the convent in 1958, she cannot elaborate on it.

Lev’s first book, Blood and Oil in the Orient, lays out the founding myths he would return to—the personal history linking him to the history of the Caucasus. Lev introduces his father, Abraham, promenading in front of the local prison, “an oriental sheepskin cap on his head and in his hand a rosary of amber, without which no one can get along in Baku.” His father’s sun-darkened features, which Lev elsewhere attributed to an evenly mixed racial heritage of Turkic and Persian aristocracy, betrayed “the facial expression, imperturbable, weary, and yet eager for activity, of an Oriental who has transferred the old traditions of command to the social life of the young oil-city.” In this account, his father buys his mother (“a very young girl with dark eyes . . . a member of the Bolshevist party of Russia”) out of the imperial prison, where she is awaiting deportation as a political agitator, then promptly marries her and brings her into his harem. Lev’s mother, in turn, takes over the house and dispatches the harem.

The idea that Abraham Nussimbaum was a Muslim aristocrat of Persian and Turkic heritage—or anything other than a Jew of European background—was a deliberate part of Lev’s self-creation. The elder Nussimbaum was, in fact, born in Tiflis, now Tbilisi, the official capital of the Russian-administered Caucasus, on August 24, 1875. (His birth certificate does exist.) He was an Ashkenazic Jew whose parents had come to the Caucasus from Kiev or Odessa, the great Jewish centers within the Pale of Settlement, outside of which Russia’s Jews were not allowed to travel or work (although many bribed their way out to other parts of the empire). The Pale consisted of areas that had fallen under the waning Polish
Commonwealth—primarily Belorussia, Lithuania, and western Ukraine—until they were forcibly annexed by Catherine the Great in 1772, 1793, and 1795.* Along with millions of Orthodox and Catholic Slavs, nearly half a million Jews now became subjects of the expanded Russian Empire. Until the absorption of the Polish territories, the Russian Empire had had practically no Jews, and it was uniquely ill-equipped to handle this new addition to its ethnic and religious mix. The official Russian solution to the Jewish question became to restrict all Jews to the same Polish provinces where Catherine the Great had acquired them—the so-called Pale. Effectively, this created the largest ghetto in history, a vast geographic prison for the new “Russian” Jews. The territories that comprised the Pale were provincial, anti-Semitic, and prone to food shortages and other economic crises.

Russia was already a land of such wild religious fervor that even its Orthodox rulers were considered heretics by a large percentage of its people: the “Old Believers”—the millions of apocalyptic fundamentalists who objected to the minor changes in Russian church ritual made in the seventeenth century to bring it closer in line with standard Greek Orthodox practice. The Old Believers were so upset that the changes could complicate their eternal salvation that they staged vast rebellions against the czar’s “legions of the Antichrist” and burned themselves alive by the thousands in protest (though there were still an estimated 13 million of them when Lev was born).

Still others became “Judaizers,” Christians who decided to renounce Christ, follow only the Old Testament, and keep the Sabbath on Saturday, along with sundry other Jewish customs, while not considering themselves Jews. Aided by the more mainstream Trans-Volga Hermits, the Judaizers brought Russian Orthodoxy as close as it ever came to a reformation—and caused a reaction that barred real Jews from Russia for the next three hundred years. When Czar Ivan III took a liking to the Judaizers, they were invited to Moscow, where they managed to convert so much of the court nobility in the last decades of the fifteenth century that traditionalists felt the need to counter the trend through selective burnings at the stake. The Orthodox clergy also prevailed upon the czars to ban the Jews, who were thought to have started the whole “Judaizing” heresy; the ban took effect in the mid-1500s, which is why the empire had such a peculiar absence of Jews when it acquired the Pale in the late 1700s. Like Freemasonry—with which it was closely associated, especially after Russian Masons adopted the Kabbalah and began electing “Cohens” to their temples—Judaism was simply considered too explosive and contagious a faith to be allowed inside Russia.

Russia’s ongoing religious crises added urgency to the official desire to convert its vast new Jewish population. In 1817, Czar Alexander I personally founded the Society of Israelite Christians but had less luck defeating Judaism than he’d had defeating Napoleon; gentile serfs and merchants in areas bordering the Pale even showed disturbing new signs of “Judaizing.” Religion was still so anarchic and volatile a force in Russia that when Czar Alexander died in 1825, while visiting the Black Sea, many Russians insisted that he had not really died but had secretly become a wandering “fool-in-Christ” traveling the country under the name Fedor Kuzmich. The nineteenth century was filled with schemes, hatched by both the czar and his revolutionary opponents, for dealing with the “alien” element, the Jews. The schemes grew more violent during the course of the century. In the 1820s, Count Pestel, a freethinking noble, suggested giving the Jews an independent state in Asia Minor and deporting them there en masse. But by the end of the century, Constantine Pobedonostsev, chief adviser of the last two czars, was suggesting that Russia’s “Jewish problem” should be solved by thirds: a third should emigrate, a third should embrace Christianity, and a third should die of starvation. The Okhrana, the czarist police, forged a document that became known as The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a supposed plan for the Jewish takeover of everything through the promotion of global revolution. During the aborted revolution of 1905, pogroms swept Russia that shocked the world.

In this vast anti-Semitic empire, the Caucasus was a rare oasis. Here, the Jews were merely a minority among minorities, and an ancient and rather admired one at that. Jews had fled here from the destruction of the Second Temple, in a.d. 70, and Azerbaijan had absorbed remnants of the Babylonian exile, who fled to the highlands north of Baku during the Islamic conquest of Persia. Even the Judaizers, Russia’s non-Jewish Jews, found sanctuary here and settled the jungle lands on the Iranian-Azeri border. In the eyes of the Muslim khans who ruled much of the Caucasus, the Jews’ position as People of the Book raised them a notch above the Zoroastrians and the various pagan sects.

Ashkenazic Jews from the Pale clandestinely left for the Caucasus—a few days’ journey across the Black Sea—throughout the nineteenth century. The pace picked up once the oil boom got started in earnest after 1870. It is likely that Lev’s grandfather migrated from the Pale to Tiflis in the 1850s or ’60s, and that his father left Tiflis for Baku in the early 1890s. Lev never revealed anything about this part of his past, but Abraham Nussimbaum may have regarded Baku much as did his contemporary Ossip Benenson, another Ashkenazic Jew who got rich there on oil. Benenson’s daughter Flora recalled that shortly after his marriage in the 1880s, her father broke away from his family in the Pale because “he had his sights on faraway Caucasus, a realm which in the nineteenth century formed part of every young Russian’s romantic dreams . . . [but he] was no ro- mantic; it was the gambler in his strain that sent him so remote from his roots.”

Flora Benenson grew up in the same social milieu as Lev. As fellow millionaires in a city with a small Jewish population, the Benensons and the Nussimbaums probably knew each other. Abraham Nussimbaum grew rich as the so-called oil commissioner of Baku, a kind of legal middleman who also owned wells, but Baku oil made the Benensons one of the richest families in Russia. In 1912 it allowed them to buy a mansion in St. Petersburg within sight of the czar’s palace. Flora’s recollections of her family’s first Passover celebration in St. Petersburg, however, contrast starkly with the interethnic Christmas party young Lev would attend later that year. She recalled that on the evening of their seder, “just as all was ready, our butler led a delegation of servants to Mother’s boudoir. They had done all their work, he said, and were now leaving the house. ‘We cannot serve a meal while you consume the blood of a Christian child,’ the butler informed Mother. ‘We shall return tomorrow.’ ” This was the difference between the other cities of the Russian Empire and Baku. Pale or no Pale, with enough money, a Jew could live wherever he chose in the czar’s empire. Only in the Caucasus could he forget the stigma of being a Jew, and the most cosmopolitan and tolerant place in the Caucasus was Azerbaijan’s capital, Baku.

The Persian word for fire is azer, and since ancient times Azerbaijan’s abundance of oil and natural gas, which led whole hillsides to naturally explode into flame, made it the center of Zoroastrianism, Persia’s ancient pre-Muslim religion. Every religion known to man has found haven in the region. While Rome was still killing Christians, two kingdoms on Azerbaijan’s borders, Armenia and Georgia, became among the first countries to officially convert to Christianity. When the Muslim armies swept out of Arabia in the eighth century, some of the fiercely independent Christians, Zoroastrians, and pagans of Azerbaijan adopted Muhammad’s faith, but many did not. Islam merely joined the babel of religions in the area. When the crusader knights were driven out of Palestine three centuries later, they found a new home in the hills of Azerbaijan, where they established kingdoms that still existed and shocked anthropologists in the early twentieth century. Eventually, as its culture developed alongside that of Persia, Azerbaijan became the only Muslim country besides Iran to be officially Shiite—revering a line of saintly martyrs stretching back to Ali, the Prophet’s nephew and son-in-law. The Azeri khans frequently seized the throne of Persia itself; from the sixteenth century on, the great Persian dynasties were ruled by ethnic Azeris.

Russian influence swept into the region in the early nineteenth century, as the czar’s armies conquered the Caucasus, and the Azeris broke with conservative Shiites of Iran and became “Europeans.&