Underground Man: The Curious Case of Mark Zborowski and the Writing of a Modern Jewish Classic

Jewish Review of Books
Journal Article - Steven Zipperstein

The most influential of all popular renderings of Eastern European Jewry in the English language and, arguably, the book that Jewish historians of the region loathe more than any other, is Life is with People. Few books written in the last half-century have more resolutely enveloped the Eastern European Jewish past in nostalgic amber. It was, to be sure, only one of a cascade of books, some of them translated from Yiddish, that sought to do much the same thing in the midst or the immediate wake of Hitler’s war, among them Maurice Samuel’s The World of Shalom Aleichem, Bella Chagall’s memoir Burning Lights, Abraham Joshua Heschel’s elegy The Earth is the Lord’s, and Roman Vishniac’s book of photographs Polish Jews. But Life is with People was the most ambitious of the lot. Published in 1952, it sought to capture an entire civilization from cradle to grave in 400-odd pages of accessible, even buoyant prose. The world it explored was, it insisted, continuous with—but also distinct from—everything around it, not quite part of Russia or Poland yet inside both, a kind of island of unadulterated Yiddishkayt before it was diluted, then destroyed.