The Travels of Benjamin Zuskin
Ala Zuskin Perelman
Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 2015
The Travels of Benjamin Zuskin, part of the series Judaic Traditions in Literature, Music and Art, is an account of the artistic and personal life of one of the stars of the Moscow State Jewish Theatre. Benjamin Zuskin acted, directed, and eventually became artistic director of the theatre, which existed between 1919 and 1949. Born in 1899, Zuskin was executed in 1952 as a member of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee. His story is told by his daughter, Ala Zuskin Perelman, born out of his second marriage, to actress Eda Berkovskaya. Originally written in Russian (published in 2002), and re-written in Hebrew (published in 2006), Sharon Blass translated the book into English in 2015.
The book is structured as a play: prologue, five acts with interludes, and epilogue. The author narrates her father’s story in her own words, but she also lets the primary sources speak for themselves. The book reproduces letters, excerpts from the court records, an account of Zuskin’s career in the form of a narrative curriculum vitae, and forty photographs. The index makes it easy to retrieve information in the text.
Zuskin’s story is also the story of Jewish theatre in Russia and of one of its most prominent institutions. The Jewish School of Acting, established in Petrograd (Saint Petersburg) in 1918, started to offer public performances in 1919 and moved to Moscow in 1920, where it became the State Jewish Chamber Theatre, GOSEKT (Gosudarstvenny Yevreyski Kamerny Teatr). GOSEKT was the first Jewish theatre in history to be subsidized by the state. In 1925, the word “chamber” was dropped, and GOSEKT changed its name to State Jewish Theatre, GOSET (Gosudarstvenny Yevreyski Teatr). Zuskin auditioned for the acting school in late 1920 and joined the theatre in March 1921. His audition piece later on developed into The Old Tailor, one of Zuskin’s signature performances. Zuskin’s debut took place on September 24, 1921 in the short play It’s a Lie!, part of An Evening of Sholem Aleichem, directed by Alexei Granovsky and designed by Marc Chagall. The following year the already famous Zuskin played the lead role in The Sorceress. Throughout his career, Zuskin worked very closely with actor and director Solomon Mikhoels, who became artistic director of the Theatre in 1929. Zuskin eventually took over the artistic direction of GOSET after Mikhoels was murdered in early 1948; but this role did not last for very long, as Zuskin was arrested at the end of 1948. The artistic and personal relationship between Zuskin and Mikhoels is central to Zuskin’s career and to the book.
The Travels of Benjamin Zuskin gives readers a full account of the life and career of an artist who was instrumental in advancing Jewish theatre and culture, but whose name may be less known to the general public. The author conveys facts in a very engaging manner; readers feel like first-person witnesses to the events described in the book. The book is an excellent source for anyone interested in theatre, Jewish theatre and culture, Russian history, and life in general.
Texas A&M University