Daniel Stein, Interpreter

Daniel Stein, Interpreter

Ludmilla Ulitskaya, Translated by Arch Tait, Scribe

Here’s a novel to whet your theological appetite. Why?

Varieties of religious experience is the book’s theme.

Daniel Stein, the book’s hero, is a Polish Jew who survives the horrors of Nazism and converts to Catholicism after the war. During the war he managed to hide his origins and work as an interpreter — risking his own life but saving many others. He founds a Christian community in Palestine-Israel where he works to build a bridge between Jews and Christians. But his identity raises questions — his own and others. As Ruth Wajnryb’s review pointed out, Daniel says he’s ethnically Jewish, religiously Christian and that his nationality is Jewish. Orthodox Jews don’t accept him as a Jew, the Catholic hierarchy questions his priestliness and the Israelis are reluctant to grant nationality to a Catholic priest claiming to be Jewish.

Daniel Stein is based on the story of Oswald Rufeisen.

The plot is based on the story of Oswald Rufeisen a real person admired by the book’s Russian author, Ludmilla Ulitskaya. Through a collage of real and fictional letters, recollections, requests, newspaper articles and other documents including her own interjections she tells his remarkable story. The book highlights what it means for so many hundreds and thousands of people to be killed, stripped of identity, lose family and friends and to be displaced so violently by war. It also vividly shows why someone like Oswald Rufeisen might devote his life to fostering reconciliation and unity and communicating to break down barriers.

Most of the book’s characters are in interesting places spiritually/religiously.

Ulitskaya is a Jewish convert to Christianity. She’s created characters who seek spirituality in old rituals and through new questioning. Some are at a crossroad. A Soviet Communist converts later in life to Anglicanism. A former nun can’t find a home in either the Catholic or Orthodox churches. An Arab Christian from a family of Muslims in Israel falls in love with a German girl …

Detractors of the book say: It contains anti-Semitic sentiments; it’s a “black hole of atheism”, it’s too critical of Israel.

Are these detractors right? The book’s also been acclaimed as a literary masterpiece. It won the Russian National Literary Prize and the Simone de Beauvoir Prize (a prize which recognises the exceptional work and actions of women and men who, in the spirit of this feminist icon, contribute to the freedom of women throughout the world). Admittedly, The Interpreter is not always easy to follow because there are so many characters and the time frames jump around a lot. Nonetheless, it puts faces to tensions between followers of different religions and reveals how complex interfaith interactions can be.

Read the book to see whether you agree with its detractors or not.

More importantly, read the book to get an insight into why war doesn’t end with armistice, how its effects reverberate down the decades, and therefore how important it is for us to work for peace.

Marjorie Lewis-Jones



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