Best known as a tough Zionist and founder of the Irgun, a Jewish underground military organization in Palestine, Vladimir Jabotinsky was also a prolific writer whose collected works in Hebrew take up eighteen volumes. Other than The Five: A Novel of Jewish Life in Turn-of-the-Century Odessa he wrote one earlier novel in Russian, translated into English in 1930 as Samson the Nazarite.
The five of the title are the Milgrom children—the oldest daughter, Marusya, loved fruitlessly by the unnamed narrator; the three brothers, Marco, Serezha, and Torik; and the rebellious daughter, Lika. With their parents, Ignats Albertovich and Anna Mikhailovna, they typify the cultured middle-class Jewish life of Odessa at the beginning of the twentieth century.
As the young people grow up, life's vicissitudes overtake them all, and the narrator, a writer, observes these events with dismay. Two of them die, one is blinded by acid thrown in his face, one spends time in Moscow's Lubyanka prison, and one converts to Christianity. The narrator responds to human suffering with the comforting theodicy that life proceeds according to the Lord's plan. As he says, it is “a note in the larger opera.” The narrator has a lawyer friend whose vision is much bleaker. He insists that the “axioms” by which we regulate our lives are mere assertions that crash when challenged.
In the background of this fine story various historical dramas emerge and fade away, including the outbreak of the Russo-Japanese War and the events constituting the Potemkin revolt. Most significantly, the moral climate in Odessa darkens, with anti- Semitism and danger in the streets blurring the narrator's warm memories of his youth.