Shtet Lit? Two New Novels Blend Jewish Past and Future in Surreal Ways

‘The Slaughterman’s Daughter’ by Yaniv Iczkovits and ‘The Lost Shtetl’ by Max Gross both brim with humor, even as they suggest that life can be cruel and unforgiving to Jews and antisemites alike

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Shtetl folk in Luboml, then part of Poland in the Russian Empire, today Ukraine, 1917.
Shtetl folk in Luboml, then part of Poland in the Russian Empire, today Ukraine, 1917.Credit: Magister / Wikimedia Commons
David Green
David B. Green

The Slaughterman’s Daughter, by Yaniv Iczkovits (translated from the Hebrew by Orr Scharf). Schocken Books, 528 pages, $29

The Lost Shtetl, by Max Gross. HarperVia Books, 426 pages, $28

A Jewish woman named Fanny Keismann disappears from her shtetl in 1890s Russia, leaving behind her husband and five children and a note telling them only to “take care of yourselves until I return.” It’s a laconic message, to be sure, but it offers more information than her wretched brother-in-law, Zvi-Meir Speismann, did when he abandoned his wife and two children a few months earlier with no warning or explanation. Zvi-Meir’s disappearance made Fanny’s sister Mende an agunah – a “chained” woman – a type of marital purgatory that can only be resolved with a formal writ of divorce from the husband or proof of his death.

Pained by her sister’s situation, Fanny, consulting with no one, decides to set off for Minsk to track down Zvi-Meir and demand that he set Mende free.

Several hundred kilometers to the west, and more than 120 years later, another young woman, Pesha Lindauer, freshly divorced from a husband even less charming than Zvi-Meir, leaves her Polish shtetl – yes, a 21st-century shtetl – presumably for the big city, though she too leaves behind no indication of her plans. Her ex-husband, Ishmael, disappears right after her, so, the Jewish community of Kreskol, fearful that Ishmael may have violent intentions toward Pesha, dispatches a young yeshiva student, Yankel Lewinkopf, to the nearest city to report the two missing people to the authorities. Yankel speaks only a few words of Polish and is surprised when he reaches the city of Smolskie to learn that it has no Jewish quarter and no Yiddish speakers.

Thus begin two new novels, “The Slaughterman’s Daughter” and “The Lost Shtetl,” respectively, both of which imagine what happens when the residents of an insular, Eastern-European Jewish village encounter the gentile environment that surrounds them. In the case of the former, the premise is natural, even if the idea of a woman of that era leaving her family on such a mission is improbable.

But in “The Lost Shtetl,” by American writer Max Gross, we are asked to accept that Yankel is venturing out from a shtetl that has been cut off from the world and modernity for more than a century. The isolation, made possible by Kreskol’s remote location deep inside a forest, was voluntary, and a response, basically, to antisemitism (no surprise there). As a consequence, however, the Germans never occupied Kreskol and the Holocaust passed over the town completely. And their near-total isolation (they are visited several times a year by itinerant Romani traders) has continued down to the present day. Yankel’s pursuit of the missing Pesha and Ishmael will change all that.

“The Slaughterman’s Daughter” is the English-language title of the 2015 Hebrew novel “Tikkun Ahar Hatzot” (“Tikkun After Midnight”), by Israeli Yaniv Iczkovits. Its plot is firmly anchored in 1894 czarist Russia, but it has both a modern-day sensibility and a subtle but ominous atmosphere of foreboding that suggests that, bad as things seem now for the Jews of Eastern Europe, the worst is yet to come.

Israeli novelist Yaniv Iczkovitz, author of "The Slaughterman's daughter," 2015.Credit: Daniel Tchetchik

Handy with a knife

Iczkovits is a 45-year-old former philosophy lecturer (his first book, based on his doctoral thesis, is called “Wittgenstein’s Ethical Thought”) who turned novelist and entrepreneur. He has now written a novel exploding with imagination and talent, and reflecting a familiarity with both the prosaic nitty-gritty that characterized life in the Jewish Pale of Settlement, and the sweeping historical forces that affected it.

In Fanny, Iczkovits has created a modern literary heroine who realizes that she’s different from everyone else, but not that she’s superior. Raised with her sister by their shohet (ritual slaughterer) father, after the early death of their mother, Fanny begged him to teach her his trade. The open-minded Meir-Anschel, after checking with the local rabbi that he wouldn’t be violating Jewish law, acceded to Fanny’s request, and for a brief time she even worked with him in the butcher shop. Fanny became a minor celebrity in her hometown, where she was known, not without affection, as die vilde chaya (the wild beast). Eventually, though, Fanny lost her taste both for slaughtering and for meat in general, and when she married, it was to a gentle if taciturn cheesemaker.

Yet Fanny never lost her ability to wield a shohet’s knife, and for largely sentimental reasons, she keeps hers strapped to her inner thigh. This comes in handy almost immediately after Fanny departs her shtetl, when she and the local ferryman, the silent and morose Zizek, who carries her across the river and decides to join her on her quest, are waylaid by a family of murderous highwaymen. Fanny brandishes her weapon and, with the same speed and efficiency that a shohet employs to kill a cow quickly and painlessly, she kills three of their attackers.

Suddenly, Fanny is not only in pursuit, but also on the run, first from the secret police and later as well from the czarist army. When she slashes the throats of two of the former, the entire empire seems to be chasing her.

Giving the story an additional, though not fully welcome, slapstick layer is the fact that she and Zizek pick up two other fellow travelers along the way. One of them, Shleiml, is a deadbeat, alcoholic “cantor” who makes a meager living by belting out “Adon Olam” and other hymns so off-key that people pay him not to sing. The other is a hard-boiled tavern keeper who, it turns out, was born a Jew and like Zizek (born Yoshke Berkovits) was kidnapped as a boy for impressment into the imperial army and spent the next several decades as a soldier and officer, fighting the czar’s endless wars with the Ottomans. The four become like an involuntary fugitive chain gang, though held together by circumstances, not steel.

Leading the pursuit of the Jews is Col. Piotr Novak, of the Okhrana secret police, who tracks his prey with a sophisticated single-mindedness that sets him apart from the dunderheads surrounding him. In his devotion to fight subversion, Novak has come to understand that revolutions need the participation of the working class, and that the best way to catch them is to foment their revolutionary activity.

A shtetl family in Pinsk, Poland, in the Russian Empire, 1903.Credit: William Evans-Gordan / Jewish Museum, London / Wikimedia Commons

Novak, who is in constant pain because of a war wound to a leg suffered decades earlier during the Russo-Turkish War, realizes early on that Fanny is not a typical adversary, nor does she fit his usual image of Jews, whom he hates as much as the next goy. Thus, even as he attempts to bring her to justice, he finds himself drawn to her, thinking to himself at one point, “The woman was indeed intriguing, a Jewish Joan of Arc, perhaps, but goddammit what woman behaves like a wild beast?... How can she be so insolent and arresting at the same time?”

To his credit, Iczkovits remains true enough to the period and milieu he is depicting, and does not stoop to having Fanny indulge in a romantic fling with any of the men she encounters (not that she had much reason to be tempted). That might have given readers a momentary thrill, but we would probably have regretted it in the morning. The world he depicts in “The Slaughterman’s Daughter” is harsh, and life is cruel and unforgiving to Jews and antisemites alike.

Nonetheless, “The Slaughterman’s Daughter” has a madcap quality to it, as Novak and his lackeys pursue Fanny & Co. across Polesia, in what is today Belarus, a chase we can follow on a stylized map of the region at the front of the book. (The map and the papercut-like graphics that grace the opening of each of the novel’s sections, by Halley Docherty, contribute a lot to the fairy-tale atmosphere of the story.) The narrative takes a lengthy detour into an army camp, where the Jews are given temporary refuge thanks to the demigod status that Zizek has retained throughout the corps.

It turns out that decades ago, during his own service, he saved the lives of countless soldiers with a heroism based on psychological and verbal acuity rather than physical courage. This, however, is all the more incongruous considering that the Zizek of the present day is almost incapable of expressing himself and lacks any sense of initiative – shortcomings that are not rectified, as we might have expected, during his mission with the fearless and resourceful Fanny.

This army-camp chunk of the book is heavily satirical, and the author’s blending of historical detail with absurdist, near-magical plot gives it a surreal quality. The Russian Empire, we learn, is in a constant state of war, with the only clear strategic goals being the desire of the commanding class to advance their own careers and social standing, with little regard for the welfare or lives of their subordinates, not to mention their overall military mission.

In a publicity interview that accompanied the book’s British publication earlier this year, Iczkovits noted that as a young man he had served in an elite commando unit in the Israel Defense Forces. Later, during the second intifada, he refused to do reserve duty in the occupied territories, an act of protest that earned him a month in an IDF prison. He realized in writing the character of Novak that the way the intelligence officer came “to understand the disgraceful nature of his service in the secret police, especially after his past serving as a colonel in the cavalry, matche[d] the feelings I had while serving as a [combat] officer” in the Israeli army. You needn’t be a supporter of the occupation, however, to question the aptness of such an allegory.

The author has also told interviewers that he decided to place Fanny at the center of the action because in the period he was writing about, “the idea that a woman would leave her husband and children was not a remotely realistic one. Women had to take care of their families, and if the husbands left, women could only wait for them to return.” For that reason, he told his British publisher, “it was pretty clear to me that the protagonist of my book should be a woman.” That turns the book into something of a fantasy.

American novelist Max Gross, author of "The Lost Shtetl."Credit: Jane Gross

‘Just show him “Schindler’s List”’

Although the premise of a town lost, in a sense, to time may be hard to swallow, once you accept it, the two narrative threads of “The Lost Shtetl” proceed in a more conventional and linear manner. On the one hand, there is Yankel’s immersion into contemporary, secular, Polish society, which Max Gross handles with humor and deftness.

Initially, Yankel is confined to a psychiatric ward, until it becomes clear that he is not dangerous to himself or others. There he is subjected to a variety of examinations and tests, while his largely well-meaning warders also try to bring him up to speed for life in the 21st century. One of their greatest challenges is figuring out how to break the news that most of Europe’s Jews were murdered less than a century ago.

“No one believed that the Holocaust would be an issue of no importance to a man who had devoted every waking second of his life to being a devout Jew,” Gross writes. But how to explain it? One doctor suggests, “Maybe we should just show him ‘Schindler’s List.’”

Instead, the medical staff enlists the help of Dr. Fishbein, a Yiddish-speaking, half-Jewish scholar of Germanic languages, who decides to describe the Holocaust to Yankel in the context of a short history of modern Europe, and then “end this gloomy history with the triumphant birth of the state of Israel. A land where ‘the cop and the criminal and his lawyer and his bondsman are all Jews,’ as Fishbein would exclaim.”

But before Fishbein can get that far, he notices that Yankel looks bored, and he asks him what he’s thinking.

“Yankel looked as if he were going to say something else, but he stopped himself and it was several minutes before he spoke again.

“’Not to be disrespectful, Dr. Fishbein, but just how dumb do you guys think I am?’”

A shtetl in western Belarus well before the Holocaust.

Yankel eventually accepts the cruel truth about the fate of the Jews, but once he’s seen “gay Paree,” as it were, Yankel has no desire to return to Kreskol. He learns Polish, finds work and succeeds in tracking down Pesha, his reason for being dispatched to Smolskie in the first place. The former yeshiva bocher also discovers sex – and love.

In the meantime, Kreskol opens to the world. To the credit of the Polish bureaucracy, its officials go about bringing the shtetl into modernity with the same sort of thought and consideration that the hospital staff tried to show Yankel. Kreskol is hooked up to the electrical grid and introduced to all the other conveniences of contemporary life. At the same time, economists come up with a plan for introducing the national currency into the town without causing excessive fiscal shock to its residents.

Tour buses begin to flock to Kreskol to see its authentic Jews, bringing with them welcome cash, which the residents are happy to spend on electrical appliances and on building new homes outfitted with inside plumbing.

Of course, it doesn’t require much effort to anticipate things turning sour quickly in Kreskol. How could it be otherwise? Part of the Polish public begins to believe that the people of Kreskol have faked and fabricated their startling history, and overnight, national sympathy turns into suspicion and anger. Within the town, the Jews square off in two groups, each led by a different rabbi, and can’t agree on whether to accept the new monetary policy. The social solidarity that characterized premodern Kreskol quickly evaporates, and life in the village becomes almost intolerable.

This is the first novel for Gross, a former reporter for The New York Post and currently editor of the real-estate journal Commercial Observer, but “The Lost Shtetl” reads like a mature work, evincing understated wit, intelligence and a grasp of human behavior. The plot of “The Lost Shtetl” is more conventional than that of “The Slaughterman’s Daughter,” but unlike with Ickzowitz’s book, I didn’t find myself wondering repeatedly if I was reading a work of historical fiction, satirical allegory or magical realism. Once you have accepted Gross’ premise, of the possibility of a town “escaping history,” as he puts it, the story he tells goes down easy. Iczkovits’ work, for all its brilliance, left me a bit bewildered.

Either way, if this is the start of a new trend of “Shtet Lit,” it’s an auspicious one. But some wariness is called for: In the hands of less talented writers, both these books could have been maudlin, clichéd or insufferably heavy-handed. Instead we have before us two works that are fresh and original, whose authors clearly both put in the time to get it right. (In the case of “The Slaughterman’s Daughter,” Iczkovits was also served by a superb translator, Orr Scharf, who left no obvious traces that the novel was written in another language.) The public deserves some time to digest, interpret, argue about – but most of all, to enjoy – these books before the market is flooded with imitations.

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