Reviewed by Ellen Cassedy
On a dark afternoon in the late 19th century, a lurching vehicle rounds the bend into a small Eastern European town: “A large, ungainly coach, a sort of Noah’s ark stuffed with passengers, lumbered slowly and with difficulty down the wide, muddy roads of the town of Miloslavka” (23). Out of the coach steps a young, freethinking intellectual named Zalmen Itzkowitz, and S. An-sky’s Pioneers is off to an engaging start, as the winds of change begin to blow through this typical Jewish small town, known in Yiddish as a shtetl.
An-sky first wrote Pioneers in Russian in 1903 and later translated it into Yiddish as Pyonern: Di ershte shvalb. Skillfully translated from the Yiddish by Rose Waldman, this volume includes an introduction by Nathaniel Deutsch and a brief glossary. (Waldman has translated the first volume of what was originally a two-volume work. The second volume was published by Indiana University Press, translated from the Russian by Michael Katz, in 2014.)
Fans of “Fiddler on the Roof,” the musical based on stories by the Yiddish writer Sholem Aleichem, will recognize that the town of Miloslavka has much in common with that musical’s town of Anatevka. An-sky and the better-known Sholem Aleichem wrote around the same time and dealt with some of the same historical phenomena, including the Jewish enlightenment, or “Haskalah,” that swept through 19th-Century Europe. “In the rock-solid wall of ancient religious-cultural foundations,” An-sky writes, “a deep crack was forming. An entire generation of intellectuals were discarding the yoke of religion and flinging themselves toward the light: toward knowledge, toward a new life” (37).
Like his protagonist Itzkowitz, the young An-sky served as a private tutor in a Jewish town. So did many of the greats of modern Yiddish literature, including Sholem Aleichem, I.L. Peretz, and Mendele Mokher Sforim. Such tutors were a key vector by which modern ideas made their way into tradition-bound Jewish towns. In these towns, it was traditional for Jewish boys, beginning at the age of three, to study with a melamed, whose job was to teach them how to read the holy books. But Itzkowitz offers instruction not in the holy books but in the Russian language and other secular subjects. His real mission is to introduce the town’s children to the modern world.
As the tutor establishes a roster of students and begins to ply his trade, the townspeople are divided in their response. A chorus of voices—an ensemble cast of robustly drawn characters—provide a running commentary. Some—especially men—see him as a dangerous influence, the bearer of a “contagious disease” (101). Others—especially women—are thrilled by his presence and welcome the opportunity to escape the confines of their hidebound community.
The conflict is an internal one as well. Itzkowitz himself is torn between the old ways and the new. Should he continue to pursue the secular path or return to his previously devout ways? Or should he yield to the pleas of the local priest and convert to Christianity? Suspense builds as Itzkowitz wavers. Finally, he makes up his mind to reject the modern path and rejoin the orthodox fold. Yet when he puts on the traditional orthodox clothes, “a long, dirty jacket, torn in places, and a soiled velvet hat,” he discovers that they don’t fit (190). The old devout ways aren’t the answer after all. As for what Itzkowitz ultimately decides, the book has a surprise ending that comes as quite a shock.
S. An-Sky was the pen name of Shloyme-Zanvl Rapoport (1863-1920). He was not only a writer (best known for his play “The Dybbuk”) but also an ethnographer. Between 1912 and 1914, he headed an expedition that visited 69 small towns in an effort to document the Jewish folk traditions that were rapidly being overtaken by modern times. Pioneers is not only a fine work of literature but also a valuable ethnographic record.
When Pioneers was originally published, the old shtetl ways, though fading, were nonetheless familiar to An-sky’s readers. They knew the ins and outs of orthodox observance, the Jewish calendar punctuated by numerous holidays, the weekly Shabbos rituals, the rules governing clothing, hair styles, and food preparation. Many of these traditions are unknown to today’s readers. As Waldman writes, An-sky’s “portrait of the shtetl on the brink of transformation [is] an account of a lifestyle that can now only be found within the pages of a book” (xvii).
What makes Pioneers so fascinating is that it is rich in the customs, expressions, and beliefs of a bygone world, and vibrant with the ironies that result from the friction between old and new. The challenge for the translator is to provide discreet guidance for modern readers without impeding the flow of the narration. Waldman is ideally positioned to meet this challenge. As she explains in her Translator’s Note, she was brought up in a fervently observant Chassidic community, which adhered to customs no longer followed by most contemporary Jews. Yiddish was her first language, and she is steeped in Jewish story-telling and religious knowledge. Yet her immersion in these traditions means she must be careful to remember what her readers don’t know.
Admirably, Waldman does a graceful job of helping the reader to understand the novel in all its nuance. Along with her back-of-the-book glossary, she provides unobtrusive glosses, a judicious sprinkling of the original language, and occasional footnotes. In one scene between the freethinking tutor and a young female student, for example, “as Itzkowitz made ready to leave, Esther Dvoshe, in a show of bravado, stretched out her hand to him” (84). A typical reader might wonder what was so bold about sticking out one’s hand. Waldman uses a footnote to explain that devout Jews avoid physical contact between the sexes. In another scene, a suspicious old woman glares at Itzkowitz, mutters an oath to ward off the Evil Eye, and spits three times: tfu, tfu, tfu. A footnote explains that “spitting three times in reaction to something very good or very bad is an old Jewish superstition” (87).
The gang of devout scholars who try to entice Itzkowitz back into the fold pose a particular test for the translator. The Biblical citations they insert into everyday discourse stand out in the Yiddish text, and by preserving these words in their original Hebrew and Aramaic, Waldman makes sure they stand out in the English translation as well. As the scholars converse about how to rid the town of the “contamination” brought by Itzkowitz, for example, one old man argues, “In my opinion, we should use midas harachmim, mercy, before we used midas hadin and judge him with the full rigor of the law” (102).
Waldman undertook the translation of Pioneers as a participant in the Translation Fellowship Program at the Yiddish Book Center of Amherst, MA, which trains new translators to take the place of an older generation whose careers are nearing an end. The program is part of a Yiddish revival of sorts. Increasingly, Yiddish language and literature are taken seriously by the academy, and translation of Yiddish texts is seen as both a route to historical data and as a source of wisdom about the human condition. As Yiddish works like Pioneers become available to an English-language readership, they are taking their rightful place within world literature.
An-sky, S. Pioneers: The First Breach. Tr. by Rose Waldman. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 2017.