Jun 24, 2019
On the Landing: Stories by Yenta Mash, trans. Ellen Cassedy. (Northern Illinois University Press, 2018), 192 pages, $16.95.
Yiddish literary history is an unfinished project, still in many ways in its infancy. In North America, what we know about Yiddish literature—what gets taught, published, and written about—has been shaped by the 1950s translation projects of American Jewish male writers, like Irving Howe and Eliezer Greenberg. They didn’t invent the narrative of Yiddish as a literature written by men, but they codified that legacy dreamed up by Sholem Aleichem, when he declared Mendele to be “the grandfather” of Yiddish literature. One hundred years later it is time to rethink this nascent literary history cut short by the annihilation of its reading public in World War II, by the rise of Hebrew, and by the domination of English as a Jewish reading language. What we know about Yiddish literature, particularly prose fiction, from the scholarship in English and from English translation is only a portion of Yiddish literary output, one that reaches back before Mendele and beyond Isaac Bashevis Singer and his pivot to English.
Feminist scholars and translators have worked to change this state of affairs. A cohort of Yiddish translators, many with support from the Yiddish Book Center’s Translation Fellowship, have turned their attention to women prose writers. Ellen Cassedy is among this new wave of translators, recently awarded the Fenia and Yaakov Leviant Memorial Prize in Yiddish Studies for her translation of Blume Lempel’s stories, Oedipus in Brooklyn and Other Stories (Mandel Vilar Press, 2018). Now she has produced this artful translation of Yenta Mash’s short fiction, On the Landing. Mash, an Israeli Yiddish writer of Moldovan origins, produced a body of work that until now has been largely unknown in the United States.
Mash’s stories open a window onto a lesser known Yiddish milieu, what she terms the “godforsaken territory” of Bessarabia in what is now Moldova. The region was decimated in World War II by Soviet, Romanian, and German troops. Her stories describe life under Soviet occupation and trace the diaspora of Bessarabian Jewry in the Soviet Union, North America, and Israel. Mash’s own life story, as Jessica Kirzane and Ellen Cassedy describes it in their illuminating postscript to the stories, mirrors that of her protagonists. Born March 17, 1922 in the town of Zgurița, she and her family, like many Jews in the region, were exiled to Siberia as “bourgeois elements” in 1942. Mash was released in 1947, returning to live in Kishinev, the capital of the Soviet republic of Moldova. It was only after she emigrated to Israel in 1977 that she would become a Yiddish author who documented the destroyed world of her past and its many emigré communities. She participated in Israeli Yiddish literary circles and published her works in Yiddish journals such as Avrom Sutskever’s Di goldene keyt. She also garnered a series of Israeli literary awards, including the Itzik Manger Prize and the David Hofshteyn Prize. She died in Israel in 2013.
Mash’s collection portrays the destructive forces of the deportation of Moldovan Jewry by Soviet authorities and the lasting effects of this upheaval on the generations that followed. The story “Resting Place,” describes the arrival of a group of women and children deportees to Siberia, referred to in Russian as spetspereselentsy, who arrive in box cars to the Taiga. Shunned by the non-Jewish deportees that preceded them, the women must fend for themselves to survive. When one of their own—a woman named Madam Gerber—dies, they are forced to take on the Jewish tradition of burial with no men to aid them. One of the deportees, Ester, forgets for a moment that only men are permitted to say the prayer for the dead and begins to recite the blessing to the shock of all around her. When she pronounces Madam Gerber’s name in the prayer, “she broke off: because the word ‘madam’ doesn’t belong in a Jewish blessing,” but Ester’s mother encourages her to go on: “If the Lord can allow us to be exiled to Siberia, then He’ll have to learn some new languages, not just the holy tongue” (23). Ester can’t continue, however, because she doesn’t remember the words of the prayer that she’s forbidden to say. In the story “A Seder on the Taiga,” there are no men to ask the four questions; instead the narrator’s mother proclaims, “We were slaves in Egypt” and “today we’re slaves of Stalin.” In these moments of ritual crisis Mash is attentive to the tensions between Jewish and non-Jewish languages, between a diminished Jewish ritual authority and a community of women who must rewrite tradition to survive. Through this lens she offers keen insight into how the mass movement of populations throughout Europe during and after the war years rewrote the social norms for Jewish men and women.
Beyond the portrayal of women’s rewriting of tradition, Mash’s stories also focus on personal narratives of despair that tell a larger story of state violence as it is written on the bodies of women. In “Bread” the young narrator describes how her she and her fellow women prisoners labor under their taskmaster, fed only two pieces of bread and thin soup each day. Starvation and bone breaking labor destroy more than their physical bodies. The narrator explains: “Once upon a time, we’d been lovely brides and school girls, shielded from the slightest breath of wind. After two years hard labor, it was hard to recognize us as those same young ladies.” (29). The narrator’s mother disappears in the forest seeking berries for nourishment, never to return again. The memory seared on the narrator’s mind is the portion of her mother’s bread she ate that night, which still feels so many years later like a personal betrayal. Broken engagements, ruined bodies, and family loss are personal tragedies, but in Mash’s stories these private details also tell a story of historical trauma. In her story, “Alone,” a young woman harnesses herself to a sled and walks twenty-five kilometers begging for scraps for her family. Trying to conjure up a happy memory, she imagines sweethearts lost in a kiss, thinking to herself, “kissing—at 20 she’s long since forgotten the taste of a kiss on the lips” (36). These pieces of fantasy, remnants of her lost womanhood, keep her alive as she struggles to survive the harsh landscape, passing the corpses of women she recognizes frozen to the earth. Mash has a keen eye for the strange twists of fate that shaped European Jewry in the twentieth century. Her stories prompt us to ask how the creation of Yiddish literature was transformed by the violence of World War I and by the emergence of a Jewish state that nationalized Jewish identity even as it subordinated Yiddish. In her tour de force, “The Irony of Fate,” Mash also weaves an intricate tale of generational crises repeating themselves. Each succeeding generation must confront new state norms that deem their traditions “backwards.” Avrom, an assimilated and successful optical manufacturer, thrives under the new Soviet regime, while his father, a traditionally observant Jew, struggles to adapt to this new communist reality. His father learns he is not legally married under Soviet law and is therefore not entitled to a portion of his wife’s pension. Father and son must go to the civil registry, and prove the marriage. When he’s asked where he was married, Avrom’s father answers by describing the traditional ceremony, explaining, “I was called to the Torah in Căușeni.” An exasperated Avram tells him: “Don’t you realize—these days when you say someone’s been called to the Torah, you mean he’s been called up by the NKVD. And if he’s reading from the haftarah, God forbid, he’s in prison” (87). The tables are turned years later, when Avrom emigrates to Israel in the 1970s. There his wife’s death certificate, signed by Soviet authorities, is rejected by the state rabbinate. Returning a week later, the rabbinate asks him “where were you married?” and then “And where were you called to the Torah?” Avrom suddenly recalls his father’s humiliation with tenderness as the story artfully captures how different forms of state bureaucracy inscribe subjects according to arbitrary designations that shape their identities. Here Mash highlights both the promise and the cultural violence of the Soviet and Israeli state’s bureaucratization of identity.
Mash’s work describes the violent reshaping of Moldovan Jewry in the twentieth century and its reconstitution in Israel. She does so through the lens of both male and female characters who struggle to reorient their bodies, their language, and their communal practices. These are not nostalgic tales of lost pasts. Instead, they reckon with how the destruction of past communities is written on the bodies of their survivors. These stories reshape our understanding of twentieth-century Yiddish culture whose norms are repeatedly rewritten over time, whether in Siberia, post-war Kishinev, or the benches of Tel Aviv. Mash invites us to look past Sholem Aleichem’s shtetl and the streets of of New York’s Lower East Side. Instead she shows us a world that has been absent from view. The decline of a secular Yiddish readership in the post-war period has meant that post war writers have received little attention, with the exception of a few men: Isaac Bashevis Singer in the United States and Avrom Sutzkever in Israel. Cassedy’s translation introduces one more woman’s voice in order to show that the radical transformations of the twentieth century not only reshaped Jewish masculine identity, but also dramatically affected the lives of modern women. We cannot understand the upheavals of twentieth- century Jewish life, if we don’t read the women who documented those worlds, including writers like Mash, Rokhl Korn, and Kadia Molodowsky. Mash’s collection keeps us alert to the riches to be discovered and the stories yet to be heard, showing us the many worlds in which Yiddish thrived and suffered in the twentieth century. It is no longer possible to speak honestly about a Yiddish prose that does not include at its center women writers.
*Jessica Kirzane, who co-authored the afterward to this work, is the Editor-in-Chief of In geveb