Dec 07, 2023
Rokhl Auerbach (1903−1976) hailed from what is now Ukraine and died in Tel Aviv, to which she emigrated in 1950. The editor of the Yiddish literary journal Tsushtayer, Auerbach was a prolific writer for Yiddish and Polish newspapers and journals. She was a pivotal figure in Oneg Shabbos, the underground archive dedicated to documenting life in the Warsaw Ghetto.
This review appears in Tsushtayer 2, 1930, pp. 39 – 45. It was translated by Anita Norich with David Mazower and Faith Jones.
Somewhere close to the edge of Galician Podolye–a few miles from Kamenets-Podolsk on “the other side” and the town of Chortkov on “this side”–the little border town of Skala can be found. Fifteen or twenty years ago the children of that area knew: Skala is at the edge of the world – the black-yellow Kaiser-Imperial Austrian world. Skala Jews, however, knew something else. For them, “the other side” was also a side. Jews smuggled things from here to there and Russian Jews in Kashkent — deserters and those fleeing from evil decrees — smuggled themselves across the border from there to here. Clearly, the Skala Jews were different. They spoke with a hard r, softened every n in their speech. Jews from neighboring Ozeran, who were by contrast great merchants and travelers and spoke “broadly,” would mock the Skalers for using yaeast, baking spoong kaykes, and dealing in ayggs. The Skala Jews were regarded as half-way to being Russkies.
To this day, Jews from that corner of the world are different from others. In every town and village, we can hear Jews speaking in their own way, singing praises using different tunes. Why? Is it because there were few rabbinic “centers” in that corner before the war? What about Husiatyn, Chortkov, Kopychynitz, Vishnitz, Sadigura? And there’s nowhere in Russia where we find so many red-headed and blond Jews as there. Red-haired or blond, big-boned and small-footed, and with tough, pock-marked skin. And plenty of livestock merchants there have the “face of a one-year-old heifer.”
That’s the town Fradl Shtok comes from. Those Jews, with their unfamiliar ways, found their poetess in Fradl Shtok. When she was only seventeen years old, Shtok left Skala for America, where she continues to live to this day. Like so many other Yiddish-American writers, she brought the artistic sources that inspired her from the Old Country.
A few years after she came to America, around 1910, Fradl Shtok published her first poems. She was one of the first Yiddish poets to use the sonnet form. These poems, and especially her love poetry, emerge from complicated feelings. She gives them her own nuances, but most of them echo the poetic moods that were, in those days, considered modern in European literature. The true, original Fradl Shtok can be found in her prose works. [A volume of] her short stories, published in various journals and publications and collected in 1919 under the title “Collected Stories,” is her only book.
After that, Shtok was silent. We heard nothing more from her. An interesting, intelligent writer, a mature one, a fine talent blossomed and immediately disappeared. Should we attribute this silence to the conditions of Yiddish literary production in general, or perhaps to the condition of female writers in particular?
With what she has already given us, she has clearly shown that she has a keen eye as well as abundant talent and the necessary composure to show us what she has seen. The fact that she had, or perhaps still has, the ability to develop further can be seen from the fact that not all her stories are on the same level. Along with artistically coherent stories we find others that are not equally successful in their artistry and psychological depth. These must stem from an earlier period and point the path to the future, a path she pursued as long as she created and worked.
So, what internal or external impediments keep her from further creativity?
Let her be the one to answer!
The place creates . . .
Fradel Shtok’s one book is a product of distance. Distance from time and place.
Along with distance from one’s own or another kind of life, comes the legend-making or anecdote-making of that life. The distance from time and place washes clean the accidental, rinses away the second-rank events and experiences, peels away the pointless connections of all the small occurrences, and weaves its own legend.
Distance does that… Yes—and it’s first and foremost done by the love in the poet’s heart and recollections. For Fradl Shtok it was also the years behind her, the earliest years of childhood and adolescence. There is nothing to equal their first, fresh look at the world. Who knows? Perhaps that’s why her book remained her only one—her “intimate memories book” as Melekh Ravitch called it in a review, as though everyone should be able to write such a book after memory has had time to form legends of youth and early surroundings.
Maybe so? We could believe that if Shtok’s book were really only a literary version of her own life’s experiences. But there’s more to Fradel Shtok:
Most of the characters and heroes in her anecdotes are fully realized. Most of their experiences are so convincing as to seem inevitable. Only a true writer can do that.
There are a wealth of types, a wealth of Jewish ways of life in Fradel Shtok’s writing.
The characteristics of these people are unique and well-crafted at the same time. Shtok has distance from her people. She doesn’t show herself through her characters, but rather shows them to us.
Shtok’s men and women, girls and boys are presented absolutely naturally and plainly, without all the embellishments used by professional literati. We see them in their full vibrancy, with their little-large dreams, within a fitting, well-honed frame.
That’s how she saw them and that’s how she showed them: in the simplicity of their mature life-wisdom, with their mature evaluation of everything; people of the folk in the clear awareness of their difference and separateness, with their striking characteristics that are often erased in the transition from folksmentsh to half-intellectual, from past life to contemporary life—from small towns to large cities. The poetess captured those bygone Jews in the comprehensibility of their every act and word, in the meaningfulness and fullness of their visages, and she was drawn to them. The fullness and clarity of simple people and their lives will forever be the strongest magnet to attract every true artist, and there is really no reason to be surprised or regret that there is more than one Yiddish writer who “still cannot leave the shtetl.”
The Jews of Skala at home—as complete and strong in their joy as in their sorrow—and these very same people in “the Golden Land” are confused, broken. The characters are nearly lifelike. The poetess does not even change their names. And anyone who ever lived in that region recognizes those names. The Erenbergs, Klingers, and so on.
There is the small-town Moshe Shneyder, an artist with the needle, his dream of velvet and silk—he sewed our mothers’ wedding clothes.
Female characters . . .
The suffering Hinde, the lovely erotic product of the Jewish tavern that wants to make men blind drunk, their cheeks pale, tease out with a guess the melody of their mandolins. The “beauty” Lontsi with the glowing face who is said to wash herself every night with dew from the flowers of the priest’s garden; her husband is no longer interrupted by others (a form of Jewish manners, according to Shtok) because he has married such a fine woman (“Hinde Gitl’s Daughter-in-Law”).
An array of young girls in the first blush of womanly eroticism—“flower girls,” “young brides” (“Comedians,” “Wine,” “The Veil,” “The Archbishop”). And an array of lonely women (“Sisters,” “The Betrothed,” “A Tear,” “Shorn Hair”).
All the women wait. Wait for something. . . The well-off “Pannuntsye” Laura strolls through the garden on a spring day “In the Village,” and wastes her ready glance and her sharpened tenderness in uselessly gazing at slim horseback riders passing by.
But Fradl Shtok didn’t only look into the hearts of young brides. Here she leads the comically enraptured young Nakhman through the marketplace in search of a wife. He is constantly patting a spot on his vest where soon will hang a golden watch and chain that a rich in-law will give him; he detects the scent of the “goods” in the marketplace and soon—very soon—imagines that he will deal in the “Raisins and Almonds” of the lullaby. For another young groom, Sholem, on his way to meet the twentieth girl in a series of matches, the journey there is the main point: the most romantic go sailing to the princess of their dreams.
Shtok doesn’t only show us old maids. We see the old bachelor, Lipman, with three pretty girls in the harem of his “embroidery shop,” who can’t decide to marry any one of them, because . . . “Statistics” don’t let him.
In some places, Shtok flares up with pointed but still discreet satire. Alter, a Jewish moneylender, really wants to remove the town’s clock from the church because, if not for this clock, he would not have to wait so long after his morning cup of chocolate. Otherwise, he has to wait until the clock strikes twelve to be hungry again and eat his roasted meat (“The Archbishop”).
Every page of Fradl Shtok’s book glows with fine, genial humor and gentle irony. Between the lines we sense the clear, clever smile of the writer.
Fradl Shtok is simply delighted with her characters.
Ah! Luckily—she always has a wry smile when the most religious Skala Jews mix non-Jewish expressions into their colorful speech. One can clearly see how much she enjoys this confusion.
Such a wealth of the Galician homeland and subjects in her characters’ speech…
Pumpkin seeds in a tavern, malingerers, mothers who pamper their daughters with egg yolk, a mockery of a fair, travelers. . .
Goyim and Jews, strangers and far from one another. The town is like a separate nation. On the path into the village, the sad song of a shaygetz frightens the Jewish children and makes them feel uncomfortable and scared. They know — every goy is a thief. But the hapless, ne’er-do-well Sholem takes pity on the goy. He can’t play tricks on a goy; he gets all mixed up in the middle of counting if he tries to give a goy the wrong sum. His heart won’t allow it, because:
“The goy’s hands were shaking. . . because he was giving his goods, his very blood away for three coins. Thirty five greutzer for a whole sack of potatoes, every one of which he himself sowed. He labored to put it into the ground himself, bending to the task. He crossed himself every day, removed his hat near every stream praying that God would send rain. And every day he walked through the rows of potatoes peering closely. And here a potato grew, and there two more grew. And then he dug out every potato with his own hands and put it into his sack. Thirty five greutzer a sack, so how can I trick him…” (“In the Marketplace”)
The ancient, as well as the recent, life of the Galician shtetl appears dreamy and smiling, teary and bright. And now, too, the first scratches in the deeply rooted, firm foundations of this life.
The first “Germans” in town, the first “Zionists.” Youths are drawn to go out into the world; Jews start going to America. The first hints of decline can also be found in the as-yet calm and idyllic rhythm of Shtok’s erstwhile shtetl. And then there’s “The First Train,” and it will soon destroy things. The town is not yet going under, but the snow that has long lain on the ground begins to blacken.
And between yesterday and today, arm in arm with poverty, throughout the Jewish shtetl, walks the miraculous story of success — the exaggerated, unrooted clinging vine of the Jewish body that sprouts and blooms in the most varied souls of the Jewish masses.
Does it matter what the Messiah is called? In Ehrenburg’s novella he is called a “ship’s ticket” and salvation is finally revealed to him: a Cossak’s bayonet in his heart…. 1 1 Ilya Ehrenburg’s (1891-1967) Shest’ poviestei o legkikh kontsakh (Six Stories with Easy Endings), published in 1922, included the story “Shifs karta” (Ship’s Ticket). Several of Ehrenburg’s other books were translated into Yiddish in the 1920s; Auerbach probably read this one in Russian.
And Fradl Shtok’s Jews stand in the middle of the marketplace with folded arms and look for . . . the building of a new church in town. When that happens, Jews will be able to make a living, and they will be saved. Prosperity and blessings. . .
The two most common themes in Shtok’s stories: longing and disappointment.
Longing for some kind of uplift. Different people have different names for that kind of longing.
Always and everywhere one finds the fertile raw materials of human desires and dreams, and the inability to achieve them. Yet sometimes they actually are achieved. Then, however, it’s most often just a terrible sorrow. It happens more than once that it wasn’t this, not this, that one loved so much and longed for. And that’s when the other side of the dream appears: the disappointment.
The people with a dream in their hearts — Fradl Shtok’s main heroes — are sometimes shy and deferential, and sometimes arrogant, odd, half-mad. They carry their dreams within, like a bee carries honey or like a bee carries its sting.
Every person yearns for the light.
Chaim Shuster, who sent his son to school and began to regard himself as “the student’s father.” The wine connoisseur Mendl Kapls who doesn’t seek pleasure in the wine, but, rather, seeks its secrets. And all the small town girls of bygone days with their shy imaginary loves for buffoons, noblemen’s sons, tax collectors riding through . . . “Friedrich Schiller.”
All of them lie in wait, hoping, wanting to leave with the “First Train.” And even the barren hasidic lady Ita with her notions about a wig to wear during the week, and traveling to the warm springs just like the rich women in town – even she yearns to rise, to leave, and deserves our sympathies. And then there’s the nineteen-year-old widow Sheyndl, whose hair was shorn at her wedding and whose greatest desire is to show a bit of her hair over her wig.
It is there, where the desire is insignificant and small, that individual longing and aspiration appears most clearly, most emphatically.
The fervor of a person’s heart shows itself when he creates his own gods and loves out of the poorest materials. The main thing is his ability to hold fast to the powerful fiction, the illusions of his own creation.
Fradl Shtok’s characters have the strength to sustain themselves with illusions. That is most clear in their new, big city lives.
We have the two old maids, “Sisters,” who have probably been working for twenty years sewing ties in New York City. What they have been waiting for has not yet come, and will never come. And, still, every season they sew a new suit in order to hang it in a closet next to the other ones they have sewn. And yet every single day we find ever-ready, mundane heroism. No matter what—with little barbs, with a bit of gossip and futile hopes about the nasty widower from “Next Door”— they manage to stitch together a bit of success in their lives.
To people who live with fictions there must, from time to time, come disappointment, an end to fantasy. Shtok shows the disappointment exposed in the very battle against it.
The constant dream of the Skaler orphan Brantsi, of a land of “White Furs” on the other side of the river, becomes the symbol of every empty dream. She runs back disillusioned as soon as she takes a step in that wonderland.
There are other knights with such illusions—human toys in the game between dream and reality: Kuni the tycoon, who speaks once in his life; Mayer-Maks and his “Dance” at the homey wedding in New York. He glows with great hopes and goodness, strives to invigorate Jews with his own pride and joy and is then emptied out and shrunken as soon as a simple familiar worry touches him.
The old bachelor Kapl does not want to see the differences between dream and reality. He fights against it. That’s why he only comes to life “At Night.” He dances along wherever there’s a celebration from back home and, with all his strength, wards off the coming day. And when the sunrise shines through the windows at the endless feast, he goes out along with the lamps that were lit throughout the night.
But the greatest defender of her own dreams is the soft-spoken, small-town Eltsi. She leaves everything behind in favor of the dreamt-for pleasure. The Schillerian ideal of a lover takes on the figure of a count’s son on horseback, a Christian student, a Jewish tutor on a bicycle . . . At the very end, she closes her eyes when her own boorish husband — the cattle merchant — caresses her. She sighs “Friedrich, Friedrich” and continues to see herself in the midst of a romantic tragedy with the picture that has come to life of a knight in a book.
This Eltsi is uplifted here to be the sad, tragicomic symbol of feminine Don Quixotism…
A full, broad reality of human longing, human tears, laughter and deep emotions can be found in every one of Fradl Shtok’s stories. A slew of people appear in her book and the secret in every heart is the same. There is a dream in every person and it has a different name for everyone – blue-golden longing and red-golden obsession.
The principle behind every principle — longing — is also the secret of Fradl Shtok’s only book. It is a longing from the self to the human.