Short Stories, Irish literature, Classics, Modern Fiction, Contemporary Literary Fiction, The Japanese Novel, Post Colonial Asian Fiction, The Legacy of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and quality Historical Novels are Among my Interests

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

“Rosh Hashanah” and “Two Heads” - Short stories by Yente Serdatzky - translated from Yiddish- 1949

Both of the stories I am posting upon this morning first appeared, in English translation in 2003, in a very interesting and culturally valuable book,
Beautiful as the Moon, Radiant as the Stars: Jewish Women in Yiddish Stories, An Anthology, edited by Sandra Bark and introduced by Francine Prose.  This book will correct, as it did mine, the common impression Yiddish literature means only male authors writing in Poland, Lithuania, or Russia about life in the shtetl, small Jewish towns. Now I know there are wonderful written in Yiddish stories by women, and I know Yiddish Literature thrived in New York City and Montreal.  These stories are often about the immigrant experience. 

“Rosh Hashanah”, translated by Ellen Cassidy, set in New York City, probably written between 1949 to 1954, is narrated by a young woman.  As the story opens she is recollecting her families observations of The High Holidays.  By then she had already lost her believe in the teaching of her heritage faith.  She senses this hurts her mother terribly.  She moves to a bigger city and becomes involved in what are preceived as anti-government activities.

“We scheduled meetings for both days: every free moment had to be used for agitation. On the first day of the New Year, we went to a remote corner of the city and crammed ourselves into one tiny room. The air was thick with tobacco smoke, yet we emerged with shining faces. We were living in the future. The next day we were arrested. For three months we sat in prison. After that, some of us were exiled to the cold villages of Siberia. Others they set free, including me, on the condition that we leave Russia for good. We had comrades who had fled to America, so we crossed the ocean and came here.”

The narrative picks up in New York City, sometimes she thinks of her family but she has lost almost all sense of being a Jew.  She is intensely lonely.  I noticed something of much interest in this story, to me.  In pre-Holocaust Europe many Jewish people felt if they kept quiet, did not agitate and acted “European” they would be spared the pograms.  You can see this in the work of many writers including Stefan Zweig and Irene Némirovsky.  This feeling is brilliant illustrated below.  

“Across the street, two young women were sitting on the stoop. Both had little babies, which was why they couldn’t go to the synagogue. One of them I knew a little—we often ran into each other. Once as I passed by I’d heard her aim a curse in my direction. She’d run away from home because of the pogroms, I figured, and now that things were going well for her here, she thought that if only people like us would stop stirring things up, there’d be no more troubles for the Jews. Now as she talked to her friend she flicked her eyes at me like daggers, her lips moved, and I had the feeling she was cursing me again.”

The story ends on Rosh Hashanah, the narrator is flooded with memories. Her friend Helenka is with her as she enters a deep state of dispair

“Why am I living here? I asked myself. What do I have in my life? Not the holy, poetic stillness of the shtetl and not the exhilaration of the struggle. Not my dear family members from home and not my beloved comrades. Here is only loneliness, loneliness, smoke, noise, sweat, rudeness—and the reward for it all? Nothing but a crust of bread. From the kitchen, Helenka’s pacing grew more restless still. I felt sorry for her, my only friend in the world, and although I felt like throwing myself on her and pouring out all my thoughts in a flood of tears, I didn’t want to make things harder for her. And so, standing before the mirror in the dimness, I forced myself to begin combing my hair. But suddenly my body began to tremble: at that moment, my face bore an uncanny resemblance to my grandfather’s. There was a roaring in my ears and the blood rushed to my face. A rainbow-colored mist shimmered before the mirror and a wavering column of pale figures began to emerge from afar. Volodya, Sonya, Solomon . . . all at once I could plainly see the tall, refined figure of my grandfather, the velvet skullcap skullcap perched high on his head and the deep wrinkles creasing his pure white forehead. Raising his silver brows, he looked at me, his eyes so sad. He tottered toward me, and now I could feel him. I wanted to turn to him but could not. In the mirror I saw him lift his trembling hands over my head. His tender voice whispered in my ear: “May the Lord bless you and keep you in good health, may He cause His countenance to shine upon you, and may He give you peace.” I felt a violent pain in my breast. My legs buckled under me and my head grew heavy. “Grandfather!” I wanted to call out, but the words stuck in my throat. I leaned my head backward—I wanted to rest against his chest and weep. But he was too far away, and my head fell back, back, back. . . . I feel a commotion around me and a sharp pain in the temples. They’re sticking me with pins. They’ve resuscitated me. You may ask-why?”

A marvellous story, about loss of faith, memories, loneliness and under that the role of Reading in her life.

“Two Heads”, translated by Sheva Zucker, joins my favourite stories about people who lead reading cantered lives.  ( I like it so much I have placed a quote from the story in my introductory top right sidebar.). It is narrated by a very lonely woman, living by herself in a rooming house.  She reads much of the time, it makes her feel less alone.  One day she hears noises from the room next to hers, vacant for a long time.  She begins to imagine a man living there, as lonely as she who loves reading.

“How does he live? His room is certainly as gray and sad as hers . . . there must also be a lot of books there . . . also unbound! And he reads . . . day and night he reads. And he reads with passion . . . with excitement . . . as if he were searching for lost treasures, forfeited riches, and holy things impossible to recover; the wrinkles deepen on his high brow . . . his blue eyes become more doleful . . . more pensive”.

The ending is a twist, funny sad and poignant.

YENTE SERDATZKY was born outside Kaunas, Lithuania, in 1877. In 1905, she left her husband and children and went to Warsaw to pursue a literary career, in which she was encouraged by I. L. Peretz. In 1907, she came to the United States. She ran soup kitchens in Chicago and New York while publishing stories and oneact plays in many Yiddish periodicals. Her only book, Geklibene shriftn [Selected Works], was published in 1913. She worked for the New York Yiddish newspaper Forverts until 1922, when she was dismissed in a quarrel with the editor. She withdrew from the literary world until 1949, when she began writing again and was published in the Nyu yorker vokhenblat. She died in 1962.

After reading these two wonderful stories I did find one of her stories online and will post on it soon.

Mel u

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