A Plague of Cholera and Oth­er Stories

  • Review
By – July 8, 2024

A Plague of Cholera and Oth­er Sto­ries is the sec­ond sto­ry col­lec­tion by Yid­dish writer Jon­ah Rosen­feld to be trans­lat­ed by Rachel Mines into Eng­lish. Born in Char­to­rysk, Vol­hy­nia, Rus­sia, Rosen­feld was a promi­nent lit­er­ary fig­ure in the ear­ly twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry. Although he was pub­lished in The For­ward for fif­teen years, his work has become rel­a­tive­ly obscure. With this book, Mines shows that his wan­ing cul­tur­al impact has been much more a loss than a blessing.

One of the most strik­ing aspects of the col­lec­tion is its psy­cho­log­i­cal depth, which was unusu­al for its time. As Mines notes in her intro­duc­tion, Rosenfeld’s sto­ries often revolve around a character’s sub­con­scious desires and their dif­fi­cul­ty to both iden­ti­fy those desires and act on them in a way that suits their best inter­est. On mul­ti­ple occa­sions, char­ac­ters note to them­selves (to para­phrase), I can’t say why I feel so sad, but I know I have to [X],” before set­ting them­selves on a path to self-destruc­tion. Rosen­feld digs deeply into a space of uncer­tain­ty and self-loathing, giv­ing a round­ed­ness to his char­ac­ters that wasn’t always present in the works of his con­tem­po­raries. This dig­ging, though, does take up sig­nif­i­cant space in some of the sto­ries, which can make the read­ing expe­ri­ence a bit slower.

Because the char­ac­ters suf­fer for rea­sons beyond their under­stand­ing, the sto­ries take on a dark and, at times, bleak tone — Mines calls them psy­cho­log­i­cal hor­ror sto­ries.” They revolve around lone­ly peo­ple, many of whom live in abject pover­ty, and who do not see a way out for them­selves. A young woman has no good” mar­i­tal prospects; a man is seem­ing­ly inca­pable of express­ing his feel­ings for a woman he loves with­out first alien­at­ing her; and a whole town uses spir­i­tu­al and mys­ti­cal reme­dies to ward off a plague of cholera. All of these char­ac­ters have a grim view of life, and only on occa­sion does Rosen­feld offer them some solace. Yet Rosen­feld was clear­ly an empath­ic writer — he nev­er mocks or makes any­thing less of his char­ac­ters’ suf­fer­ing, despite their occa­sion­al less-than-char­i­ta­ble behav­ior. And although his char­ac­ters tend to be afflict­ed with the same mal­a­dy, he’s able to depict a wide array of cir­cum­stances, shin­ing a light on Jew­ish life in Cen­tral Europe in the late nine­teenth and ear­ly twen­ti­eth centuries.

Mines’s work as a trans­la­tor deserves atten­tion and praise as well. Her trans­la­tion of the Yid­dish reads as flu­id and mod­ern. Her intro­duc­tion gives help­ful con­text to Rosenfeld’s life, as well as his approach to writ­ing and recur­ring themes. Hav­ing these accom­pa­ny­ing insights makes it eas­i­er to under­stand and appre­ci­ate Rosenfeld’s tal­ent and relevance.

Rosen­feld was a main­stay of Yid­dish lit­er­a­ture dur­ing his time, and A Plague of Cholera and Oth­er Sto­ries reminds us why that was: his sto­ries are sharp, res­o­nant, and psy­cho­log­i­cal­ly rich. It’s a mitz­vah that Mines con­tin­ues to rein­tro­duce Rosenfeld’s work to the world.

Ben­jamin Selesnick lives and writes in New Jer­sey. His writ­ing has appeared in decomP, Lunch Tick­et, San­ta Fe Writ­ers’ Project Quar­ter­ly, and oth­er pub­li­ca­tions. He holds an MFA in fic­tion from Rutgers-Newark.

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