Before All the World

  • Review
By – October 3, 2022

Before All the World is pre­sent­ed as a book writ­ten by Git­tl, a Jew­ish poet and refugee, and trans­lat­ed by Charles, a Black writer. The nov­el begins in 1930s Philadel­phia with an encounter between Charles and the soft-spo­ken Leyb, a young man who is wary of the strange home he calls amerike.” Charles, though, knows Yid­dish, and he’s famil­iar enough with the local speakeasy to sug­gest that Leyb kiss him in its back room. At the same time, Git­tl makes her way to Amer­i­ca four­teen years after she and Leyb are the sole sur­vivors of a pogrom in their vil­lage. Guid­ed by a cho­rus of her lost sib­lings’ voic­es, Git­tl finds Leyb and, with him, the strength to reck­on with the past in order to envi­sion a future.

Trans­la­tion serves an impor­tant nar­ra­tive role through­out the book’s pages. Roth­man-Zech­er cre­ative­ly uses foot­notes to reveal cer­tain edi­to­r­i­al choic­es and lin­guis­tic sources. For those Yid­dish words and phras­es that are not accom­pa­nied by a foot­note, the read­er becomes a part­ner in trans­la­tion. One need not be famil­iar with Yid­dish, though, to laugh out loud at turns of phrase like the talk­ing over­mus­tache” — in ref­er­ence to, as Git­tl dubs him, Neitzsche’le” — or to nod in recog­ni­tion at lines like a godthing from a dust­draw­er” or away­chas­ing into the dark­some night.”

What is par­tic­u­lar­ly admirable about the use of lan­guage is that Roth­man-Zech­er show­cas­es Yid­dish — both its sweet­ness and its rough­ness — with­out fetishiza­tion. All tongues are the same upground human­fish, I think,” Git­tl sug­gests to Charles. There is no such holy mam­a­tongue what helps any per­son to do any­thing or be any­thing, or what keeps a per­son from any­thing.”. Yid­dish is the lin­gua fran­ca of this world, but it is not the only way to com­mu­ni­cate. Indeed, the nov­el depicts, with­out hier­ar­chy, many forms of com­mu­ni­ca­tion: the Yid­dish Charles sprin­kles through­out his Eng­lish; the way Git­tl com­munes with the voic­es of her mur­dered sib­lings; scenes of poet­ry as activism. To be human is to trans­late, to weave intri­cate path­ways for oth­ers to fol­low and help shape. This, Roth­man-Zech­er sug­gests, is love.

One of the novel’s most mem­o­rable scenes watch­es as Git­tl memo­ri­al­izes the mur­dered Jews of her vil­lage. She spends pages recount­ing their qual­i­ties or, for those whose names she does not know, sim­ply acknowl­edg­ing that they exist­ed. As the cho­rus of her sib­lings sur­rounds her, one voice admits, I don’t under­stand.” It’s okay Zimml to not under­stand I also don’t,” a voice answers. A lack of under­stand­ing will occur, Before All the World reminds the read­er — whether in the process of read­ing trans­lat­ed Yid­dish or ful­ly pro­cess­ing the dev­as­tat­ing impact of racism. In these instances, the read­er is giv­en per­mis­sion to admit con­fu­sion and encour­aged to con­tin­ue. The most pow­er­ful act of trans­la­tion, accord­ing to the nov­el, is listening.

At its core, Before All the World con­sid­ers one essen­tial ques­tion: what does it mean to remem­ber the past while still imag­in­ing the future? While the nov­el doesn’t pro­vide a clear-cut answer, it does insist that those who’ve suf­fered great indig­ni­ties have a duty to sup­port fel­low mar­gin­al­ized peo­ple. Its most strik­ing accom­plish­ment is its invi­ta­tion to the read­er to become a part of the novel’s cho­rus. What will you do, it asks, now that you’ve read this story?

Discussion Questions