Only Sholom Aleichem paid attention when Mikhah Yosef Berdichevsky returned to the Ukrainian shtetl he had left fifteen years earlier and started writing stories in Yiddish that voiced the complaints and concerns of ordinary Jewish folk he found there between 1902 and 1906. This is something James Redfield is now on a mission to change. Translating sixty-three of Berdichevsky’s original stories and six of the 176 retold Hasidic tales published in Yiddish and Hebrew after the author’s short life, Redfield advocates for Berdichevsky to be included in the pantheon of Yiddish fiction writers widely read throughout the English-speaking world. And — especially in the over forty one-to-three-page fictional monologues in which millers, shopkeepers, cantors, a cigarette seller, an aging rebetsn, parents, and those down on their luck wheedle and needle and tell their troubles and dreams to Reb Yosl, a persona like Berdichevsky himself, who appears as the returned “distant relation” — Redfield succeeds.
From Dubova, Letychiv, Pokotylove, and other small towns, Berdichevsky’s characters speak of sadness. They are being pressed by poverty, attacked by neighboring non-Jews, and losing sons to the Russian army. They struggle with families and in-laws and how the new generation challenges divisions between rich and poor, men and women, people and God. Although three stories spotlight husbands who defend wishing to dispose of their ugly wives, twenty are told by women, an unusual perspective in early twentieth century literature. A mother, whose son has declared that she is no longer his mother if she will not go along with the new political ideas, despairs when he returns home sick after authorities jail him and his firebrand girlfriend for hiding a printing press in her basement. And there are human missteps. Good life ends for the kosher slaughterer Derazhuya who, full of wine and a sense of well-being, falls upon his son’s new wife with kisses during the wedding. A father fails to get the dowry back from his no-good son-in-law, who then abandons his daughter without a divorce. A star klezmer player, surpassed by another more modern musician, spellbinds everyone by playing passionately one more time and dies. “Throw him a lifeline, Lord,” the narrator calls for Rivn Pesys, son-in-law of the richest man in town who suddenly can’t make a go of every enterprise he tries. But “God is silent.”
In the midst of their troubles, characters nudge Reb Yosl, the university-educated returnee. “I know you are still a Jew at heart.… All right, it would be nice if you prayed a little … but you still don’t eat unkosher food?” “What kind of doctor are you anyway?” Redfield notes Berdichevsky’s underlying theme, still relevant 100 years later: the question of what it is to be Jewish in a changing world. “Get out of here, Berl!” a man who is leaving with his family tells himself. “You’re no hero. You can’t save the Jewish people.” In the final piece, Berdichevsky spins a wistful, semi-autobiographical tale of a rabbi’s son gazing over the wall at the beautiful garden with the noble Rukhele he loves from afar who will now be marrying a more esteemed rabbi’s son. “All that I am deep down — I a Jew without beard or peyes, here in this foreign country, among a nation whose tongue I do not know — it all comes, from my mother and father, from the stories they told me once upon a time…what a scoundrel I must be to have thrown it all away and become a goy.… ” At the end of each story Redfield points out Berdichevsky’s biblical and religious allusions, but it is how author and translator capture voices of the people in a narrow, harsh world which haunts after a second reading.
Sharon Elswit, author of The Jewish Story Finder, now resides in San Francisco, where she has been helping students visiting 826 Valencia locations around the city to write stories and poems and getting adults up and retelling Jewish folktales to share with their own spin.