From a Dis­tant Relation

Mikhah Yosef Berdichevsky; James Adam Red­field, ed. and trans.

  • Review
By – July 18, 2022

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 and a school librar­i­an for forty years in NYC, now resides in San Fran­cis­co, where she shares tales aloud in a local JCC preschool and vol­un­teers with 826 Valen­cia to help stu­dents write their own sto­ries and poems.

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