From the Jew­ish Provinces: Select­ed Stories

Fradl Shtok, Alli­son Schachter and Jor­dan D. Finkin (Trans­la­tors)

  • Review
By – February 21, 2022

Read­ing Fradl Shtok’s From the Jew­ish Provinces is like tak­ing a train ride through the coun­try­side. At every stop, you get off, stop, and look around, tak­ing in the sights and sounds that greet you. You note inter­est­ing char­ac­ters and observe them for long enough to get a sense of the place and to won­der about their ties to it. You smell the foods they eat and hear one per­son call­ing to anoth­er down the street; a stranger smiles at you warm­ly, and then goes about her busi­ness. And then, almost as sud­den­ly as it stopped, you hear the train whis­tle blow­ing, and you get back on to jour­ney some­where new again.

Shtok was born in present-day Ukraine and immi­grat­ed to the Unit­ed States in 1907 when she was sev­en­teen years old. Liv­ing on the Low­er East Side, she first pub­lished poet­ry before turn­ing to prose. From the Jew­ish Provinces includes both Shtok’s Euro­pean and Amer­i­can sto­ries. While each set is dis­tinct in tone – the Euro­pean sto­ries veer towards sen­ti­men­tal, and those that take place in Amer­i­ca are slight­ly sharp­er in their humor and obser­va­tion – togeth­er, they cre­ate a por­trait of a Jew­ish world with vibrant per­son­al­i­ties and urgent ques­tions, as well as reflect­ing a writer who is pre­pared to tack­le them with both brava­do and gentleness.

Many of the sto­ries in Shtok’s col­lec­tion con­cern social issues faced by women who are fat­ed to ill-matched mar­riages and soci­etal expec­ta­tions. Shtok sub­tly points out the absur­di­ties of this sta­tus quo through her deter­mined char­ac­ters, like a wife who insists on wear­ing silk slip­pers even while she attends to house­hold chores. Many sto­ries, like the tale of a woman whose hus­band is too obliv­i­ous to real­ize that his wife is fan­ta­siz­ing about the play­wright Friedrich Schiller as he ham-hand­ed­ly flirts with her, bal­ance both humor and darkness.

Con­vey­ing small, vivid moments, Shtok cre­ates char­ac­ters that faith­ful­ly depict every­day life in all its com­plex­i­ty. One of the most enjoy­able ele­ments of Shtok’s sto­ry­telling is the use of gos­sip as a lit­er­ary device. In The First Train,” the read­er learns through snap­py dia­logue that one char­ac­ter is believed to be a Zion­ist – and the unspo­ken con­se­quences of such an affil­i­a­tion. The inter­ac­tions that Shtok depicts are so rich that whole worlds are built through the mere exchange of sentences.

It’s the inner mono­logues of her char­ac­ters, though, where Shtok’s writ­ing real­ly shines. Even through sto­ries only sev­er­al pages long, Shtok man­ages to con­vey the depth of her char­ac­ters’ lives: the anx­i­ety of a school­boy who has been told not to study with his beloved teacher, a guest at a wed­ding for whom a brief moment of danc­ing con­jures a sense of pre­vi­ous­ly unfelt alive­ness. With rich inner mono­logues and deep emo­tion, Shtok ele­vates the seem­ing­ly small moments in these ordi­nary lives to a lev­el of holiness.

Discussion Questions