On the Land­ing: Sto­ries by Yen­ta Mash

Yen­ta Mash; Ellen Cassedy, trans.
  • Review
By – September 24, 2018

The six­teen sto­ries in this col­lec­tion, care­ful­ly select­ed and trans­lat­ed from Yen­ta Mash’s life’s work in Yid­dish, form a series of qui­et explo­sions. Though they some­times cry out, the voic­es are strange­ly sub­dued, record­ing as they do life behind the Iron Cur­tain in the decades of Sovi­et stran­gu­la­tion of sub­ject peo­ples. Com­mu­ni­ties in Bessara­bia, Moldo­va, and Siberia were at best unof­fi­cial pris­ons for aspir­ing souls and curi­ous minds and at worst, offi­cial ones. For the sur­pris­ing­ly large, if rel­a­tive­ly unknown, Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ties, the bur­dens includ­ed that of anti-Semitism.

For some, includ­ing Mash, immi­gra­tion to Israel dur­ing and after the col­lapse of the Sovi­et Empire in the 1970s was a mixed bless­ing. There was so much that was unfa­mil­iar, so much to get used to. More impor­tant­ly, there was so much to remem­ber before the mem­o­ries would vanish.

In one sto­ry in this col­lec­tion, Mash takes us into the lives of two young women, foresters work­ing long hours for a bare sub­sis­tence. They cut down trees, pre­pare the trunks and branch­es for usable lum­ber, and car­ry them to be exam­ined by their boss. The nar­ra­tor is depen­dent on her more skill­ful cowork­er, Riva, with­out whom she would be lost. It’s the dead of win­ter, and there is no expec­ta­tion of respite from the frozen mis­ery of their lives. These inti­mates are the fam­i­ly bread­win­ners. From time to time, they make one anoth­er laugh. Though their rela­tion­ship turns sour in lat­er years, read­ers are left with their strength and indomitable spir­its. What’s enchant­i­ng in this sto­ry and oth­ers is the com­fort­able way in which the char­ac­ters car­ry their Jew­ish selves — with a mix­ture of knowl­edge and habit that some­times seems more nour­ish­ing than any oth­er part of their existence.

Each sto­ry is a gem, and they are arranged to inter­act with one anoth­er as parts of a mosa­ic. The char­ac­ters are gen­er­al­ly described in states of tran­si­tion, com­ing or going across bor­ders or to and from meet­ing places. They share expe­ri­ences and con­fi­dences. They find a way of mak­ing do, in spite of their com­plaints and unful­filled aspirations.

Mash’s nar­ra­tive skill is qui­et­ly aston­ish­ing. She knows when to stop and that less can be more. She knows how to reveal her char­ac­ters in con­ver­sa­tions that at first seem mun­dane but soon reveal not only com­plex indi­vid­u­al­i­ty but also uplift­ing pro­fun­di­ty. More­over, the world she con­jures is not with­out a ton­ic rip­ple of humor.

Read­ers will not want to go where Mash’s life and imag­i­na­tion have been, but they will con­sid­er them­selves for­tu­nate for the vic­ar­i­ous jour­ney she has provided.

Philip K. Jason is pro­fes­sor emer­i­tus of Eng­lish at the Unit­ed States Naval Acad­e­my. A for­mer edi­tor of Poet Lore, he is the author or edi­tor of twen­ty books, includ­ing Acts and Shad­ows: The Viet­nam War in Amer­i­can Lit­er­ary Cul­ture and Don’t Wave Good­bye: The Chil­dren’s Flight from Nazi Per­se­cu­tion to Amer­i­can Free­dom.

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