Ordi­nary Jews

Yehoshue Per­le; Shirley Kumove, trans.
  • Review
By – December 5, 2011
The Holo­caust wiped out East Euro­pean Jew­ry and the way of life of mil­lions of peas­ants, small mer­chants, crafts­men, ped­dlers — ordi­nary peo­ple. But even before the Holo­caust, change was slow­ly com­ing to the provin­cial towns and cities of Poland, under Russ­ian rule in the years before World War I. This is the world that Yehoshue Per­le, an active fig­ure in Warsaw’s lit­er­ary cir­cles, so effec­tive­ly evokes in his land­mark nov­el Yidn fun a gants yor, trans­lat­ed as Ordi­nary Jews by Shirley Kumove.

Mendl Shonash, the only child of the mis­matched sec­ond mar­riages of both his par­ents, lives in an unnamed city in Poland that close­ly resem­bles Perle’s home­town of Radom. His family’s life fol­lows the rou­tines and rit­u­als that had defined Jew­ish life in Poland for cen­turies. His illit­er­ate Tat­teh — father — works long and often unre­ward­ing days as a hay mer­chant, dav­en­ing morn­ing and evening and tak­ing Mendl to shul with him on the hol­i­days. Rest­less and always on the look­out for a bet­ter house, Mam­meh can­not for­get bet­ter days with her depart­ed first hus­band, when she had a home with brass door han­dles. On the brink of ado­les­cence, Mendl is an obser­vant nar­ra­tor of the life buzzing around him.

Mendl’s life revolves around his par­ents’ fam­i­lies — Tatteh’s rich sis­ter, Mammeh’s sis­ter and par­ents, his adult half-sis­ters and broth­ers, who turn up at the hol­i­days; the hang­ers-on and maids who appear at the house; his friends from ched­er or the neigh­bor­hood. The rela­tion­ships are dense and some­times dif­fi­cult but nev­er­the­less vital in this tight­ly knit com­mu­ni­ty. News trav­els fast, and so do its con­se­quences. The oth­ers, the goy­im, are also a pres­ence, with dai­ly life and busi­ness often bring­ing them and the Jews togeth­er.

Perle’s rich and vivid pic­ture brings to life the smells and the grit, the mud and the home­ly meals, the curs­es and the strug­gle to piece a liv­ing togeth­er. But at the edges change is tak­ing place. Mendl’s half-sis­ters and broth­ers arrive with their city atti­tudes and styl­ish clothes, a strik­ing con­trast to the unchang­ing habits of their par­ents. And when Mendl leaves the unques­tion­ing ched­er and enters a new school where he will learn Russ­ian as well as read Hebrew news­pa­pers, where the teach­ers’ heads are uncov­ered and a por­trait of a beard­less Baron de Hirsch stares down from the wall, he unwit­ting­ly becomes part of the change, too.

Writ­ing in the 1930’s, Per­le was already chron­i­cling the past, pre­serv­ing the hard­scrab­ble exis­tence of gen­er­a­tions of poor Pol­ish Jews. Their Yid­dish flows with insults and curs­es, some­what soft­ened by numer­ous diminu­tives. In her translator’s notes, Shirley Kumove explains her approach to repro­duc­ing not only the mean­ing but also the lilt and nuances of the orig­i­nal. Her deci­sion to retain the Yid­dish of untrans­lat­able terms, gloss­ing them with Eng­lish — pshakrev cholera…son of a bitch, a cholera take it” — works very well; how­ev­er, her Eng­lish slang con­trac­tions — are’ya” — some­times sound forced and awk­ward rather than earthy. In his straight­for­ward account of every­day life, from the steamy mat­ing of two hors­es and Mendl’s own phys­i­cal awak­en­ing to the small-time busi­ness deal­ings and fam­i­ly squab­bles, Per­le ful­fills the promise of his title, Ordi­nary Jews, and gives today’s read­ers entry to a world that is now dust. Bib­li­og­ra­phy, glos­sary and notes, photographs.

Maron L. Wax­man, retired edi­to­r­i­al direc­tor, spe­cial projects, at the Amer­i­can Muse­um of Nat­ur­al His­to­ry, was also an edi­to­r­i­al direc­tor at Harper­Collins and Book-of-the-Month Club.

Discussion Questions