Pio­neers: A Tale of Russ­ian-Jew­ish Life in the 1880s

S. A. An-sky; Michael R. Katz, trans.
  • Review
By – March 27, 2014

An-sky bril­liant­ly cap­tures a week in the life of young Jew­ish intel­lec­tu­als flee­ing their tiny vil­lages to find the pos­si­bil­i­ties of per­son­al growth in larg­er towns where the enlight­en­ment has begun to work its way.  It’s a rev­o­lu­tion of sorts that is aimed at dis­solv­ing anti-Semi­tism by shrink­ing the dif­fer­ence in out­look and behav­ior between Jews and their non-Jew­ish neigh­bors. This liv­ing por­trait of the Haskalah, the Jew­ish enlight­en­ment move­ment, vivid­ly dra­ma­tizes the movement’s con­cern with the mas­tery of sec­u­lar sub­jects, Euro­pean lan­guages, Hebrew, and trades.

Framed by the arrival of a young stu­dent to the larg­er town and the depar­ture to the younger student’s vil­lage by his some­what old­er role mod­el and men­tor, the body of the nov­el is filled with rich and some­times out­ra­geous dia­logue. The young men chat­ter and debate end­less­ly about new ideas, what they’ve been read­ing, and the out­mod­ed mod­els of thought, con­duct, and his­to­ry of tra­di­tion­al Judaism. They have been smoth­ered by it and must now exile them­selves from home to build com­mu­ni­ties of free-thinkers unfet­tered by super­sti­tion. They ques­tion author­i­ty. They are filled with a spir­it of rebel­lion, curios­i­ty, self-dis­cov­ery, and self-right­eous­ness. They are, or would be, mask­il­im.

Odd­ly, the syn­a­gogue is still cen­tral to their lives, at least as a meet­ing place. How­ev­er, their bond­ing rit­u­al is a meal of pork.

An-sky’s atti­tude is at once sym­pa­thet­ic and satir­ic. His touch, as repro­duced in Eng­lish by Katz, is mar­velous­ly sub­tle in dis­tin­guish­ing char­ac­ters and yet char­ac­ter­iz­ing a gen­er­a­tion of seekers.

This nov­el, real­ly only half of the nov­el as orig­i­nal­ly com­posed, sur­vives with­out a plot. The clos­est thing to a plot is the stu­dents’ ded­i­ca­tion to assist­ing a young woman of their acquain­tance to escape from her par­ents, who are insist­ing on an arranged mar­riage. She wish­es to relo­cate to a place where she will be able to make her inde­pen­dent way in the world. While the ini­tial scheme fal­ters, they even­tu­al­ly, with the help of anoth­er young woman – a non-Jew­ish ally – succeed.

This read­er was remind­ed of the spir­it of Green­wich Vil­lage in its heyday.

Foot­notes, glos­sary, intro­duc­tion, list of char­ac­ters, note on trans­la­tion, select­ed bibliography. 

Relat­ed Content:

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.

Discussion Questions