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

Indiana University Press  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.

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