Red Shoes for Rachel

Boris San­dler; Bar­nett Zumoff, trans.
  • Review
June 6, 2017

Yid­dish played a small but mag­i­cal role in my child­hood as a lan­guage spo­ken by my grand­par­ents. Grab­bing on to Yid­dish was like — to bor­row a metaphor from Boris Sandler’s char­ac­ter Bel­la — hold­ing on to a hand­ful of sand that drained out from between your fin­gers leav­ing only a mem­o­ry of its mass and heft.

As Mikhail Kru­tikov explains in the fore­word to Red Shoes for Rachel, San­dler has long been a cham­pi­on of mod­ern Yid­dish, pub­lish­ing sto­ries in Yid­dish since the 1990s, found­ing a Yid­dish mag­a­zine for chil­dren, teach­ing Yid­dish at Hebrew Uni­ver­si­ty, and serv­ing as edi­tor-in-chief of the Yid­dish Foreword.

In this book, San­dler brings togeth­er three novel­las orig­i­nal­ly writ­ten in Yid­dish and beau­ti­ful­ly trans­lat­ed by Bar­nett Zumoff. In the first, Sarah, a sur­vivor of the Nazi inva­sion of Bessara­bia and the har­row­ing expe­ri­ences of depor­ta­tion and the Pecho­ra con­cen­tra­tion camp, is near­ing the end of her life. She has immi­grat­ed to Israel, but her adjust­ment to the land is dif­fi­cult. The sec­ond novel­la is a love sto­ry between Rachel and Yascha, whose par­ents endured the same wartime hor­rors as Sarah. While Rachel grew up in Brook­lyn, Yascha’s fam­i­ly returned to a cor­ner of the Sovi­et Union where Yid­dish was still spo­ken. The future lovers come to their rela­tion­ship car­ry­ing the bag­gage not just of their own past, but that of their par­ents as well. In the final novel­la, Bel­la, a Russ­ian immi­grant, is prepar­ing for her thir­ti­eth wed­ding anniver­sary while her hus­band Mark is ques­tion­ing whether or not the mar­riage has the capac­i­ty to sur­vive. In the end, it’s a joke, of the type that’s fun­ny because of its truth, that brings them peace.

The three novel­las all fea­ture char­ac­ters who strug­gle with loss and long­ing, past and present, mem­o­ry and its con­se­quences. They tell the sto­ries of peo­ple whose roots have been cut and who strug­gle to find a foothold. Shared themes emerge. The notion of fate or des­tiny runs through the sto­ries. Hid­ing places or alcoves rep­re­sent places where char­ac­ters con­front their pain.

But what’s most com­pelling is Sandler’s unique turn of phrase that sets up a poet­ic ten­sion between what is and what might have been. In a moment of rec­ol­lec­tion about her father, Rachel want­ed to ask him some­thing about that, but some­thing held her back till it was entire­ly for­got­ten, or, more accu­rate­ly, moved back to a dis­tant cor­ner of her mem­o­ry like many oth­er ques­tions that remained lying there, silent­ly dying away with­out answer.” Yascha, asleep on Rachel’s couch, felt the touch of her gaze on his eye­lash­es, or so he imag­ined.” And Bel­la, after recall­ing a moment of indis­cre­tion, tucked it away in the secret cor­ners of her soul, such as every woman has.” With such prose, San­dler and his trans­la­tor have gift­ed the Eng­lish read­er with a sense of that elu­sive mass and heft of Yid­dish. Red Shoes for Rachel proves that Yid­dish isn’t a dead lan­guage after all, but one that still teems with mys­tery and life — just as I always suspected.

Discussion Questions