Fic­tion

The Lost Shtetl

  • Review
By – December 11, 2020

What if there was a hid­den Jew­ish vil­lage in Poland that escaped the Holo­caust? What if eighty years lat­er there was a young woman from that reli­gious vil­lage who insists she be divorced from her hus­band? What if there was a young man, an insignif­i­cant orphan, sent away from that vil­lage to find her when she dis­ap­pears? What if this sto­ry sud­den­ly grows much larg­er to encom­pass mat­ters of assim­i­la­tion, anti­semitism, effects of his­to­ry on indi­vid­u­als and col­lec­tive con­scious­ness, polit­i­cal lies which take hold, gov­ern­men­tal bureau­cra­cy, social class, eco­nom­ic choic­es, reli­gion, divi­sions with­in the Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty, sur­vival, fam­i­ly ties, and love…and you care about them all?

Gross’s mem­o­rable work of spec­u­la­tive fic­tion zings through­out with sur­pris­ing twists and turns. A read­er gasps, and the review­er is chal­lenged not to give too much away. Gross opens with a small slice of life in tra­di­tion­al, Yid­dish-speak­ing Kreskol, with Yid­dishisms defined at the bot­tom of pages. When his res­i­dent his­to­ri­an nar­ra­tor reports how Kreskol dis­cour­ages divorce, the read­er may assume a late nine­teenth cen­tu­ry set­ting. Eigh­teen pages lat­er, when Pesha van­ish­es, the nar­ra­tor zooms the lens back to reveal that Kreskol is sur­round­ed by thick for­est. Now three peo­ple have gone beyond the town walls. Six pages after that a heli­copter thrums over­head, and we real­ize that Kreskol is liv­ing the old ways in our time.

Kreskol has been dis­cov­ered. Is that a good thing or bad? Even before the bar­ri­er breaks in old Kreskol, laugh­ter and pain lie close togeth­er. There is humor in the indi­vid­ual exchanges between new­ly­wed Pesha Lin­dauer, who can­not explain what is wrong with her mar­riage, and the rab­bis and reb­bet­zins, who dis­mis­sive­ly ques­tion the final­i­ty of her feel­ings. Lurk­ing, how­ev­er, is the omi­nous shad­ow of vio­lent anger present in Ish­mael, her brood­ing, qui­et hus­band. Social inequal­i­ty is as root­ed as the trees that have iso­lat­ed the vil­lage. There are the yen­tas who sit com­fort­ably gos­sip­ing on a bench in the sun and attend Kreskol’s main syn­a­gogue, and the dis­par­aged, who live and attend the syn­a­gogue for the poor on the seamy edges of town. Yankel Lewinkopf’s moth­er, about whom sex­u­al rumors fly after her hus­band dis­ap­pears, is one. And, though no one can fault Yankel’s assid­u­ous­ness, he will always be con­sid­ered less­er there, unfit to be matched with a bride who is not deformed, even after his moth­er dies when he is eight.

Laugh­ter and tears. Many in Kresol fall to their knees and weep with joy, sure that the heli­copter is a char­i­ot and that the elder­ly beard­ed man (actu­al­ly, a trans­la­tor) who exits from it must be the Mes­si­ah. And then, the new­ly returned Yankel flat­ly tells them that they have missed the long-await­ed arrival — The Mes­si­ah came many years ago….His name was David Ben Guri­on.” Yet, still unwel­come in any of his rel­a­tives’ homes, Yankel decides not to stay.

Yankel, the under­dog who has been sent out on a knight’s errand which is not his own, holds the inti­ma­cy and roman­tic cen­ter of dis­cov­ery in this sto­ry. The bak­er from Kreskol has always tried to please, to do what was want­ed. When he then steps into the dan­gers of a much larg­er world, where he does not speak the lan­guage or know the mores, we root for him to suc­ceed. Slow­ly, Yankel’s con­fi­dence grows. Some­times now he is even helped by new friends or chance. He finds love, which is cru­el­ly, vio­lent­ly stolen. Will he per­se­vere? Is his jour­ney per­haps a metaphor for that of the Jew­ish people?

It is Kreskol’s sto­ry, too, as the town splits with the chal­lenge of hold­ing onto its val­ues when faced with the lures of new pros­per­i­ty and tech­nol­o­gy. Kreskol also grap­ples with the strug­gle to accept knowl­edge of the hor­rors that wiped out Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ties in much of Europe a half-cen­tu­ry before. Prej­u­dices that still remain in greater Poland maneu­ver to steal its future. Did Kreskol’s reac­tions affect its future? Should the town turn its back on the world, again?

Alive with human emo­tion, his­to­ry and provoca­tive ques­tions that call for debate, Max Gross’s first nov­el is a dis­cus­sion group’s dream.

Sharon Elswit, author of The Jew­ish Sto­ry Find­er, now resides in San Fran­cis­co, where she has been help­ing stu­dents vis­it­ing 826 Valen­cia loca­tions around the city to write sto­ries and poems and get­ting adults up and retelling Jew­ish folk­tales to share with their own spin. 

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