The cherry trees are blossoming in the garden of Laura Sheynberg. Cherry blossom dew is in her hair, the “soft fragrance” permeating “her eyes, her mouth, her clothing.”
Laura is the protagonist of “In the Village,” one of Fradel Shtok’s dreamlike, at times erotic, Yiddish short stories, translated and collected in an important new volume titled From the Jewish Provinces.
A handful of the book’s stories are set in New York, where Shtok moved in 1907, at the age of 17. But what makes From the Jewish Provinces so fantastically compelling are her European stories, set in Galicia (now western Ukraine) in the early 1900s, in towns very much like Shtok’s native Skala (now Skala-Podilska).
In “In the Village,” Laura Sheynberg finally transgresses the far edge of her garden, climbing over the wall to the other side, where she glimpses the back of a passing non-Jewish man on horseback. She wills him to turn and see her, but his horse simply continues on, carrying him away. Even anointed with cherry blossoms, the beautiful, smart, and wealthy Laura is powerless to turn her girlish daydream of romance into the reality of an adult love affair. It is a quintessential moment in Shtok’s stories, as the dilemma of modern Jewish women comes sharply into focus, pulled as they are between the seductions of modernity and the grip of tradition.
One of the pleasures of Shtok’s prose is how alive it is with the lush symbolism of a landscape shared by Jews and Ukrainians. This external world of botanical imagery is deployed masterfully by Shtok, who makes native plant life a leitmotif in portraying the inner lives of girls and women. Shtok’s landscapes feel all the more important, now, as the world’s attention is turned to that very same landscape.
The terrible onslaught of Putin’s war against Ukraine has proved to be a point of reflection for the millions of Jews around the world who trace their ancestry, in whole or part, to somewhere within the borders of present-day Ukraine. As one news story put it, “For many Jews, Ukraine brings up memories of pogroms, antisemitism, and Nazi collaboration … But Jewish life in Ukraine is no longer what it was …”
That a dynamic, proudly Jewish Ukrainian is now leading Ukraine’s fight against Russia has kicked up not a small amount of cognitive dissonance, especially among American Jews. It doesn’t help that probably the most famous depiction of Jewish life in Ukraine is Fiddler on the Roof, a story in which Ukraine can offer its Jews nothing but a muddy dead end. Even scholars of Jewish history have found themselves grappling with these feelings. One Jewish historian recently tweeted, “Half my family originates in what is today Western Ukraine. I’ve never been there, I don’t know how the place looks and feels. There’s something so unsettling about a displacement so complete that you don’t even know what you lost.”
What From the Jewish Provinces offers us right now is a kind of poetry of small adjustments, many tiny moments pushing back on the heavy displacement of Jewish memory.
In “The Veil,” a young girl named Manya finally gets her wish to attend a relative’s wedding, acting as “garland maid.” The veil and myrtle are brought over to Manya’s house so she can help prepare them to be worn. “Manya leaned over the water bowl and smelled the myrtle. The small green twigs had swollen in the water and filled the house with a fragrance redolent of a bride, a white veil, preserves, and a wedding canopy.” Once softened, the myrtle branches are wound into the shape of a crown. The crown Manya creates may be redolent of the khupe (wedding canopy) but it is almost identical to the ones traditionally worn during Christian weddings in western Ukraine, where the myrtle crown is symbolic of love, purity, and fertility.
In “The First Train,” the protagonist, Nessi, becomes obsessed with the arrival of train travel to her town. Nessi knows “the train had been created for her.” Each day her longing to travel out into the world grows. She waits for the “fine gentleman” who will surely come and take her away. And yet, each day, the gentleman fails to show up. Nessi grows pale. “Her mother treated her with viburnum to invigorate her heart …”
Viburnum is known as koline in Yiddish and kalyna in Ukrainian. In traditional Ukrainian folk medicine, its flowers, bark, and berries have many well-known uses, and it’s not surprising to see it used by a Jewish mama for healing, along with a chocolate custard for good measure, of course.
What is surprising is how Shtok uses it in a story simply called “Viburnum.” It is winter, time for the first frozen viburnum berries to appear at the market. Our protagonist Reyzl suddenly volunteers to go to market for the family’s kerosene, a change of heart for the usually willful and disobedient girl. However, it isn’t a newfound desire to please that motivates her, but a sudden, undeniable craving for the viburnum berries.
Reyzl’s internal monologue careens between her wild cravings for the berries and her desires for womanly independence. And just as it would be impossible for Jack to go to market and not buy the magic beans, so it is inevitable that Reyzl takes the family’s five kreuzer coin and buys herself five bundles of viburnum berries.
Oh, how bitter viburnum berries were, how juicy they were. They were both good and not good. Her heart grew faint without them, and it grew faint when she had them … She’d give her life for the taste of a single berry.
Reyzl decides she will simply tell her family the coin was lost. With the first berry, “she felt as if she were swallowing the clear frost, the cold sun on the snow, and all of it like wine, dissolving in her blood like fire.” As Reyzl devours the last of the five bundles of berries, her attention is suddenly directed outward. The local count’s 18-year-old son has appeared. Just as hungrily as she ate up the berries, Reyzl now consumes the boy with her gaze, taking in his golden blond hair and elegant bearing. Could he fall in love with her? But she knows that such a thing is crazy. And yet?
It’s a remarkable scene of awakening, with Reyzl’s boldness tempting her further and further away from her family. She is powerfully drawn to the boy, just as she was drawn to the berries. But instead of following him, a “pride suddenly awoke within her.” Is it a womanly pride, a reluctance to chase a man? Or a Jewish pride, a refusal to deny one’s family for love? It’s clear in all her stories that Shtok saw Jewish women suffering from a double bind: oppression both from their subservient position in traditional Jewish life, as well as from their position as Jews in a non-Jewish world.
But the story really comes alive when we read the story through the lens of native folklore. Viburnum, kalyna, is one of the most important national symbols of Ukraine. Perhaps its foremost association is with young girls, love, and marriage. But its meaning extends far beyond that. Just a few years ago, a Ukrainian artist named Zinaïda Kubar made her New York art world debut with a piece of performance art simply called Kalyna. In it, three women kneel around a pile of kalyna, and press and smear the red berries into their chests. As an interview in Artnet noted:
“We have a war,” Zinaïda said. “A lot of women are losing fathers, sons, and brothers because of the fighting.” The artist sees the kalyna berries as representing both the bloodshed in the ongoing conflict and the way in which those events have affected women, forcing young girls to grow up quickly.
In “Viburnum,” Shtok draws on the imagery of the kalyna to paint a remarkable portrait of sexual awakening and female agency. As elsewhere in her stories, her deployment of shared Ukrainian landscape and symbolism is a liberatory act, freeing her to portray Jewish women in their double conflict.
Which isn’t to say that her artistry was appreciated by those best suited to understand it. Her first (and only) collection of Yiddish short stories came out in 1919 to “moderate praise” as well as a “healthy dose of criticism.” As translators Jordan Finkin and Alison Schachter write in the introduction, the Yiddish writer Aaron Glanz-Leyeles gave the collection a critical review in the Yiddish newspaper der Tog. Just a few years before, Glanz-Leyeles had published an essay called “Kultur un di froy” in which he “imagined that women’s writing should serve men’s creative needs.” It’s not surprising that Shtok’s daring and original stories were too much for him.
As the story goes, Shtok was so infuriated by the review, she went to the Tog offices and slapped him across the face. While that’s certainly satisfying to contemplate, it doesn’t make up for the fact that after the poor reviews of her short story collection, Shtok severed all ties with the Yiddish literary scene and essentially disappeared. For many years, she was thought to have died in a sanitarium in the 1930s. The story as it turns out is more complicated, and much sadder. One of the other important things From the Jewish Provinces achieves is finally setting the record straight on the details of Shtok’s life.
But right now, for those of us newly focused on Ukraine and its terrible humanitarian crisis, the stories of Fradel Shtok offer a moment to deepen our connection to that complicated landscape of memory, one in which flowers, and desires, once bloomed among neighbors.
ALSO: The American Society for Jewish Music presents ”Laughing at Hitler: Soviet Yiddish Music and Humor during World War II,” a lecture-concert with narration by Dr. Anna Shternshis, and a vocal and piano performance by singer, songwriter, and scholar Psoy Korolenko. March 21, register here ... On March 24, the European Institute for Jewish Studies in Sweden will present “Yiddish Writers in Translation: The Literary Genius of Chava Rosenfarb,” a lecture by Rosenfarb’s translator, and daughter, Goldie Morgentaler. More information about the program here, register here … The Center for Jewish History presents “Family History Today: Learn Just Enough Russian for Genealogy.” For folks starting out with no knowledge of the Cyrillic alphabet, “attendees will be able to identify family names and basic genealogical terms in handwritten vital record registers and printed business directories.” March 30, register here ... The Yiddish Book Center partners with the New Yiddish Rep to present a conversation with the artists of “di Froyen,” a new Yiddish-English play about women who leave the Hasidic community and then struggle to be reunited with their children. April 3, register here.
Rokhl Kafrissen is a New York-based cultural critic and playwright.