JULY 22, 2022
THE YIDDISH SHORT-STORY WRITER and poet Fradl Shtok was long known for all the wrong reasons. She was falsely credited with writing the first sonnets in Yiddish; she slapped an editor across the face for not liking her work enough, or so the rumor went; and her lone book in English, the 1927 novel Musicians Only, was panned as “very poor” and “clumsy in everything” by The New York Times. She was acclaimed by some, yet she stopped publishing entirely, save for a single story in 1942, and was presumed dead. Her personal life and her literary life were full of false leads and question marks, down to the date of her death, now thought to be several decades after she supposedly disappeared.
Now, a wonderful new translation, From the Jewish Provinces: Selected Stories, by Jordan D. Finkin and Allison Schachter, makes a persuasive case that Shtok should be far better known for all the right reasons, namely her incredible Yiddish stories. Just three or four pages long, each of these tales offers a piercing look into the inner lives of women confronting modernity, taking a chance on a new life in a new place, which usually meant immigration to the United States.
I admit I was initially intrigued by Shtok because I realized, while reading Finkin and Schachter’s excellent and informative introduction, that my own father had likely seen her in the years she supposedly disappeared, without knowing who she was. It was another case of Shtok being present and not present simultaneously. My mathematician father works at a research institute on the grounds of the Rockland Psychiatric Center, previously known as the Rockland State Hospital, where Shtok apparently lived from 1966 to 1990, while everyone in the Yiddish literary world thought she was dead. Shtok “lived through a period of disintegrations — political, social, and personal,” the translators note, and all of that can be felt in her fiction. That familiarity with things falling apart also makes Shtok timely. But what makes her work really memorable is her ability to depict deception in its myriad forms. In Shtok’s world, humans deceive each other and themselves, always.
Immigration does not change human nature; the deception of the Old World returns in different forms in the New World. Finkin and Schachter have divided these compact stories into two varieties: European Stories and American Stories. The former focus on young women who crave independence, who cherish dreams and desires their family and community may not approve of. In the latter, those women — Jewish immigrants from Europe, like Shtok — are older, more desperate, ground down by the demands of American capitalism.
It’s hard not to flinch as Shtok shows us how men deceive women. Consider “Another Bride,” one of the European stories, in which a man who is no longer young receives a suggestion of yet another possible bride. The story opens like this:
It was quite possibly the twentieth bride he been to look at so far, and as always it went like this. First Henekh the matchmaker would scope one out in the dry goods store and whisper his secret to old Hirsh. Then Hirsh would whisper it to Mrs. Hirsh, and she would tell it in strictest confidence to Sholem, their son. Nothing more was necessary. The whole town knew.
Sholem is a very small man, we learn, “and his head sat on his pinched shoulders like a chicken in a basket,” yet he “wanted a bride who was tall, beautiful and clever.” But then Shtok delivers a bombshell toward the end of the first page of this four-page story: “The real reason he had not married was known to him alone. Quite simply — he liked traveling around looking at potential brides. It had become something he couldn’t live without.” Shtok continues: “He loved getting ready for the trip, the dressing up, the mounting of the cart, the commotion. […] And the bride was radiant, awaiting her joy. There were pastries with preserves on the table, the brass samovar boiling, and a chicken roasting in the kitchen.”
That roast chicken stayed with me, and I could imagine Sholem savoring it. Despite the cart for transportation, the story felt contemporary in its image of a potential bridegroom more interested in the food than the girl. There is no time limit on individuals who get an ego boost from conveniently ignoring the feelings of others, and narcissists are always with us. In Shtok’s hands, deception is eternal.
Shtok is especially good at showing the lies we tell ourselves. One of the most memorable American stories, “Sisters,” is about a pair of twins, “though Gosi looked around fifty and Poli looked thirty.” In this brief phrase, Shtok captures the unfairness of life, and the toll of immigrant existence. The sisters never go anywhere, we learn, but they have their pleasures.
Gosi loved being right. Her life’s pleasure consisted in always being right. So she studied how to argue straight to the point, and everyone had to give in. It seemed she wanted nothing more than for people to let her be right. Even when someone admitted she was right, she wouldn’t let it go. She took hold of the issue, and tackling every angle, she demonstrated how right she was.
This need to be right overcomes any possibility of companionship with the widower next door. The reader can feel Gosi sabotaging her own life, finding solace in the illusion that she is always correct. Over and over, whether in the shtetl or on the Lower East Side, Shtok poignantly depicts human hopes, especially feminine hopes, as well as human frailty — all of which she was intimately familiar with from her own life.
Shtok was born in 1890 on the edge of the Habsburg Empire, in Galicia, located on the Russian border. Galicia has a storied place in Jewish literary history; the great Hebrew writer and Nobel Prize winner Shmuel Yosef Agnon was born there, as well as the Yiddish writer Moishe-Leyb Halpern, and Galicia was home to many Yiddish women writers. Shtok’s life there was marked by difficulty: her parents died when she was a child, and relatives took her in. It seems that she found comfort and a home of sorts in European culture. Shtok immigrated to New York in 1907, at age 17, and that trajectory is echoed in the lives of her characters. Shtok’s first poems were published in 1910, while she was living on the Lower East Side with an aunt and uncle. Throughout her life, Shtok struggled with mental illness.
Her characters’ hopes are tied to the hopes of modernity. The opening story, “The First Train,” depicts the very first train to come to a small town, and it puts us in the world Shtok grew up in, as the 19th century made way for the 20th. “The whole town had been roused as if from a deep sleep. Everyone wanted to travel. That moldy old place, standing year after year like a stagnant swamp, was energized by new sounds. You could hear the echo of a distant world calling.” But the focus isn’t on the fact of the locomotive, or the visitors the train brings. Instead, the focus is on one young woman, Nessi, who “swayed like a tree branch. Everyone liked watching her. The train had been created for her.” Nessi watches the train, and the reader looks into her soul. Then everything changes radically:
One time she stood watching a train that was about to depart when she caught sight of the German’s face looking out the window. She knew secondhand that his name was Ludwig Herz. Was she just imagining that he was beckoning to her with his head? She dashed madly for the train, heading straight for him. Ludwig was stunned, frozen in place. Before he knew it, the conductor had shut the doors, the whistle sounded, and the train started moving.
Shtok depicts women, like Nessi, who are willing to take great risks, but she also shows women who are trapped in their circumstances, including loveless marriages. In Shtok’s last known story in Yiddish, “A Fur Salesman,” a man is shown deceiving customers in order to make more money. Shtok’s dialogue, which closes the book, also features his terrified wife:
“You, come over here,” he says to his wife.
The little bags under her tearful eyes obediently look up.
“What do you say to that, eh? Is your husband a salesman or what?”
Her downcast eyes stare submissively.
“Ten dollars. A real fortune! Just give it a feel. Diamonds, jewels, silver and gold! So is your husband a salesman or what?”
He takes a look around to see if the little ones are watching, then takes her by the chin: “Is your husband a salesman?!”
The character of the deceptive salesman interested me, because Shtok probably wasn’t the best promoter of her own work. Her first Yiddish stories were published in 1916, and her Gezamelte Ertsehlungen (Collected Stories) appeared in 1919. This volume received some acclaim and some criticism, but here too the myth of Shtok — whose career, like her work, displayed the fine line between truth and illusion — intervenes once again. As Finkin and Schachter write in the introduction: “After a critical review by the poet and editor Aaron Glanz-Leyeles appeared in the newspaper Der Tog, Shtok was rumored to have stormed into the paper’s editorial offices, slapped Glanz-Leyeles across the face, and left, severing her literary ties to Yiddish for good.”
The translators are entirely right to wonder how such a distinctive and talented writer could have been ignored for so long. True, Shtok’s life story reflects the tremendous challenges of her historical moment, the plight of immigrant women trying to stay afloat, as well as her individual struggles with mental illness. But her characteristic theme of how badly men treat women remains resonant, and as the editors point out, male literary figures in the Yiddish world usually had a role in mind for women writers. In their view, women could write poetry, so it was convenient to imagine that one had invented the Yiddish sonnet. But serious literary fiction? That was for men alone.
But time may have the last word. As Joseph Berger recently observed in an article in The New York Times, after many decades of neglect, a new generation of translators has begun to revive interest in the work of Yiddish women writers. And it’s hard not to see Shtok’s concerns — a rapidly changing technological landscape, empires in decline, the plight of women in a man’s world, the outsize role of deception in life — as deeply contemporary. Fradl Shtok’s vivid depiction of young women struggling against the tides of history has a universal appeal that decades of rumor cannot silence, as this fine collection amply shows.