An old man and woman rediscover a love they were denied in their youth. A daughter nurses her father to the very end. A bitter woman cares, barely, for abandoned bastard children. What makes these scenarios and other plot lines so surprising in Arguing with the Storm: Stories by Yiddish Women Writers (The Feminist Press, $14.95) is not their foreignness but the emotional depths that resonate so profoundly. Editor Rhea Tregebov has culled these stories carefully, and each presents a kind of homespun clarity, a sophistication that comes not from cosmopolitanism but from the ability to accept a flawed but vitally alive world.
What is perhaps most surprising about Arguing with the Storm is that it does not include the writings of better-known writers such as Anna Margolin and Katya Molodowsky. Some of the writers in this rather far-flung collection may be more recognizable to those familiar with Yiddish literature, but for the most part, the stories, given to the editor by the Winnipeg Women’s Yiddish Reading Circle (whose members also assisted with translation) are not among the most famous of this already obscure canon. Nonetheless, these stories are charming and remarkably compelling. While the subtitle can be misleading — with the author including obviously non-fictional personal memoir under “stories” — the straightforward feeling behind most of these accounts, fictional and otherwise, is of characters grappling with their fates.
Some stories, like Sarah Hamer- Jacklyn’s “The Guest,” have an overt feminist bent. Here Dvora-Zisel annoys her modern son and daughter-in-law when she coddles their baby — and this aggravation intensifies into a bitter intergenerational feud, until Dvora-Zisel realizes that despite her age, she can live apart from them and support herself. Over her son’s protestations, she realizes she is better off in his house only as a guest. Parent-child relationships often take center stage in these tales, and they are always complicated. Paula Frankel- Zaltzman’s “A Natural Death” and Chava Rosenfarb’s “Letters to God” grapple with the lives and difficult deaths of the narrators’ fathers, and although one is memoir and one fiction, they both explore the tumultuous and complex connection between fathers and children.
In addition to family, class consciousness is at the forefront of these works, stories and memoirs alike recall sweatshop labor, grinding shtetl poverty, and the sorrows of mothers unable to provide for their children. The narrator of Hamer- Jacklyn’s “No More Rabbi!” commits a sin — providing a gentile nursemaid for her starving baby cousin, despite her aunt’s fear and horror that it will render him “unkosher” — in an effort to save the child’s life. Not all caretakers are able or willing to care for their children, however, and it is in the condemnation of the Jewish community’s apathy in Rochel Broches’ “Little Abrahams” that lends this book its hard-won moral backbone: these authors were unafraid to shine their lanterns into the dark corners of their own world, and the result is heartrending.
This valuable collection is worth reading for its literary merit alone. But with so much of the vast Yiddish culture already lost to us, these stories are also valuable for their sociological insights into Jewish life of a not-so-distant era.