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Old World Crashes into New

Reading Kadya Molodowsky’s newly translated collection of stories, A House with Seven Windows, (Syracuse University Press, $19.95) is like spending an afternoon poring over someone else’s photo albums, so vivid and exact are Molodowslcy’s portraits of her contemporaries. She describes an angry housewife as looking like a wet hen shaking water from her feathers, and a panicked father of the bride with a face “like an old, wilted cabbage leaf” Short and to the point, these verbal snapshots focus on events that reveal her characters’ psychological makeup—a marriage breaks up over a fur coat, a groom replaces his bride six weeks before the wedding, a day is ruined over a cold cup of coffee.

In these 57 stories, first published 50 years ago in New York City and now meticulously translated and annotated by Leah Schoolnik, Molodowsky depicts an old world crashing into the walls of modernity’ as she hopscotches through the Yiddish speaking communities of the last century. A proud man deflates as his wife becomes the higher wage earner; a wife is enraged as her husband closes the shop for a week to sit shiva for his father; on the eve of Passover, a cabinet of holv books in the living room is replaced by a glass display case filled with knick knacks. Frequently, a story will begin in a shtetl and end in Brighton Beach or Jerusalem: teenage lovers kept apart by their families in Europe are reunited in Los Angeles after twenty-five years and three marriages. A shoemaker from Pshitik marvels at his son, an Israeli officer. The stories range from petty jealousies fought as epic battles (no slight is too small for two countrymen competing for the presidency of their community group) to heroic acts of kindness (a newly rich woman saves a family, who once rejected her, from bankruptcy).

Molodowsky perfectly depicts the quiet and not so quiet dignity of the hard working immigrant: parents don’t speak in public lest they embarrass their daughter, a great aunt complains incessantly while generously taking in refugees from the DP camps. A tale about a man who builds an empire fueled by a grudge after his boss refuses to sit next to him at the theater reveals the outsider’s heightened sensitivity to class and position.

Several of the tales chronicle a post- Holocaust Yiddish-speaking world crushed by the enormity of its loss, none more poignantly than “Gone…,” the story of an American man whose greatest pleasure is traveling to his former shtetl with a large suitcase bursting with gifts and a wallet full of money to donate. After the war, he discovers that the entire town is destroyed and with it his reason for living.

With so much of this vibrant world now gone, the only way to revisit it is through its literature. Like the house in its title story, A House with Seven Windows is a treasured inheritance, now available to a new generation through this translation.

Caraid O’Brien is a three-time recipient of a new play commission from the National Foundation for Jewish Culture for her translations of Yiddish plays.  www.cafepress.com/yiddishplays