Strange Ways (of fremde Vegn), by Rokhl Faygenberg. Published 2007 by Gefen Publishing House.
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Strange Ways, originally published in Yiddish in 1925, is one of a very few novels written in that language by a woman, and one of even fewer to be translated into English. Although it's not a perfect novel, I hope it will be the beginning of a trend that will see more literature of this period made accessible to a wider audience.
Rokhl Faygenberg stepped outside the lines of early 20th century shtetl life when she decided to become a writer, and her heroine, Sheyndel, also steps outside the lines, but her transgression is moral and sexual rather than professional. Sheyndel is a beautiful young woman, intelligent and from a respectable family. She is also highly sought-after as a wife, but she does not wish to marry. She turns down handsome Borukh at first, but falls for him full-force once he is married to mousy and family-oriented Minne. Instead of marriage, Sheyndel wants an education and a career, beautiful clothes and material things, which Borukh underwrites. Borukh is deeply conflicted about his own role; drawn to traditional Jewish life, he is also seduced by worldly things and smitten with his friend Leon's more secular, cosmopolitan lifestyle, which includes a beautiful wife who tolerates his many infidelities. Borukh wants his own wife to follow suit, but neither woman is satisfied with her lot. Minne is depressed by Borukh's affair, and, shamed by the stigma of an adultery, Sheyndel desperately wants the respectability of marriage and for Borukh to take her to Palestine and a new life. Blinded by passion and complacency, she chooses to believe him when he says he will.
Borukh and Sheyndel's confusion is emblematic of their community, which itself is confused and teetering between tradition and modernity. Their quiet village becomes a bustling commercial center when a railroad is built into the town, bringing in all kinds of people, and their ideas and customs. Things are going so well that emigration to America slows, with some families even recalling those who have made the journey, and others embracing the future. Others, like Sheyndel's father, retreat into tradition and religious study.
I think Strange Ways will best appeal to those with a serious interest in Jewish or women's literature. Written in a folk-tale style reminiscent of some I.B. Singer, her tone often strikes me as dated and stilted- it's definitely a period piece. It's engaging enough but hardly electrifying; I found it somewhat didactic as well, with Sheyndel's slow downward spiral sad to watch. Equal parts Lily Bart and Anna Karenina, she makes out as well as either woman in the end. Overall I think the book is an important addition to the canon of shtetl literature, and aficionados will enjoy it, but most general readers could give it a pass.
FTC Disclosure: I did not receive this book for review from the publisher.