- Strange Ways (Of fremde Vegn)
Translations into English of fiction by Yiddish women writers are still relatively rare, so the translation of Rokhl Faygenberg’s Strange Ways by Golda and the late Robert Werman is a welcome, even important, addition to this body of work. Strange Ways was first published in 1925 in Warsaw, and, according to Golda Werman’s introduction, this was a milestone in Yiddish letters, since back then it was “almost unprecedented” for a full-length novel by a woman to be published in Yiddish. From a literary point of view, Strange Ways is a fine novel, one that even today feels surprisingly modern and fresh. At least one reason for this is that, at its core, it is a clear-eyed indictment of the patriarchy of shtetl life, and it depicts unflinchingly the double standard applied to women and men, and the damaging effects of this on the women in that time and place.
Strange Ways is set in a shtetl that, thanks to the development of a new railway line, becomes increasingly connected to the outside world, thus exposing its residents to the new norms and customs of the city (the “strange ways” of the title). The winds of change affect everything from clothing fashions to political, social, and religious ideology. Socialism, Zionism, atheism and assimilationism all make their appearances here, along with new ideas about the role of women (some of the girls in this novel study in gymnasia and acquire professions). This theme—social change in the shtetl—was not, of course, new ground in Yiddish literature. But what makes Strange Ways different and fascinating, especially for a contemporary Jewish feminist, is that Faygenberg examines these changes through the lens of gender.
The main character in Strange Ways is Sheyndel, a beautiful, intelligent young woman who is in love with Borukh, a married man. In order to accommodate this relationship, Sheyndel moves to the city, ostensibly to study midwifery, and there she also learns to play chess and holds a nightly salon, where she and her circle of men discuss literature and politics. Ultimately, however, there is no way for Sheyndel to really escape the stultifying judgments and sexism of the shtetl. The ending of Strange Ways (no spoiler—the details will not be revealed here) is essentially an utter [End Page 204] condemnation of the patriarchy of the shtetl. This point, in case a reader happens to miss it, is further underlined by the symbolism of her husband’s tallis, which plays a crucial role in how this novel ends.
That said, Faygenberg is too fine a writer and too nuanced in her thinking to imply that it is only men who can be harmful, cruel or oppressive to women. In Strange Ways, the foundation for the tragic situation faced by Sheyndel is laid by a woman: Devora, Borukh’s powerful mother, who—threatened by Sheyndel’s beauty, intelligence and grace, and Borukh’s obvious attraction to her—manipulates her son into marrying someone else. As for the other important women in this novel, Sheyndel’s mother and grandmother are crude, grasping and uneducated women who are constantly quarreling with each other, are committed above all to holding on to Sheyndel’s learned father, Leyzer, and are fundamentally unable to comprehend a character as complex as Sheyndel. Finally, regarding women her own age, it is noteworthy that Sheyndel has no women friends and is not close to any of her three sisters. In fact, late in the novel, she feels something close to hatred for her youngest sister, Gittel, whom she perceives as a rival for Borukh’s affections. Sheyndel’s life, in short, is a life without any women’s warmth or real “sisterhood” in it, and this makes her all the more vulnerable to the actions and judgments of the men around her.
Reading Strange Ways as a Jewish feminist today, one feels immediate identification with and empathy for Sheyndel. It is a testament to Faygenberg’s skill that one finds oneself on Sheyndel’s side, rooting for...