A Tale of Russian-Jewish Life in the 1880s
Publication Year: 2014
S. A. An-sky's novel dramatizes the dilemmas of Jewish young people in late Tsarist Russia as they strive to throw off their traditional religious upbringing to adopt a secular and modern identity. The action unfolds in the town of M. in the Pale of Settlement, where an engaging cast of characters wrestles with cultural and social issues. Their exploits culminate in helping a young Jewish woman evade an arranged marriage and a young Russian woman leave home so she can pursue her studies at a European university. This startling novel reveals the tensions and triumphs of coming of age in a revolutionary time.
Published by: Indiana University Press
Series: Jewish Literature and Culture
Title Page, Copyright
Introduction: On the Border between Two Worlds
Shloyme-Zanvl Rappoport (Semyon Akimovich An-sky; 1863–1920) was a Russian-Jewish scholar, dramatist, ethnographer, and social activist. A prolific author, he wrote in two languages, Russian and Yiddish, in every imaginable genre: popular articles, scholarly books, stories, plays, revolutionary songs, and novels. He was a much sought-after public speaker, lecturing to enthusiastic audiences.2...
Note on Translation
List of Principal Characters
“Watch out, you slob!”
The young man slowly making his way down the middle of the street jumped to one side and turned to look in astonishment at the driver who had just threatened him with a fierce crack of his whip. Coming to a complete standstill, he watched with innocent curiosity as the carriage sped away....
A shop with a sign in Hebrew letters drew Eizerman’s attention: “Bookstore.”
Through the window, covered with dust and cobwebs, he could make out large
piles of books tied tightly with string, stacked up, leaning against the glass.
Eizerman approached the open door and peeked in. Books, both in bundles and separately, lay in disorder on the shelves, the floor, and the counter. Behind...
After catching up with the gymnasium student, Eizerman walked behind him for several minutes, unable to decide whether to call out to him and not knowing how to do it. At last, summoning his courage, he gently pulled on his coattail from behind and said in a trembling voice, “Look here! Gymnasium student!”...
Kapluner and Eizerman went along the street, turned into a steep, narrow, muddy lane with pathetic little hovels and black, bare patches from a recent fire; they climbed down into a ravine and, crossing it, climbed another hill. A new vista opened before Eizerman. Instead of the small lane they’d just come through, inundated with slops and littered with garbage and rotting offal, with its crooked...
“Well, I see what sort of an odd fellow you are!” Uler said. “Sit down and tell
me about yourself. . . .”
“What’s there to tell? You see for yourself. . . .”
“Did you run away from the yeshiva?”
“No, from home.”
“You’ve never been to yeshiva?”
“No. . . .”...
A young man aged about twenty emerged from the house; he was frail, short, with an elongated face and anxious, delicate, chiseled features. His black eyes, with their somewhat enlarged pupils, shone with a soft light; and at the same time they possessed an insistent, serious, focused, almost ascetic expression. This look and his short beard conveyed a certain solidity to the young man’s small, fragile figure....
Mirkin’s room was long and narrow, with one window opening into the courtyard and a large, wide stove-bench.1 The only furniture was an old iron bedstead on which, instead of a mattress, lay a folded blanket and a cushion taken from an armchair at the head of the bed. A small table and a stool stood near the window. Several dozen books lay in a large heap on the stove-bench, among them hunks of black bread and several lumps of sugar....
Eizerman stood all the while silent and motionless, as if under a spell. The exchange produced an incredibly strong, almost overwhelming impression on him. From the first lines he understood what was going on and immediately grasped all the power of the subtle, murderous irony of the piece. Holding his breath, his mouth half-open and eyes wide-open, he listened to the reading—it seemed that he was hearing a severe, denunciatory sermon delivered by an ancient prophet....
“What’s the Ore miklet where you want to take me?” asked Eizerman with
“You’ll find out when we get there!” replied Uler in a conspiratorial tone of voice. “You see, it’s an apartment where any of us can stay,” he began to explain immediately. “That’s why we call it an Ore Miklet. Three people are living there...
The synagogue seemed to Eizerman to be brighter, larger, and more dazzling than those in Miloslavka. When he and Uler walked in, evening prayers were already under way. Uler headed off somewhere and disappeared; Eizerman began to look around at the congregation and noticed several men among them wearing short jackets, dickeys, and trimmed side curls. No one paid them any special...
The apartment that was referred to as the Ore Miklet was located at the edge of town, in an old half-derelict building that had long stood empty. No one knew exactly who owned the building, and even less by whose permission Elka Rasseyer had settled there. Her reputation in the neighborhood was of the worst sort. By profession, she and her husband, whom the neighbors hardly ever saw, were ragpickers....
Faevich climbed down from the sleeping bench, stood up straight, smoothing
his hair, then turned to Eizerman and asked with good-natured irony, “Well,
you haven’t begun to prepare for the gymnasium?”
“No, no!” replied Eizerman hastily, almost in fright. “I haven’t even studied grammar yet!”
“Do you really need grammar? Can’t you get along without it?” Faevich interrupted....
While leaving, Faevich bumped into a short, thin young man wearing a jacket
with long flaps. He was walking along with his head bowed, quietly and modestly.
“Ah, Hillel!” Faevich greeted him.
“Is Mirkin here?” asked Hillel softly, as if in passing, without raising his head or looking at Faevich....
Mirkin came into the room carrying a small bundle of books.
“You have some work from Zelingovich,” he said, handing the books to Tsiporin. “But they’ve asked that they be bound better. In some of your previous work, they say, pages have fallen out, several are in the wrong order, and the spine of the book is. . . .”...
As soon as Eizerman had gone, Mirkin began speaking enthusiastically, with
considerable agitation: “It’s essential to discuss a very important matter right now!
It’s necessary to save a human being!”
“Sonya Beryasheva!” Uler explained hastily.
“Listen to what she writes!”
Mirkin read her note aloud....
Kornblat followed the conversation attentively, without letting go of his
textbook. After some hesitation, he put the book aside and approached the table.
“Here’s what I have to say,” he began in a business-like manner. “There’s only one sure means to rescue her! It’s a difficult step, but if she agrees to it, she’ll immediately avoid this fellow, as well as any others. . . .”...
Eizerman left the Ore Miklet in an elevated mood, but at the same time he felt a vague sense of somberness and confusion that he couldn’t explain to himself. He tried to strike up a conversation with Tsiporin, who walked on ahead with his head bowed, but he didn’t reply or else answered abruptly and unwillingly. Eizerman fell silent; bouncing up and down clumsily, he followed fast behind Tsiporin....
Eizerman left Kapluner’s home completely disheartened. He’d expected so much from the first lesson—and had gotten so little from it! He’d hoped the teacher would immediately reveal to him the source of “secular wisdom”; instead, he’d been handed a children’s story to read, had lingered on the pronunciation of individual letters as if that were important, and had been compelled...
In a corner of the synagogue, in the feeble light of two burning candle ends, the silhouettes of the gathered yeshiva students were visible. In the opposite corner, scarcely illuminated by a tallow candle, behind a large folio, sat a pitiful, skinny young man; in a low voice, he was chanting a Talmudic melody, delicate, wistful, and melancholy; he was studying the Talmud. The young man’s body swayed back and forth; his enormous shadow was wildly, rapidly, and feverishly crisscrossing...
The next morning Eizerman awoke late and found Mirkin next to the samovar
with a book.
“What a pleasure to wake up in the morning and not be compelled to lay tefillin first of all!” cried Eizerman joyfully. “This is the first time in my life that I feel as good and free as I do now!”...
A yeshiva student, one of Mirkin’s synagogue pupils, entered the room; he
looked askance at Geverman, handed Mirkin a note, whispered mysteriously,
“From Hillel,” and then beat a hasty retreat.
The note consisted of only a few words: “Agreed. She’ll be where she’s supposed to be tomorrow after dinner. Take action.”...
When Mirkin returned home, his landlady met him at the door; she was a
plump countrywoman with the lively, suntanned face of a market vendor. She
growled at him hoarsely and angrily, “Some old hag was here looking for you!”
“Who was it?”
“Some old Jewess,” explained the landlady. “Twice she came. . . .”...
Mirkin set off to see Kapluner. Upset by his meeting with Geverman’s mother, he walked hurriedly, his head bowed, considering how best to convey to Geverman the conversation he’d had with his mother. However much Esther had won his sympathy, he still didn’t take her side in the matter; he repeated to himself that mothers, with their concessions, tears, and solicitude, could be more dangerous...
With Meerov’s unexpected departure, the debate came to an end. Only Mirkin and the gymnasium student in glasses sitting on the side continued their conversation in a whisper, comparing the talents of Dostoevsky and Mikhailov. After some hesitation, Mirkin observed in a low voice, “If you want to know the whole truth, I confess that I consider both Mikhailov and Dostoevsky immeasurably...
Mirkin walked home together with Geverman. They trooped along in silence,
both greatly affected by the discussion about conversion.
“You know,” Mirkin began all of a sudden in a very serious tone of voice. “I’ve been thinking about this question and have reached the conclusion that you’re making a big mistake. The question of conversion . . .”...
The Shifrins, brother and sister, were the children of a wealthy and strongly Russified contractor who’d moved from Moscow not long ago and settled in M. Among the democratic group of realists and freethinkers, they had the fatal reputation of being incorrigible aristocrats. Lev Shifrin, a gymnasium student in the eighth class, was considered cultured and well read, but he dressed impeccably,...
Shifrin came into the room, a tall, poised gymnasium student dressed somewhat
pretentiously like a dandy. Upon seeing Mirkin he began speaking in an affected
manner, with a barely detectable note of sarcasm in his voice: “B-bon soir-r,
Monsieur Mirkin,”1 and he shook his hand.
Then he went up to Yegorova, bowed to her elegantly and respectfully, and said, “Olga Andreevna!”2...
Mirkin was so upset that as he was running into the dining room, he couldn’t
find the door right away and rushed helplessly around the room.
Just at that moment the side door opened and Manya glanced in.
“Is that you, Mirkin? Are you leaving? Olga asks you to wait for her; she’s also going home.”...
Mirkin stood for a moment at the entrance in some sort of stupor, as if expecting Yegorova to reappear. Then he looked around in astonishment and, recovering somewhat, exclaimed excitedly, “What a marvelous, splendid person! What a holy, ideal personality!”...
Mirkin woke up the next morning feeling dejected—and he decided at once that the reason for his bad mood, his quarrel with Shifrin, portended unfortunate consequences. Shifrin was the only person who at critical moments could obtain large sums of money, that is, five or even ten rubles, for urgent or chronic needs. Now this source had dried up, and it was precisely at such a moment when it was...
The comrades, discouraged and defeated, made their way back to the Ore Miklet.
Faevich had gone into the shop too early. . . . Kornblat began to explain their failure.
“We should’ve done it in a very different way,” Uler echoed. “We should’ve waited until her father had left. . . .”...
Beryasheva arrived about an hour later; she was a tall, graceful young woman with a pale face, a slender, aquiline nose, and large dark eyes reflecting her unhealthy exhaustion. Her cousin, Tsipa Zvulovina,1 came along with her, a clever, round-faced, freckled young woman, with small, lively eyes and an overly audacious manner. Zvulovina entered first; glancing around quickly and turning...
Mirkin continued to stare fixedly at Beryasheva. Suddenly he stood up, took
a few paces around the room, stopped, and announced steadfastly and decisively,
“You must run away from home. That’s your only salvation!”
Zvulovina jumped up from her seat and stared at Mirkin, her big round eyes wide open, and an expression of fear and incomprehension on her face. Beryasheva...
After settling into his own apartment, Eizerman threw himself into his studies with gusto. He worked the first day without a break from morning until late at night, forgetting all about food and rest. During that day his attitude to Kapluner’s method of instruction changed significantly. Unexpectedly he found the lessons Kapluner had assigned held great interest for him and possessed their ...
From Eizerman, Mirkin headed to Yegorova to ask her to hide Beryasheva on the night of her escape and to escort her to the nearest train station the next morning. He went with an assured look, serene and decisive, and pondered the surest and best way to arrange the flight. His thoughts were business-like, and Yegorova figured in them as one of his usual acquaintances. Somewhere in the recesses of...
The next day, Friday, Mirkin and his closest comrades were in a state of great agitation. The role of each in Beryasheva’s escape was very precisely defined. Hillel was supposed to spend the night at the Beryashevs’ to help Sonya if necessary; and in case the plot was discovered the very night she’d run away, he was to inform Mirkin about it immediately. Mirkin and Faevich were to be waiting for the ...
Mirkin awoke early the next morning. Uler was sleeping all curled up, snoring, on the bench. After dressing, Mirkin was about to go into the kitchen to wash when all of a sudden some strange noise reached him from the street and the outer door slammed shut forcefully. He hardly had time to think before old man Beryashev stormed into his room. He had a fierce expression on his face, and his...
Eizerman was not mistaken in expecting that after dinner several “Hasids” would come to see Mirkin. Usually some young people would gather at Mirkin’s every Saturday after dinner: gymnasium students who lived with their parents; members of the proletariat, including those who lived at the Ore Miklet; and yeshiva students who were freethinkers of various degrees. They would come to...
The small room was filled with people. They sat on beds and benches, the floor, and in each other’s laps. A samovar was boiling on the table. They took turns drinking tea from the only two glasses they had. The guests, first one, then another, ran out for provisions: soon loaves of bread, sausage, even pastries began to appear on the table. Thick tobacco smoke hung in the room; lively conversation was taking place, and the sound of young laughter could be heard....
It had begun to grow dark when Tsiporin suddenly appeared. His boots were
covered with mud right up to the top, his face was tired, his hair dripping with
sweat, but his eyes shone with euphoric excitement.
The jubilant crowd was especially glad to see him and greeted him with cries and questions as to why he had come so late....
The guests dispersed. Only Eizerman remained, sitting at the table with a book.
Mirkin paced the room and in a low voice, pensively and dreamily, sang his favorite
song, “Hakitsah ‘ami”:1
“How long will you sleep, oh, my people? Awake!
The sun’s rays have already replaced night’s darkness....
After Eizerman’s departure, Mirkin continued to think about Miloslavka. He imagined the enormous and productive work that awaited a maskil there. First of all, of course, it was essential to rescue the miserable teacher, to organize his escape. Then it was necessary to begin to sow the seeds of freethinking among young people, to constitute a small, united group, and to launch a struggle against...
Selected Bibliography of Works in English
About the Author