A large, ungainly coach, a sort of Noah’s ark stuffed with passengers, lumbered slowly and with difficulty down the wide, muddy roads of the town of Miloslavka. The pair of horses, so gaunt their ribs protruded, kept stumbling and swaying off course. The coach rocked and twisted like a ship in a storm, rose and dipped through inkwells of mud. Spattered from head to foot, the coachman—a small old Jew who looked fatigued to the bone—tried to spur on his horses, shouting and flailing his ragged whip with all his strength. At critical moments, he even cursed them, and his curses rang out like a howling prayer.
The coach stopped at one house, then at another. Moaning and sighing, disheveled passengers climbed out at each stop. Legs tingling, barely alive, they began pulling out bed linens, parcels, and cases of all kinds from inside the coach. Men, women, and children came running out of houses and shops to greet them, and the dead-silent street now rang with shouts of joy, kisses, and disputes with the coachman. Finally, the coach lumbered onward.
After dropping off the tenth, or perhaps the twelfth, passenger, the coachman peered into the coach, where a single person sat, huddled in a corner. He called out hoarsely, “Where are you going, Sir?”
“Where am I going?” the man responded hastily, a touch of anxiety in his tone. “To an inn. Please be so kind as to take me to an inn.”
“Fine, let it be Leivik. I know no one. I’m not from around here.”
The coachman groaned deeply and climbed back up on the coachbox. His plaintive sigh let the horses know they had to continue to plod. A quarter of an hour later, the coach arrived at a large, derelict one-story house with a door set in the middle of the front wall, beside which stood a tall post with a bundle of rotten hay tied to the top. As he drove into the stable, the coachman scrambled off the coachbox and shouted, “We’re here. Please get out.”
A young man of about twenty emerged from the coach. He was skinny and slight, with a small black beard, a hunched back, and furtive eyes. He wore a short coat that was too tight, and his bare hands protruded from the sleeves, which were too short; his trousers were ragged and patched, and his shoes were badly worn. On his head was a new silk hat, and on his breast, a grimy bib-front, sewn with black thread. The young man looked around, bewildered: a long, desolate, empty street lined with haphazard houses steeped in mud. On one side of the street, an old inn. The sky thick with heavy, dark clouds.
The man grunted and stretched his bones. He clearly felt uncomfortable and miserable in his tight coat and trousers. He pulled a small linen pouch out of his pocket, turned to one side, and began carefully counting out some coins.
The coachman pulled the young man’s parcel out of the coach and waited for payment. Only now did he have a chance to notice the man’s unusual attire.
“What are you, young man? A singer?” he asked casually. He couldn’t imagine that anyone but a singer would wear such clothes.
“No, not a singer,” the man replied with a frown, and turning back, he handed the coachman a handful of copper coins. “Here’s seventy-five kopecks, as we agreed.”
The coachman counted the money and said in a woeful voice, “Sir, you really should give me a tip. You saw the kind of trip this was! An ordeal! Have pity. At least a gulden.”
“No,” the young man said, gesturing with his hand. “I won’t give you a single groschen more. Tips! What a new-fangled invention! We agreed on the fare, and I can’t give you more, I’m not a rich man.”
“Well, if you can’t, you can’t,” the coachman said bitterly. “I’m not going to take it from you by force. May God be with you.” Sighing, he climbed onto the coachbox, and without wishing the man good health, he drove off.
The young man opened the door to the inn: a large, gloomy, bare room with an earthen floor and a few dirty tables and chairs near the wall. The air was thick; the smells of liquor and raw fish filled the room. A middle-aged woman sat on a large settle, knitting a sock. When the young man entered, she lifted her head and her hands grew still, a questioning expression on her face.
“Good morning, Ma’am,” the man said, still standing at the door. “Is this an inn? Can a person get a bed here?”
The woman, not taking her astonished eyes off him, answered calmly, “Why not? Of course you can.”
“For a few days?”
“Even for a month. That’s what makes this an inn.”
“How much for a night’s lodging?”
“The owner will come soon and let you know. It won’t be very much.”
Satisfied with this answer, the guest sat on the edge of a bench and set down his parcel.
“What a terrible trip. Broke every bone in my body,” he announced with a sigh.
“Where’d you come from? Far away?”
“Vitebsk. Been on the road for thirty-six hours.”
“Did you come here on some sort of business?”
“Yes… uh, a rather particular matter,” the guest answered.
The woman placed the sock down on the settle and stood up. “Would you like something to eat? There’s cold fish.”
The guest considered for a few moments, then nodded. “Might as well. Thank you.”
Pointing toward a bucket of water in a corner, the woman said, “Go wash up. The slop-tub’s in the hallway.”
Once the guest had begun to eat, the woman sat down at the table and started to pepper him with questions: “Do you know anyone here? Have any relatives? Acquaintances?”
“No, no one.”
The woman’s drowsy thoughts quickened with curiosity. Who could he be, this young man wearing a short coat and an odd bib-front who’d traveled so far and had neither relatives nor acquaintances hereabouts?
All at once she remembered that for days now Zelda-Glukl had been waiting for someone who was supposed to “have a look” at her daughter. Perhaps this was the bridegroom, and he’d deliberately dressed this way so as not to be recognized. Indeed, perhaps that’s why he was so reserved and answered her questions so reluctantly. The woman was well aware that in such cases it was inappropriate and futile to interrogate the person; still, she couldn’t control her curiosity and said, “Don’t take offense at my question… but have you come here for a possible marriage match?”
The guest immediately understood what she meant and answered with a smile. “Ah, I see, you think I came to have a look at a girl? Well, you’re wrong. I came here for a completely different reason.” He quickly finished his fish and then became more lively. “I’ll tell you the truth about why I came. I came … I came to give lessons. I’m a private tutor.”
“What do you mean, a private tutor?”
“Exactly like it sounds. A tutor. I teach reading and writing.” After a nervous pause, he added, “In Russian, I mean.”
“In Russian?” The woman looked bewildered. “Who do you teach?”
“Anyone. Boys. Girls.”
The woman, finding all of this quite confusing, thought for a while. Then she said, “So, you mean at a secular school?”
“God forbid. Who said anything about a school?” The teacher looked anxious. “I give lessons in private homes. Like they do in all the big cities.”
“You mean like a girls’ teacher? We already have a teacher for private lessons.”
“This teacher,” the tutor asked nervously, “does she teach only Yiddish?”
“Of course. She teaches the girls to read, even to write. But she herself isn’t very good at it. Poor thing, she’s an old woman.”
“How much does she charge?” the tutor asked, still sounding anxious.
“How much? She charges whatever they give. Ten komikes a month, fifteen kopecks. Sometimes, a warm supper. She’s a poor old woman.”
For a while it was quiet. Then the tutor asked in a hopeful voice, “What do you think, Ma’am? Will I be able to earn a little something here?”
The woman shrugged with indifference. “How should I know?”
“But, still, what do you think? Look, you’re a respected townswoman—may no evil eye hurt you. And you live here. You can probably venture a guess.”
“Well, honestly, I don’t really understand why anyone would want to learn all those things. Can’t people get by without knowing?”
“What!? Think about it,” the tutor said, trying to persuade her. “Think about the times we live in. You’re forgetting, nowadays it’s impossible to manage without an education. In times like ours, everyone must know how to read and write. In Russian, that is. At least a little.”
“Everyone must know?” the woman repeated with a skeptical smile. She shrugged. “Thank God, none of us—not my husband, not me—knows the Christian Lord’s Prayer. And still, knock on wood, we survive and make a living.”
After a moment of silence, she added, “And, really, I don’t understand. Who would take a boy out of cheder?”
“The day is long. You can find an idle hour. And it doesn’t have to be boys. I teach girls, too.”
“Well, girls… I don’t know. Maybe someone will send you a girl to tutor. Maybe you’ll find a townswoman who’s—” She’d nearly blurted out, “who’s crazy enough,” but bit her tongue just in time.
The tutor felt discouraged by the woman’s pessimistic tone and her lack of sympathy to his situation. He realized that any attempt to persuade her would be a waste of effort, so he chose a different tactic. Sidling up to her, he began to speak in a calm, sincere voice. “Listen, the way I see it, you’re a smart woman who understands how to do business. I’m sure you understand what I’m saying. I’m a stranger here, as you can see. I don’t know anyone and no one knows me. Where should I go? Who should I talk to? How do I start? I don’t know anything… Also, I want you to know that I’m not interested in all those modern things, those modern ideas. God forbid. I’m a Jew, and like all Jews, I’m trying to earn enough to make ends meet. We all have to live, and we all look for bread wherever we can get it, right?”
“So, I’m asking for your help. I don’t want you to work hard, heaven forbid. Maybe a word here, a piece of advice there. Sometimes a word is more precious than gold. Needless to say, I wouldn’t want you to go to all that trouble for free, heaven forbid. I’m not a rich man, but a few rubles, as they say… If things works out for me, I would, well, with the greatest pleasure…. I’d continue to stay here in your lodgings. God knows, it won’t be a fortune, but still, something is more than nothing. And at the end of the day, we’re all Jews. And we have to help each other.”
The woman became more enthusiastic. The softness and warmth of the tutor’s words made a deep impression on her. The offer of a few rubles brought the issue into new territory—a more businesslike, practical, and interesting territory—and she now answered with more spirit, “Well, well, why not? I’ll try to help. Like you said, we’re all Jews. But I don’t really know how I can.”
“What do you mean, how?” the teacher cried. “A few words from you will start me on my way. I don’t have to teach you how. You’ll just put in a good word for me to one or two townswomen… I don’t need anything more than that.”
And tilting his head to the side, he added passionately, “I’m not from here, and even I have heard about you. Your husband, Reb Leivik, is known far and wide. May all Jews be so lucky. A word or two from you will certainly accomplish a lot.”
Pioneers: The First Breach
Translated from the Yiddish by Rose Waldman
2017, Syracuse University Press
An-sky, pseudonym of Shloyme-Zanvl Rappoport (1863–1920), was a Russian Jewish writer who wrote in both Russian and Yiddish. His prolific oeuvre includes plays (the most famous of which is The Dybbuk), short stories, poetry, novels, and nonfiction. Amazingly, he also conceived and directed the Jewish Ethnographic Expedition between 1912 and 1914, traveling from shtetl to shtetl to document the people’s folk traditions, stories, songs, and cherished objects. He perceived—though he couldn’t have predicted the reason—that soon these communities would be extinct and forgotten.
This past decade has seen an explosion of interest in An-sky’s work because of their literary and historical significance, and scholars from all over the world have sought to foreground his prolific achievements in various ways. Like most of An-sky’s work, Pioneers: The First Breach, which is excerpted here, has significant historical value: it is one of the first literary depictions of the birth of the Haskalah movement in Russia as seen through the lens of the Russian Jewish hoi polloi. Besides its literary merit (and terrific humor!), it provides an accurate account of how the early adherents of the movement infiltrated the seemingly rock-solid traditional yeshiva world.
Pioneers: The First Breach is a realistic, humorous novel with quirky, vividly evoked characters who live in a shtetl in Russia’s Pale of Settlement. Zalman Itzkowitz, the novel’s protagonist, turns the shtetl upside down when he shows up asking for work as a tutor of Russian. With the appearance of Zalman, the Jewish Enlightenment, which the town has kept at bay so far, now rears its threatening head. Pioneers: The First Breach presents a portrait of a shtetl on the brink of a transformation that will change everything its people have known and done for generations.
Rose Waldman holds an MFA from Columbia University. Her original work has appeared in Ploughshares, Ami Magazine, The MacGuffin, Women in Clothes (Penguin 2014) and elsewhere. Her translations have appeared in Pakn Treger, Blue Lyra Review, several anthologies, and as a chapbook, “Married,” by Back Pages Books. She was a 2014 translation fellow at the Yiddish Book Center, Amherst MA. Her translation of Pioneers: The First Breach, an S. An-sky novel, is in contract with the Yiddish Book Center Publishing Initiative. She is currently completing a translation of the book-length epic poem, The Forty-Year-Old Man by Peretz Markish.