‘Red Shoes for Rachel’

‘Red Shoes for Rachel’

Writer, teacher, and Yiddishist Curt Leviant’s new novel, “King of Yiddish,” will be published this month.

Boris Sandler, a master of magic realism.
Boris Sandler, a master of magic realism.

When I read and valued the unique style and flavor of Boris Sandler’s story “Studies in Solfege” in Ezra Glinter’s anthology of short stories, “Have I Got a Story for You,” gathered from the daily Yiddish Forward, I wondered if there were any other pieces of fiction available in English by this talented, inventive writer.

It also was heartening to see that in the parentheses that list a writer’s dates there was no other number besides his year of birth: (1950-). Then, to my delight, I soon learned that Syracuse University Press was planning to issue “Red Shoes for Rachel.”

So, because in writing about Yiddish writers we usually deal with those long gone, like Sholom Aleichem, I.L. Peretz, Avraham Reisen, or Chaim Grade, it is a distinct pleasure to review a book by a living Yiddish writer.

In “Red Shoes for Rachel” we meet Sandler’s fellow Jews from Bessarabia. During World War II, the Jews there suffered under the Germans and the pro-German Romanian fascists. But then, soon after being liberated by the Red Army, they fell under the rule of rigorous Soviet dictatorship. In these three novellas we meet perceptively drawn men, women, and children as they live their bumpy lives and dream their hopes in the Soviet Union, in Israel, and in the “goldeneh medineh” (the golden land), Brooklyn — more specifically, in Brighton Beach.

Boris Sandler’s style, unlike that of most other writers in the Yiddish literary canon — almost all of whom write in the late 19th, early 20th century realistic style — hovers between realism and magic realism. (Just think of writers like Borges, Calvino, Vargas Llosa.) It’s done with surprising effect. Time zones elide. Scenes shift, via recall, from years past to the present. Arching over this are believable, vibrant human beings who are vivified through description, dialogue, and interior monologue.

From the first line of “Karolina-Bugaz,” — “Bella woke from sleep as if she had been driven out of it” — we see at once a writer who uses his tools — words — with verve and imagination. On the 30th anniversary of her marriage, Bella goes to a bakery to pick up a special cake she has ordered. But she comes home to find a note telling her that her husband, Mark, has left her. He is now on a cruise, alone, and on an island near where the ship has docked he meets a young woman who has the same name as his wife.

With realism a reader knows where he is, and which character is breathing in his presence. In magic realism the borders between true and make believe are blurred, and the reader is never really sure who or what to believe. Reality in such fiction is a slippery slope.

In the beginning of “Halfway Down the Road Back to You” we see an old lady in Israel preparing dozens of slices of dried white bread, which are scattered all over her apartment. She considers this an obligatory present when visiting.

She is 80 years old, and she has spent 73 of those years in Beltsy, Bessarabia. For the past seven years she has lived in a small apartment in Nazareth, where there is a windowless security room stored with food, “just in case.” Both her children are abroad; there is no indication she has any friends, and no visitors except for a twice-a-week aide.

Via memory we relive her days in the Romanian ghetto during World War II, where she risked being shot by slipping out once in a while to beg for food for her family. It is only toward the end of the tale that we suspect — but are not really sure, for, after all this is magic realism — that she might be bringing all those crusts she has prepared into that security room.

“Red Shoes for Rachel” is one of the most beautiful and moving stories of middle-aged love I’ve ever read. Rachel, the only American-born protagonist in this collection, lives near the Coney Island boardwalk and selflessly tends to her disabled, wheelchair-bound mother. One day, when she bumps into Yasha, a divorced immigrant from Moldavia, her life turns around, and she achieves a spark. In separate chapters we learn of Yasha’s Holocaust experiences and also those of Rachel’s parents. With delicacy and warmth, Sandler shows the developing relationship. In the end, the two lonely souls have formed a bond.

Occasionally, in translations of Yiddish literature, there is a wide gap between knowledge of Yiddish and knowledge of Yiddishkeyt (Judaism), with errors regarding some obvious points in the latter. Those errors show up here. One story describes “a Sabbath lunch with songs and putting on of phylacteries” (tefillin), which is done during morning prayers on weekdays, and certainly not during lunch. Another has a mistranslation of the Hebrew/Yiddish exclamation “borukh ha-shem,” which does not mean “blessed be His name” but literally means “blessed be God,” and really means “thank God.” Elsewhere, a woman “blesses the Sabbath candles.” Only Christians bless objects like rosaries, medals, and, yes, even candles. Jewish women recite a blessing to God over the candles.

This aside, Barnet Zumoff’s translation is splendid, natural, and effortless. It meets the gold standard of translation. Reading this book, you forget that the stories in it were not written in English.

Read “Red Shoes for Rachel” and you will discover a superb storyteller, a modern master of prose.

Curt Leviant’s most recent, critically acclaimed novels include “King of Yiddish” and “Kafka’s Son.”

Red Shoes for Rachel: Three Novellas, by Boris Sandler, translated from the Yiddish by Barnet Zumoff, Syracuse University Press, 224 pp., $19.95.

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