Of Lodz and Love

Article excerpt

Bociany, by Chava Rosenfarb. Of Lodz and Love, by Chava Rosenfarb. Both translated from the Yiddish by the author. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 2000, each 352 pp.; each $29.95. Part of Syracuse University's series: The Library of Modern Jewish Literature.

Bociany and its sequel, Of Love and Lodz, trace the lives of Binele and Yacov from the shtetl in which they were raised to the city of Lodz, to which they both migrate as young adults. Although the novels are fictional, their reconstruction of Jewish life in that period is vividly authentic. Winners of the Manger Prize for Yiddish literature in 1979, both books were translated into English by the author, who is a survivor of the Lodz Ghetto.

The Polish shtetl, Bociany, was named for the storks that nested there, giving the village its special character. "Bociany" -- that is, the storks -- are regarded in a Jewish folktale as "messengers from above," and, like the Jews, they migrate, seeking their survival in a world where nothing is promised but perpetual precariousness.

Bociany -- both the novel and shtetl for which it is named -- is a microcosm of Polish Jewish life just before World War I. As such, it contains all the characteristic elements of Jewish existence in Poland before the founding of the State of Israel: ghetto dwelling, political disenfranchisement, the decision-making role of the rabbi, and the impossible dream of security. Its characters are at a crossroad in Jewish history, but only some of them are aware of that fact. The portrayal of the conflict between traditional and modern attitudes toward Judaism is a central feature of the novel. It is presented as an ongoing and intense debate between the members of the older and younger generations. In addition, both Bociany and its sequel, Of Love and Lodz, offer excellent descriptions of the relationships between Jews and Gentiles, revealing the constant tug of war between their friendship, on the one hand, and deep-rooted Polish anti-semitism on the other.

Bociany focuses on two families living in the shtetl -- the family of the widow, Hindele, and that of the widower, Yossele. Through their eyes, we become acquainted with many facets of shtetl life. The well-educated doctor, Shmulikl, introduces Zionism, as well as modern medicine. The critical debate over religious acceptance of the bitter life in the diaspora versus the return to Eretz Israel is deeply embedded in people's conversations and their daily lives. The author is obviously biased in favor of Zionism and paints a grim portrait of the Orthodox parental generation.

Bociany opens with the deaths of Hindele's husband and her eldest son -- both of tuberculosis. Hindele has a small dry goods shop, where she tries to support her family. Yossele also has a shop on the market street, next to Hindele's Both of them are encouraged to remarry after the deaths of their spouses, but neither wants to do so. …