"Yenta Mash and her stories will be remembered because they have rare and masterful elegance, uncanny insight into vast prairie-like swaths of human nature, and unusual heart." —C. M. Mayo
"Mash’s collection keeps us alert to the riches to be discovered and the stories yet to be heard, showing us the many worlds in which Yiddish thrived and suffered in the twentieth century." — Allison Schachter, In geveb
Yenta Mash: A Master Chronicler of Exile
Yenta Mash (1922–2013) drew on her own experience of multiple uprootings to tell stories that trace an arc across continents, across multiple upheavals and regime changes, and across the phases of a woman’s life from girlhood to old age.
Mash brings women’s experiences to the fore, giving us a fresh perspective on historical events that we may have learned about only through the eyes of male writers and their male characters. She offers an intimate perch from which to explore little-known corners of the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. And she makes a major contribution to the literature of immigration and resilience, adding her voice to those of Jhumpa Lahiri, W. G. Sebald, André Aciman, and Viet Thanh Nguyen.
Mash’s characters are often in transit, arriving from somewhere or departing to somewhere, embarking or disembarking—forever “on the landing.” Available now for the first time in English, her work is urgently relevant today as displaced people seek refuge across the globe. On the Landing contains sixteen stories selected from Mash’s four volumes of collected work, arranged so as to follow the passage of time from the 1940s through the beginning of the twenty-first Century.
We begin with a story that takes place in Mash’s girlhood, in a vibrant Jewish community in Central Europe that is violently shattered at the onset of World War II. We then travel by train and by barge into the world of Soviet labor camps, into the Siberian taiga, with its frozen steppes, snowy forests, and surging rivers.
When the Siberian exile ends, we settle in Chișinău, the capital of Soviet Moldova, and explore how the postwar Jewish community rebuilds itself. And finally, we join refugees from Eastern Europe who struggle to find their place in Israel. We see the challenges of assimilation and the awkwardness of a land where young people instruct their elders, instead of the other way around. Mash shows us an old age that is by turns difficult and full of opportunities, including the joys and uncertainties of a late-life romance.
Yenta Mash was born in 1922 in a small town, or shtetl, called Zguritse, located in the southeastern region of Europe then known as Bessarabia. As is often the case with Yiddish writers, this little place “in the middle of nowhere” turned out to be a fertile place of origin for a remarkable talent. While she was growing up, the area was renowned as a lively center of Jewish culture. Today it lies within the nation of Moldova, just east of Romania.
In 1941, when Mash was nineteen, she and her parents were condemned by the Soviets as “bourgeois elements”—“enemies of the people”—and transported east along with thousands of others, both Jews and non-Jews. Her father was imprisoned in a camp in the Ural Mountains. She and her mother were sent to a “special settlement” deep in the taiga, on the Ob River. The deportation saved them from being murdered by the Nazis, but it was nonetheless a terrible fate. Both of Mash’s parents died during this period of extreme privation and hunger.
In 1948, after seven years of hard labor, Mash left Siberia. She married and made her way to the city of Kishinev (Chișinău), not far from her girlhood home, which was now the capital of the Moldavian Soviet Socialist Republic. She became an avid reader of Russian and world literature and became friendly with Jewish writers, including Yekhiel Shraybman, her brother-in-law Yankl Yakir, and Motl Sakzier.
Here in postwar Soviet Moldova, Mash dreamed of being a writer, but she was afraid to write. Having been deported as a “bourgeois element,” she feared attracting official scrutiny. For three decades, she worked as a bookkeeper, kept her head down, and stayed out of the limelight. She said this about her silence: “Siberia persecuted me for years, even after I was released. So I kept quiet.”
In the 1970s, emigration opened up for Jews, and Mash made Aliyah. In Israel, finally, in her 50s, she began to write down what had been so long hidden inside. After thirty-five years, she finally spoke about the traumatic things that had happened to her and about the destroyed world of her youth. As she put it, “In Israel, the new atmosphere blew away layers of ash and uncovered the spark that had flickered but never gone out. I began to describe a world that had been destroyed but would not allow itself to be eradicated.”
Her short stories were published in Yiddish journals on both sides of the Atlantic, and her work was collected in four volumes: Tif in der tayge (Deep in the Taiga, 1990), Meshane mokem (A Change of Place, 1993), Besaraber motivn (Bessarabian Themes, 1998) and Mit der letster hakofe (The Last Time Around, 2007).
She was an active member of Leyvik House in Tel Aviv, a cultural center for Jewish writers, and she cultivated professional relationships and friendships with writers such as Mordechai Tsanin, Rivka Basman Ben-Hayim, and Michael Lev. She was honored with Israel’s Itsik Manger Prize in 1999 and with the Dovid Hofshteyn Prize in 2002.
Mash died in Israel in 2013.
In these deeply autobiographical stories, it is not clear where fiction ends and memoir begins. Some are narrated in the first person—some narrators are named, others nameless—and others in the third person. As we read these interrelated stories together, they build upon one another. Each successive story feels more powerful because of the knowledge we’ve gleaned from those that come before.
“Each story is a gem,” writes Philip K. Jason in a review for the Jewish Book Council, “and they are arranged to interact with one another as parts of a mosaic. [Mash] knows how to reveal her characters in conversations that at first seem mundane but soon reveal not only complex individuality but also uplifting profundity.”
As her characters struggle to adapt to new circumstances—whether in a harsh labor camp, in the postwar Soviet system, or in the not-always-friendly land of Israel—Mash portrays the most harrowing circumstances in meticulous detail. You might think you wouldn’t want to accompany Mash into some of these fearsome places—but you’d be wrong, because even when she leads us into the most terrible terrain, Mash is somehow inspiring.
Mash makes clear, as one critic wrote, that even “under hellish conditions, goodness and beauty can exist under the same roof. Often a kind of special illumination seems to shine forth out of that pitiless darkness.”
As Michelle Anne Schingler wrote in a review, “Mash’s characters strike an awesome balance: they may be vulnerable before the machinations of history, but they are absolutely capable of surviving.”
Young and old, her characters are solid, sturdy people with a sense of humor. They’re survivors, people who land on their feet. Mash shows us that the Siberian camps were not only a place of suffering but also a place of life, with real and complicated ties among women struggling to survive. We see relationships forged, inner strength called upon, and a ceaseless wrestling with God. Mash’s characters never stop believing, but at the same time they never they let the Almighty off the hook for his many misdeeds.
“A Seder in the Taiga” describes how, when Passover comes to the women’s settlement, there’s no man to sit at the head of the table and lead them through the service, so the women throw out the traditional ritual and create one of their own.
Like many of the stories in this volume, “Bread” is a true story, taken directly from Mash’s own life. It opens at dawn on a city street in Israel, as the narrator watches a man and his horse making their way down the street and begins to recall her days in Siberia. The story puts two eras side by side. In modern-day, prosperous Israel, we see people casually taking their bread for granted and discarding stale loaves after a day or two. In starvation-era Siberia, we come face to face with a world of terror and extreme hunger, a world that the narrator—and the author— still carry with them.
Reviewer Allison Schachter describes how in “The Irony of Fate,” Mash “weaves an intricate tale of generational crises repeating themselves. Each succeeding generation must confront new state norms that deem their traditions ‘backwards.’ . . . the story artfully captures how different forms of state bureaucracy inscribe subjects according to arbitrary designations that shape their identities. Here Mash highlights both the promise and the cultural violence of the Soviet and Israeli state’s bureaucratization of identity.”
Taking up the experience of immigration to Israel, Mash offers a counter-narrative to the rosy image of the happy ending in the promised land. As Sebastian Schulman notes in an essay, Mash “interrogates the uneasy position of Jewish immigrants in the new state of Israel, a place that ostensibly claimed to be a homeland for the entire Jewish people, but often created as many fissures between groups as the bonds it sought to build.” Mash shows us the disillusionment and unease that immigrants experience, as they remember their homelands and struggle to find their footing in a new environment, with a new language, new jobs, new weather, and a new, hot sun.
“Ingathering of Exiles,” for example, begins with a chatty stroll through an open-air market in the city of Haifa. But as we descend deeper and deeper into the bowels of the market, Mash strikes a Kafkaesque note, as the belongings of a recently deceased elderly couple are instantly ingested by the relentless machine that is modern-day Israel.
Mash’s richly elaborated literary style is full of the friction of disparate cultures rubbing elbows. She writes about times of wrenching change, where her characters are struggling, as she herself did, to adjust to new times that spawn new words, new vocabularies. This is true in the labor camp, with its mix of Soviet administrators, Siberian peasants, and deportees from Eastern Europe. And it’s true in Israel in the last third of the twentieth century, with its mix of natives and immigrants from all over, many of them struggling to master a new language.
From a young age, Yenta loved the Yiddish language. As a girl, she could recite poems by Peretz, and her mother sang Yiddish theater songs as she did the housework. Writing in Yiddish was a conscious choice. She also knew Russian, Moldavian/Romanian, and later, modern Hebrew.
When Mash arrived in Israel, in the 1970s, her newly adopted country was hardly welcoming toward Yiddish. Yiddish was seen as an emblem of European oppression, the language of passivity and victimhood. In fact, early on in Israel it was forbidden to put on a play in Yiddish, and Yiddish printing presses were smashed. Yet Mash remained stubbornly loyal to her native tongue.
For Mash, Yiddish was an essential part of her being and her self as a writer. It was a way to create continuity in a life full of dislocations, to hold on to where she came from, to honor her origins and her people.
In the story “Erika,” her narrator says: “Yiddish is my language. In Yiddish I feel at home, younger and more comfortable . . . and if others choose not to understand—that’s their problem.”
Anthropomorphizing her old-fashioned typewriter with Yiddish letters, she says: “Long may he look after my spirit, long may he awaken my memories, my yearnings, the rare tremblings of my soul, without which there would be no point in writing at all.”
- Watch Fridays at Leyvik House, a film directed by Boris Sandler and Chana Pollack. For decades, Leyvik House—the Tel Aviv locale of the Association of Yiddish Writers and Journalists in Israel—was the center of Yiddish cultural life in the Jewish State. Yenta Mash talks about herself and her writing at minute 31:50.
- Read “Translating Yenta Mash,” a talk by Ellen Cassedy given at the Association of Jewish Libraries Conference, June 2017.
- Read Allison Schachter’s review of On the Landing in In geveb: A Journal of Yiddish Studies, June 24, 2019.
- The above clip shows Yenta Mash reading her story "Long Live Sholem Aleichem," from Meshane mokem (1993), her second collection, in Yiddish.
- Read “Holy Tongue: On Translating Yenta Mash,” Ellen Cassedy’s essay in Words Without Borders about Mash’s use of language in the story “Ingathering of Exiles.” (September 26, 2016).
- Above, take an aerial tour of Mash’s hometown, Zgurita.
- Dr. Jessica Kirzane of the University of Chicago interviews translator Ellen Cassedy about On The Landing: Stories by Yenta Mash, on October 3, 2019.
- Read Ellen Cassedy’s short essay in the Jewish Book Council’s Visiting Scribe blog: “Finding a Portable Homeland in Yiddish,” September 28, 2018. “Yiddish is my language,” Mash said. “In Yiddish I feel at home.”
- For a beautifully written nonfiction account of women’s experience in the forest where Mash was imprisoned, read Julija Sukys’s Siberian Exile: Blood, War, and a Granddaughter's Reckoning (University of Nebraska Press, 2017).
- Words Without Borders interviewed Ellen Cassedy about translating from Yiddish. Is anything about Yiddish untranslatable?
- Deborah Kalb interviewed Ellen Cassedy about On the Landing. “What drew me to Mash was the sheer quality of her work.”
- Check out Tif in der tayge: dertseylungen, Yenta Mash’s first book (1990), in Yiddish, in the digital collection of the Yiddish Book Center.
- Read a Yenta Mash Story Online:
- Yenta Mash didn’t begin writing until she was in her fifties. Why did she wait so long? Why did she begin writing? What effect do you think the long silence had on the stories?
- Which stories do you find most compelling? Do the stories from a particular era speak most strongly to you?
- Mash’s characters experience extreme uprootings – from Bessarabia to Siberia, from wartime exile to postwar Soviet Moldova, from Eastern Europe to the land of Israel. How do they sustain themselves as they make these transitions?
- What new roles do women and girls take on as their world changes?
- How do the historic disruptions described in Mash’s work affect relations between parents and offspring, grandparents and grandchildren?
- Can these stories offer consolation in times of crisis such as the pandemic? How?