A Winter in the Shtetl
By Sholem Asch, translated by Ellen Cassedy
“A Winter in the Shtetl” by Sholem Asch (1880–1957) is a haunting prose poem from his first collection, In a shlekhter tsayt, bilder un ertseylungen (In a Bad Time: Sketches and Stories, Warsaw, 1903). Asch became a world-famous and controversial novelist and playwright, best known for his play God of Vengeance and his New Testament–themed novels. I translated this piece for the 2020 “Asch Wednesday” event hosted in Asch’s honor by his great-grandson David Mazower.
Deep in the valley, hidden and half asleep, lies the shtetl. On one side, the mountains. On the other, tall trees. High above, the sun spreads its riches across the sky.
In summer, the forest looms over the shtetl like a great green grandfather, and the green fields flourish on the mountainside, and up on high the sun is in its glory—and the poor little houses of the shtetl blush with shame in the eyes of God.
Up above, the heavens stretch out, rich and spacious—and down below, like a vision from beyond the grave, the dismal little houses huddle together like a minyan gathered in the shul to sing a Sabbath hymn while clad only in their shabby weekday clothes.
In winter, day in and day out, the cold sky hangs heavy and gray above the shtetl. The marketplace is swaddled in snow—heaps and heaps of snow, as pure and smooth as if fresh-fallen from God’s treasure store above, every flake placed just so, right up to the doorways.
Is it because the little old houses were looking so wretched, so burdened by their troubles, that the snow decided to come along and place a playful little nightcap on each one’s head?
Two trees stand in the marketplace.
In summer, when the fields are in bloom and the mountainside is lush with growth, a little tree will produce a little leaf as if to say, “Look at me, I too can bloom!” and the tree with its branch and its leaf will laugh in the marketplace. And sometimes a little bird will perch on the branch and chirp: “Me too, summer! Me too, tree! Me too, bird!”
And a boy on his way home from school will spy the branch all abloom and the bird all atwitter, and he’ll smear two sticks with sap and give the branch a tug, and the bird will fly up and get stuck in the sap, and the boy will snare the bird. And the goats will come to stand under the trees and feast on the bark.
In winter, too, the trees are abloom with white. The houses in the marketplace stand deep in snow; the market and the black bridge are covered. The trees hold out their branches, and the boughs bloom with snow, and snow fills the holes in the bark chewed by the hungry goats. All around is a world of white, a white market surrounded by white houses that look for all the world like Jews dressed for the holidays in white robes and white hats. The mountain too is dressed in white, and in the middle of the town the two trees extend their snowy boughs.
In summer, when the sun shines, and the sky is blue, and the earth is green, and all is well with God’s world, the people of the shtetl blush with shame. A bitter mockery it is that the world is full of laughter and rejoicing while men wander the streets without work and their wives and children go hungry. Could it be that God himself is making fun of the poor?
In winter in the shtetl it always feels like time for afternoon prayers. The skies are forever gray. How hungry the children are and how cold the stove. The snow falls without end, covering the men who roam through the streets, disguising them until the young appear old, the old young. And look—from that shop there—a dim light slips out onto the drifts…
And schoolboys make their way through the snow to the study house. And on the trodden path, one bowed figure follows another into the study house for afternoon prayers. And the snow falls and falls.
And in the window of the study house, a faint gleam can be seen. The shammes is lighting the candles.
Ellen Cassedy (ellencassedy.com) is the co-translator, with Yermiyahu Ahron Taub, of Oedipus in Brooklyn and Other Stories by Blume Lempel (Dryad Press and Mandel Vilar Press, 2016, recipient of the Leviant Prize from the Modern Language Association), and of On the Landing: Stories by Yenta Mash (Northern Illinois University Press, 2018). She was a Yiddish Book Center translation fellow in 2015, and she is the author of We Are Here: Memories of the Lithuanian Holocaust (University of Nebraska Press, 2012).