An excerpt from Pioneers (Pionern)

Sh. An-ski (pseudonym of Shloyme Rapoport, 1863–1920) was a Russian, Hebrew, and Yiddish writer, ethnographer, and revolutionary. An-ski grew up in Vitebsk (present-day Belarus), where he received a traditional Jewish education but also read Hebrew and Russian literature. An-ski wrote works of literature and scholarship, but he also wrote pamphlets and other political tracts in support of populist and socialist movements, both Russian and Jewish. An-ski’s 1912–1914 ethnographic expedition among the Jewish communities in the Pale of Settlement provided the inspiration for his play The Dybbuk, for which he is best known. His novel Pionern (Pioneers), from which this excerpt is taken, is a poignant and ironic treatment of An-ski’s own experiences as a young radical and a poor, traveling teacher.

Alarge, ungainly coach, a sort of Noah’s ark stuffed with passengers, lumbered slowly and with difficulty down the wide, mud-filled roads of the town Miloslavka. The pair of gaunt horses, ribs protruding, stumbled repeatedly and kept swaying off course. The coach rocked and twisted like a ship in a storm, rose and dipped across inkwells of mud. Spattered from head to foot, the coachman—a small, old Jew who looked fatigued to the bone—spurred on the horses with all his strength, shouting and flailing his ragged whip. At critical moments, he cursed the horses, and his curses rang out like a howling prayer.“What’s the matter?”

The coach stopped at one house, then another. Moaning and sighing, disheveled passengers climbed out. Legs tingling, barely alive, they began pulling bed linens, parcels, and all kinds of baskets from the interior of the coach. From houses and shops, men, women, and children came running out to greet them, and the dead-silent street now rang with screams of joy, kisses, and disputes with the coachman. Then the coach lumbered onward.

After dropping off the tenth or twelfth person, the coachman peered into the coach, where a single person sat hidden in a corner, and called out hoarsely, “Where are you going, mister?”

“Where am I going?” the man responded hastily, a touch of anxiety in his tone. “To an inn. Be so kind, take me to an inn.”

“To Leivik?”

“Fine, let it be Leivik. I know no one. I’m not from around here.”

With a deep groan, the coachman climbed back up on the coach box. His plaintive cry let the horses know that they had to plod farther. A quarter of an hour later, the coach arrived at a large, derelict one-story house with a door in the center, beside which stood a tall post, a bundle of rotten hay tied to its top. As he drove into the stable, the coachman scrambled off the coach box and shouted, “We’re here! Please get out!”

A young man of about twenty emerged from the coach. He was skinny, slight, with a small black beard, a hunched back, and furtive eyes. He wore a short, too-tight coat with too-short sleeves, from which his bare hands stuck out, ragged trousers, and patched, worn out shoes. On his head was a new silk hat and on his breast a grimy bib-front bound with black thread. The young man looked around, bewildered. A long, desolate, empty street with haphazard houses steeped in mud. On one side of the street, an old inn. The sky thick with heavy, dark clouds.

The man groaned and stretched his bones. It was obvious he felt uncomfortable and miserable in his tight coat and trousers. He pulled a small linen pouch out of his pocket and, turning to one side, began carefully counting out change.

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.

“Who are you, young man? A singer?” he asked casually. He couldn’t imagine that anyone but a singer would wear such clothes.

“Not a singer,” the man answered unhappily and, turning back, handed the coachman a stack of copper coins. “Here’s seventy-five kopecks, as we agreed.”

The coachman counted the money and said in a woeful voice, “Mister, you have to give me a tip. Didn’t you see what kind of trip this was? An ordeal! Have pity. Give me a tip of at least a gulden.”

“No, no,” the young man said, gesturing with his hand. “I won’t give you another groschen. Tips! A newfangled invention! We agreed on an amount. I’m not a rich man, I can’t.”

“Well, if you can’t, you can’t,” the coachman said in a bitter tone of voice. “I won’t take it from you by force. May God help you.” Sighing, he climbed onto the coach box, and pointedly not wishing the man good health, he drove off.

The young man went into 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; an odor of liquor and raw fish filled the room. On a large settle, a middle-aged woman sat knitting a sock. At the sight of the young man entering, she lifted her head and paused with a questioning expression.

“Good morning, ma’am,” the man said to her, still standing at the door. “Is this an inn? Can one get a bed here?”

The lady, not taking her astonished eyes off him, answered calmly, “Why shouldn’t you be able to? Of course you can.”

“For several days?”

“Even for a month. That’s what makes it an inn.”

“And how much do you charge for a night’s lodging?”

“We’ll let you know soon. The owner will come and tell you. You won’t be charged too much.”

Satisfied with this answer, the guest sat on the edge of a bench and set down his parcel.

“A terrible trip. Broke all my bones,” he announced with a sigh.

“Where have you come from? Far away?”

“From Vitebsk. Slogged for thirty-six hours.”

“Did you come here on some sort of business?”

“Yes… uh, some matter,” the guest answered.

The woman placed the sock down on the settle and stood up. “Do you want to eat something? There’s some cold fish.”

The guest thought for a while and then agreed. “Well, might as well. Fine.”

Pointing toward a bucket of water in a corner, the woman said, “Go wash up. The slop tub is in the hallway.”

When the guest had begun to eat, the woman sat down at the table and started to question him: “Do you know anyone here? Relatives? Acquaintances?”

“No, no one.”

The woman’s drowsy thoughts quickened with curiosity. Who could he be, this young man in short coat and odd bib-front who had traveled so far and had neither relatives nor acquaintances here?

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 useless to interrogate the person; still, she couldn’t control her curiosity and said, “Don’t take offense that I’m asking you this… might you have come here for a marriage match?”

The guest immediately understood what she meant and answered with a smile, “Ah, you think I came here to have a look at a bride? Well, you’re mistaken. I came here because of something else entirely.” He hurriedly finished his fish and then became more amiable. “Well, ma’am, I’ll tell you the real truth about why I came here. I came here… I came here to give lessons. I’m a private tutor.”

“What do you mean, a private tutor?”

“Just that. A teacher of writing. 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?”

“Who? Whoever comes my way. Boys. Girls.”

The woman, finding all of this 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 these lessons in private homes. Like they do in all the big cities.”

“So you mean like a rabbi’s wife? We already have a rabbi’s wife for private lessons.”

“And this rabbi’s wife,” the teacher said nervously, “does she teach only Yiddish?”

“Of course. She teaches girls to read, even to write. But she herself isn’t very good at it. Poor thing, she’s a little old lady.”

“How much does she charge?” the teacher asked, still sounding anxious.

“How much she charges? Whatever they give, that’s what she takes. Ten komikes a month, fifteenkapeykas. Sometimes a warm supper. A poor little old woman.”

For a while it was quiet. Then the tutor said in a hopeful voice, “What do you suppose, ma’am? Will I be able to earn a little something here?”

The woman shrugged her shoulders, indifferent. “Do I know? How should I know?”

“But still, what do you think? After all, you’re a respected townswoman—may no evil eye hurt you! And you live here.”

“To tell you the truth, I don’t really understand why anyone would want to learn all these things. Can’t people get by without knowing all this?”

“What are you talking about?” the teacher said, trying to persuade her. “Nowadays? You’re forgetting, nowadays it’s impossible to manage without an education. Nowadays everyone must know how to read and write. In Russian. At least a little.”

“Everyone must know?” the woman repeated with a skeptical smile. She shrugged her shoulders. “Thank God, none of us—not my husband, not me—know the 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 ofkheyder?”

“The day is long. You can find an empty hour. And why does it have to be boys? I teach girls too.”

“Unless girls… I don’t know. Maybe someone will send you a girl to tutor. Maybe you’ll find so… a townswoman.” She’d nearly blurted out “so crazy a townswoman,” but controlled herself in time.

The teacher felt discouraged by the woman’s pessimistic tone and by her indifference to his situation. He realized that attempts to persuade her would be a waste of hard work and so chose a better tactic to appeal to her. Moving a bit closer, 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 me. As you can see, I’m a stranger here. I know no one and no one knows me. Where should I go? Who should I talk to? How to start? I know nothing… Also, I want to tell you, I’m not interested in all those modern things, those modern ideas, God forbid. I’m a Jew. Like all Jews, I’m looking for a piece of bread. We all have to live, and we all look for bread wherever we can. Isn’t that so?”

“Of course.”

“So I want to ask you to help me. I don’t want you to trouble yourself too much, heaven forbid. You can help me with a word here, a piece of advice there. Sometimes a word is more precious than gold. Of course, I wouldn’t want you to trouble yourself for free, heaven forbid. I’m not a rich man, but a few rubles, as they say… If something works out for me, I would, with the greatest pleasure… I would continue to stay here in your lodgings. God knows, the money isn’t a fortune, but still, it’s something. And at the end of the day, we’re still Jews. We have to help each other.”

The matron became more excited. The softness and warmth of the teacher’s words made a deep impression on her. The offer of a few rubles brought the question to new terrain—a more businesslike, reasonable, and interesting terrain—and she answered more vivaciously, “Good, why not? I’ll try to help you. We’re Jews, after all. But I don’t know how I can be of help.”

“What do you mean, how?” the teacher cried. “With a few words you can set me on my feet. I don’t have to teach you. You’ll just throw in a good word about me to one or two townswomen… I don’t need more than that.”

And tilting his head to the side, he added passionately, “I’m not from here, and even have heard about you. Your husband, Reb Leivik, people know him, know about him. May all Jews be so lucky. A word from you will certainly accomplish something.”

Click here for the original chapter from Pionern (page 5)

Rose Waldman is a teaching fellow, as well as a fiction and literary translation MFA candidate, at Columbia University. Her translation of I. L. Peretz’s story “Married” has been published by Back Pages Books. Her work has appeared in Pakn Treger, Ploughshares online, Ami magazine, Meorot, Blue Lyra Review, and elsewhere.

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