Twenty-three stories by various well-known and obscure authors attempt to answer the question of: “What does it mean to be a Jewish woman?”
Bark has laid out a pretty rich smorgasbord, spanning most of the past century and taking into account authors as varied as Dvora Baron (the first modern Hebrew woman writer) and Isaac Bashevis Singer. Hers is not a strictly feminist/women’s studies approach, for while many of the tales include harshly critical portrayals of the subservience of women in traditional Jewish households, others are anecdotal, comic, or frankly nostalgic for the Old World. The daughter of a pious Hasid in Helen Londynski’s “The Four-Ruble War” has to finagle her way into a Warsaw high school against the wishes of her father, who fears—with good reason, it turns out—that modern education will turn her against the practice of her faith. Singer’s famous “Yentl the Yeshiva Boy” (about the daughter of a rabbi who disguises herself as a man in order to study the Torah in school) is included, along with a strange, lesser-known tale (“Androgynous”) about an eccentric rabbi who willingly marries an androgyne and lives happily ever after with her (or him). Sholem Aleichem’s “Hodel” is an excerpt from his novel Tevye’s Daughters (better known as the musical Fiddler on the Roof), portraying the tragic love of a young woman from the shtetl for a Communist university student in Tsarist Russia. The best stories are subtle accounts of the interplay between the social and the private spheres: Baron’s “Kaddish” (the adopted daughter of a rabbi tries to say a son’s prayers for the dead man), for example, or Fradel Schtock’s “Winter Berries” (an unhappy young girl from a poor family dreams of a better life while running an errand for her mother).
A good collection that looks at a vanished world from an unusual perspective: Bark’s anthology has a sharp edge but a mercifully light hand.