By Isaac Metzker
Translated from the Yiddish by Margaret and Yossel Birstein
Gefen Publishing House, 432 pages, $19.95.
Some of you will know the name Isaac Metzker (1900-1984). He was a teacher for the Workmen’s Circle/Arbeter Ring who also served for decades as a journalist for the Jewish Daily Forward, where he edited “A Bintel Brief,” the popular advice column for new immigrants to America. Metzker, a passionate advocate of Yiddish culture, came to the United States in 1924 from his native Eastern Galicia (now Ukraine) by way of Bremen, where he stowed himself away on a ship to get here. His haunting book, “Grandfather’s Acres,” now available in English, is set in Galicia between the 1880s and 1922. It is called a historical novel, but its authoritative detail and precision about topics ranging from the position of a pear tree to the cut of a man’s suit jacket give it the authority of an eyewitness report.
Originally written in Yiddish, “Grandfather’s Acres” is dedicated to the author’s father, and to his sisters and their husbands and their children, all wiped out by the Holocaust. It is meant to evoke a lost world of Orthodox Jewish farmers in Metzker’s own native village of Yanovitz during the two generations prior to the author’s emigration, and it does so with tremendous devotion to fact. One learns about the niceties of social class within this world, about Yiddish as an instrument that Jews used to identify one another across national borders, about the processes of hiring rabbis and teachers for the heder, about the rigors (and tragic limitations) of folk medicine and superstition, about traveling fairs and itinerant dancing masters. Geographically speaking, the area described may be small, but it’s examined on a huge canvas. Although one can guess which of the characters is based on Metzker’s own experience, the scrupulously impersonal tone of the omniscient narrator renders any autobiographical dimension secondary to the larger portrait of places, practices and people. Take, for instance, the following excerpt:
The waters of the narrow Nitchlav River behind the gardens of Yanovitz flowed quietly along and carried with it many summers and winters. When Leib and Riveh were married, the house they had inherited stood at the edge of the village, but every now and then, a new hut of lime with a thatched roof was added. Like mushrooms with broad-rimmed hats, the huts spread right up to the mill, and the village expanded year after year. New huts also sprang up on the other side of the village, united Yanovitz and Tatarschina. The square millstone on the road not far from Noteh’s house was the only indication that at one time there had been a border between the two villages.
Two thirds of the saga are focused on peacetime: weather and its effects on the harvests, births, deaths, marriages and dowries; the relative freedom for the Jews of the late Austro-Hungarian empire to own land and to practice their religion; the complicated relationship between the Jews of Galicia and their Catholic neighbors; the seductions of America as a place to seek one’s fortune; the intermittent yet holistic joys of a life spent in harmony with the seasons. The final third of the novel, which takes place in the years prior to, during and just after World War I, provides memorable glimpses of war’s effects on a farming community. A description of how one rampaging soldier kills a goose is so intense and exact that it serves as an emblem for the hideous nature of events that the narrator does not choose to let us see.
One handsome, vigorous farmer and ani- mal healer, Leib, is tracked throughout the novel from youth to late middle age and serves as a representative for this lost world. His farming and interactions with his family, and with men outside the family, seem to spring directly from a diary; his romances have an invented quality, at least to this reader. Still, they anchor the story and mark the changes that affect the entire community. In his early 20s, Leib falls in love with a beautiful Polish girl, but he gives her up so that he can dutifully enter into an arranged marriage with his cousin, Riveh, whom he grows to love. Riveh bears him a child nearly every year, until her early death from a disease that seems to be cancer. He marries again, this time a saintly Jewish girl, half his age, named Lifsheh. She bears him two children, only one of whom survives; Lifsheh also dies young. At the novel’s conclusion, Leib is contemplating yet another bride, a Jewish neighbor some 30 years his junior, with whom he plans to remain on his land even though most of his grown children and his extended family are abandoning Europe for America.
Leib, once wrongly accused of theft by non-Jews whose accusations were steeped in antisemitism, is easily enraged by his non-Jewish neighbors and uses his fists without hesitation when the match is man to man. His physical courage is not in doubt — an important point that Metzker is making about the Jews who, by staying in Europe, would be accused of being led docilely to the gas chambers; however, against an army, an individual’s expression of rage becomes an unaffordable luxury, especially when an entire family depends upon him. In that situation, the book suggests, survival depends on a combination of intuition, planned hiding and sheer luck.
The events of “Grandfather’s Acres” are roughly contemporary to those of “Fiddler on the Roof”; however, the novel’s world and its characters are, finally, quite unlike them. Indeed, they’re closer, in certain respects, to the searing imaginative universe of Chaim Grade than the lighter-hearted ones of Sholom Aleichem or of Broadway. In fact, the world that Metzker resurrects is closer to that of “Fiddler” director Jerome Robbins’s actual Polish ancestors — as delineated in the Amanda Vaill biography, “Somewhere” (Broadway, 2006) — than to the figures of the musical. In most ways, Metzker’s men and women sound truthful and real, including their rare acquaintance with humor or joy, elements that American readers can supply.
Mindy Aloff, a periodic contributor to the Forward, is the author of “Dance Anecdotes” (Oxford University Press, 2006) and is at work on “Hippo in a Tutu,” a study of the dance sources of historic Disney animated films.