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Part-Time Wife to the Whole Damn World

Your Mouth Is Lovely

By Nancy Richler

Ecco/HarperCollins, 386 pages, $25.95.

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Contemporary Jews reconstruct the lost places of the European past in search of ground solid enough to support the foundations of their future. This Jewish search for what Jewish literature professor David Roskies has called a “usable past” animates fictional as well as historical reconstructions of the shtetl, for what cannot be recovered can still be reinvented. Perhaps nowhere is this more true than in the case of feminists who have worked not only to recover the work of forgotten Jewish women, but also to imagine what that past would have looked like through women’s eyes.

Unlike the carping, kvetching wives of male narrators and protagonists in Yiddish stories by male writers, female characters imagined by three female novelists in the past half-century become primary figures in their own stories. As they take center stage they show us what leaving the shelter of traditional, secondary roles may have cost. They reveal cultural obstacles and resistances to women’s initiatives. And they show how change might have happened — not only because of a protagonist’s own strengths, but also because of specific historical opportunities and the generosity of other women.

Nancy Richler’s poignant new novel, “Your Mouth Is Lovely,” enters a literary enterprise that began in the 1950s with the work of her Canadian compatriot Adele Wiseman. These two novelists — writing a generation apart — bracket a trajectory in which women displace men at the center of life that grows out of the fictional shtetl.

In Wiseman’s 1974 novel, “Crackpot” (McClellan and Stewart), the female protagonist, Hoda, is a grotesquely overweight whore who depends on the men she service for more than purely economic sustenance. But her consciousness and voice dominate the narrative. Her voice echoes her mother’s, whose life story reveals some of the consequences of the shtetl’s control of women’s sexuality. Deformed from birth, Rahel was compelled for the putative good of the shtetl in a time of plague to marry a blind man. Uneducated, and without resources, forcibly married to an innocent and equally helpless man who impregnates her, Rahel struggles until her early death to support her husband and daughter.

Hoda assumes her dead mother’s burden and role. Sexually abused and exploited by virtually every man whose help or affection she seeks, she becomes what she will call “part-time wife to the whole damn world” to keep her father and herself alive. In her, Wiseman examines one bitter fruit of shtetl superstition and control, which exploited and damaged the lives of two handicapped young people by yoking them together. Their daughter inherits their liabilities — like them she is poor, ignorant and unwise — but she inherits other qualities as well. Generous, warm, sensitive, resourceful and extraordinarily introspective, Hoda commands the expressive, articulate center of this fictional world.

Only 20 years later, Rebecca Goldstein’s “Mazel” (Viking, 1995) fictionally centers the lives and creative energies of a mother and two daughters in a Polish shtetl. Their gifts cannot be realized within it. Because shtetl women were expected to keep their voices muted, the mother sings only when the family sleeps. Because of the pressure to marry off girls whose imaginative idiosyncrasies deviated from communal norms, one gifted, storytelling daughter, Fraydel, commits suicide rather than marry the groom chosen for her. A surviving sister, Sasha, discovers at an audition that Fraydel’s magical voice is speaking through her. As Sasha’s career takes her first to Warsaw and then to the United States, this voice, “like no other, like a reflection on unstill water” becomes central to one’s experience of the novel, which doesn’t seek to recover a lost historical past but rather imagines women’s struggle to carry the ghost of their sisters’ and mothers’ stifled voices out of the shtetl.

This year Richler’s new novel furthers the work of centering women within a usable past by imagining the way in which a shtetl girl, born in 1887 and raised within the Russian Pale of Settlement, becomes a revolutionary. The child of yet another communally arranged and enforced but loveless marriage, Miriam becomes motherless when her mother, like Fraydel, commits suicide the day after Miriam’s birth.

Miriam will be blessed with a stepmother both intelligent and strengthening, if not loving. Tsila designs elegant clothes, loves Miriam’s bereaved father and restores Miriam to health, clutching the child still feverish with diphtheria “against her hard and bony lap, holding [Miriam] to the roughness of life.” A Jewish mother who rebukes all the literary stereotypes, Tsila’s determination and cynicism school this child to value tradition on one hand and to recognize, on the other, the oppressive realities of shtetl life.

Miriam, a plain and lonely girl, moves naturally toward the warmth and enlightened companionship of the Bundists who befriend her. Tradition and social history cooperate in their enlightenment. These girls are driven by complicated needs: to avoid premature, undesired marriages; to realize themselves, and to fight inhumane social conditions. In the shtetl Miriam loses one such friend to a pogrom and another to the police. After she has run away to Kiev, she is befriended by a third woman, a revolutionary with whom she is arrested and imprisoned. Pregnant but unmarried, she bears a daughter in prison. Miriam’s voice matures there as she writes to this child in a series of flashbacks that illuminate her life, punctuated by short chapters that describe the lives of women in Russian prisons after the failure of the 1905 revolution

The complexity of Richler’s protagonist mirrors the complex circumstances that enable her to move out of the shtetl, into the revolution. Tsila is the most important agent of this transformation. Miriam knows herself to be unlovable and socially unacceptable. But when she recovers her voice after a nearly fatal infection, Tsila tells her that her “mouth is lovely,” that words will save her life — insisting, like Wiseman and Goldstein, on “voice” as

essential to self-realization. Tsila also fosters the child’s intelligence: “Knowledge will be your mother,” she promises, teaching the traditional “truths” that she hopes will supplant the superstitions Miriam learned from her ignorant wet-nurse.

But superstition and tradition remain layered in Miriam’s thought, beneath the revolutionary “truths” she learns later from Bundist friends. Her emotional life is similarly conflicted. Despite her love for Tsila, Miriam is drawn repeatedly toward the vital, energizing comradeship of people engaged in repairing the world. Thus the novel suggests that European Jewish women who moved into revolutionary work may have fled impoverished shtetls and arranged marriages, but remained emotionally tied to the traditional families they loved. They may even have carried fragments of the shtetl’s traditional legacy into the study groups and political activism that promised freedom and self-fulfillment but led to prison.

Tsila formulates this bittersweet sense of opportunity laced with loss, of a future burdened with the past, when she tells Miriam that the “beauty of life is not always obvious…. But it must be found. That is our task here. To find the beauty of His work and make it manifest.” These words empower the girl who will, in prison, find her voice, becoming a writer. More than a year later, alone in Kiev and longing both for Tsila and for a new life, Miriam watches people gathering around an organ grinder. She thinks they are “caught, perhaps, as I had been by the sound of their own longing, suddenly easier to bear for the beauty that the organ grinder had found in it.”

Like the organ grinder, Richler’s Miriam performs Tsila’s task, finding in her life’s story the beauty that lives within the terrible choices women make — to become themselves. The clarity and resonance of the narrative make even longing “easier to bear.” Richler’s novel imagines for contemporary Jewish women a European past in which it was still possible to run away in search of one’s own life, and to believe that such a choice might repair a damaged world.

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