In 1938, Leyb Rashkin was awarded the prestigious Peretz prize by the Polish Jewish PEN Club for his first — and what would be his only — novel, “The People of Godlbozhits.” The lively book, written in Yiddish, presents a large cast of characters, many the members of an extended family living in a shtetl in Poland between the world wars. Among them are a woodsman turned timber merchant, a Jewish landowner, peasants, rabbis, a hunchback, bookish types and others; Rashkin portrays their lives in a natural way, sometimes with satire, describing the culture, livelihood and humanity of the shtetl, along with the poverty, class struggles and increasing anti-Semitism.
Rashkin is the pen name of Shol Fridman, who lived between 1903 and 1939. He was born and lived in Kuzmir, as it was known in Yiddish, Kazimierz Dolny in Polish. He wrote stories on the side, while working as manager of a collective bank and several hardware stores. He died in 1939, while trying to escape from the Nazis.
For the first time, Rashkin’s “The People of Godlbozhits” is being published in English, with a translation by Jordan Finkin (Syracuse University Press).
While his writing is more journalistic than that of Isaac Bashevis Singer, who wrote about similar subjects, he also captures a lost world with compassion, literary style and some humor. Like Rashkin, Singer won an important Polish Jewish literary award, and the reader can’t help but wonder how Rashkin’s might have developed had he lived, and how we might know more about his Godlbozhits and places like it. The publisher compares it to Faulkner’s fictional county, Yoknapatawpha.
“The Saboteur: The Aristocrat Who Became France’s Most Daring Anti-Nazi Commander” by Paul Kix (Harper) is the true story of an unsung hero of World War II. Robert de la Rochefoucauld, who grew up in a storied French family in a chateau north of Paris, joined the French resistance in 1939 after escaping from France — when his family was displaced — to England. He was trained by British spies and parachuted back into France, escaping execution on two occasions. Serving the cause of freedom, he would cross German lines dressed as a nun, hide in forests and kill when necessary. Kix, a journalist and editor, reports this largely untold story in compelling detail.
In Gabrielle Zevin’s novel “Young Jane Young” (Algonquin), Aviva Grossman is a congressional intern in Florida, who makes the mistake of having an affair with her boss, and then she — not he — pays the price. The novel is smart and funny, with a feminist mood and a story that’s relevant to our times. An added pleasure is that Zevin captures Jewish Florida with flair.
An ethnographic study, “New Children of Israel: Emerging Jewish Communities in an Era of Globalization” by Nathan P. Devir (Utah), looks at Jewish communities in 16 countries including Ghana, India, Cameroon and other postcolonial places. Emerging communities are those whose members self-identify as Jews, but don’t necessarily have historical ties to the world’s traditional centers of Jewish life. While this is a scholarly book, Devir’s treatment and analyses of critical issues of identity, assimilation, immigration, multiculturalism, communal life and spirituality — as well as his stories — will interest general readers.
Gary Baldwin’s “Yiddish for Pirates” (Vintage Canada) is set in around 1492 and told in the voice of a 500-year-old Jewish parrot named Aaron. This is a love story and pirate story, spiced with the parrot’s humor and philosophical musings. The parrot is now perched in a nursing home in Florida, sharing tales of buried treasure, daring adventure and a young man from a shtetl who joined the crew of his ship. The novel was awarded the 2017 Canadian Jewish Literary Award for fiction.
“Enemies and Neighbors: Arabs and Jews in Palestine and Israel, 1917-2017” by Ian Black (Atlantic Monthly Press) is a detailed look at how both sides in this long conflict view issues and events, both contemporary and historical. Black, who has been the Middle East editor, diplomatic editor and European editor for The Guardian, is visiting senior fellow at the Middle East Centre at the London School of Economics. He speaks to and includes the voices of people with many opposing views. The book is published on the centenary of the Balfour Declaration.
A graphic memoir, “Going Into Town: A Love Letter to New York” (Bloomsbury) began as a project Roz Chast prepared for her daughter Nina, as she prepared to leave the family’s Connecticut home and attend college in New York City. Through color cartoons, maps and brief texts, she sets out to provide advice about the subway, city sights, apartments, landmarks, food delivery and other Manhattan necessities, and ultimately creates a quirky guide and closely observed story of New York. She writes, “One of the greatest things you can do in life is walk around New York. Nature is great, but at a certain point the mind wanders.” ✦