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Pioneers: A Tale of Russian-Jewish Life in the 1880s

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S. A. An-sky's novel dramatizes the dilemmas of Jewish young people in late Tsarist Russia as they strive to throw off their traditional religious upbringing to adopt a secular and modern identity. The action unfolds in the town of M. in the Pale of Settlement, where an engaging cast of characters wrestles with cultural and social issues. Their exploits culminate in helping a young Jewish woman evade an arranged marriage and a young Russian woman leave home so she can pursue her studies at a European university. This startling novel reveals the tensions and triumphs of coming of age in a revolutionary time.

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1

ePub

“WATCH OUT, YOU SLOB!”

The young man slowly making his way down the middle of the street jumped to one side and turned to look in astonishment at the driver who had just threatened him with a fierce crack of his whip. Coming to a complete standstill, he watched with innocent curiosity as the carriage sped away.

The young man was about seventeen years old. Lean and lithe, he seemed taller than he really was. His dark complexion and softly outlined features still retained their youthful freshness; his little mustache, which had just appeared and looked as though it had been sketched onto his face with charcoal, conveyed a sincere, childlike, trusting expression, while his large eyes shone with inquisitive incomprehension and enthusiasm. His threadbare coat hung down to his ankles and was unbuttoned, the flaps billowing out in the shape of two large wings. Instead of a vest he wore a caftan buttoned up to his chin and encasing his neck. His crumpled velvet cap had slipped down the back of his head, exposing a large shock of uncombed hair. Only his long peyes were tucked behind his ears.1 In his hands he carried a small sack.

 

2

ePub

A SHOP WITH A sign in Hebrew letters drew Eizerman’s attention: “Bookstore.” Through the window, covered with dust and cobwebs, he could make out large piles of books tied tightly with string, stacked up, leaning against the glass.

Eizerman approached the open door and peeked in. Books, both in bundles and separately, lay in disorder on the shelves, the floor, and the counter. Behind the counter stood a Jew with a long black beard and a stern, business-like look. Titles of the usual uninteresting prayer books and other religious texts flashed before Eizerman’s eyes: Siddur, Makhzer, Slikhes, Tkhines, Mishnayes, and so on. The young man’s sharp eyes automatically surveyed these titles, looking for something else—and immediately came to rest on several small books lying on one remote shelf. Even before Eizerman had time to read their titles, he guessed, by their format and print, that these books were not religious, but “that kind.” His heart began to beat faster. He walked right up to the open door and began to examine those books very closely. Now he could clearly decipher the titles: Maslul, Talmud Loshon ’Ivri, Moshal uMelitza . . .1 All of a sudden the title of one book, half-hidden by another volume, flashed before his eyes: Hattot Ne’u. . . .

 

3

ePub

AFTER CATCHING UP with the gymnasium student, Eizerman walked behind him for several minutes, unable to decide whether to call out to him and not knowing how to do it. At last, summoning his courage, he gently pulled on his coattail from behind and said in a trembling voice, “Look here! Gymnasium student!”

The fellow quickly turned around and, seeing before him a young man in a long coat, asked sternly, “What do you want?”

“Excuse me. . . . I want to ask you something. . . .”

“What?”

“Could you possibly direct me to some teacher . . . ? Or—I’ll be completely frank with you—could you identify some ‘modern man,’ a maskil? I’ve come here to study,” he concluded decisively.

Kapluner keenly and carefully looked Eizerman over from head to toe and asked in a haughty manner, “You’re from a yeshiva, of course.”

“No, straight from home. . . .”

“Where’s your home?”

“Miloslavka. You’ve probably heard of it.”

“Did you run away?”

 

4

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KAPLUNER AND EIZERMAN went along the street, turned into a steep, narrow, muddy lane with pathetic little hovels and black, bare patches from a recent fire; they climbed down into a ravine and, crossing it, climbed another hill. A new vista opened before Eizerman. Instead of the small lane they’d just come through, inundated with slops and littered with garbage and rotting offal, with its crooked old hovels, no signs of greenery, lacking air and light—here, on the open meadow, stood, forming a wide street, two rows of one-story houses, sturdy and tidy, with gardens in front, and curtains and flowers in the windows. One could sense the airy tranquility. From the first glance one could say with assurance that this quarter was inhabited not by Jews; in these bright little houses, boldly and cheerfully overlooking a broad street, resided couples who were not afraid of life, but who were sure of what tomorrow would bring, who felt themselves complete masters of the earth on which they lived.

 

5

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“WELL, I SEE what sort of an odd fellow you are!” Uler said. “Sit down and tell me about yourself. . . .”

“What’s there to tell? You see for yourself. . . .”

“Did you run away from the yeshiva?”

“No, from home.”

“You’ve never been to yeshiva?”

“No. . . .”

“Hey, too bad!” said Uler with disappointment. “A yeshiva student’s an entirely different creature! The yeshiva lends a person a special spirit, a special kind of understanding; it burnishes a person, polishes him. . . . He who’s never been to yeshiva is only half a person!”

“Of course, you’ve been to yeshiva?”

“Ha, ha, ha! Me? I’ve been to five!”

“I can see you’re a lamed-vovnik!” Eizerman joked.

“Yes, all alone I’m worth all thirty-six of those righteous men!” exclaimed Uler boastfully. “I’m convinced that a new hell is being built just for me.”

“For what sort of great deeds?”

“Don’t worry! I’ve performed many great deeds. Sometime I’ll tell you about them—your hair will stand on end! Do you know that I’ve destroyed two yeshivas with my own hands?” he cried with pride.

 

6

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A YOUNG MAN AGED about twenty emerged from the house; he was frail, short, with an elongated face and anxious, delicate, chiseled features. His black eyes, with their somewhat enlarged pupils, shone with a soft light; and at the same time they possessed an insistent, serious, focused, almost ascetic expression. This look and his short beard conveyed a certain solidity to the young man’s small, fragile figure.

“Here’s Mirkin now!” Uler said. “So, have you finished?”

“Not yet,” replied Mirkin in a resonant voice. Halting by the door, he looked persistently and intently at Eizerman.

“Kapluner was just here. . . .”

“Yes, I heard his voice. Why did he come?”

“He brought us some ‘produce,’ ” Uler replied, nodding at Eizerman. “He’s come here to study; he ran away from his parents. I’ve chatted with him, checked him out. . . . He’s not bad at all—there’s something to him!”

With a broad smile and barely containing his inner ecstasy, Eizerman looked directly into Mirkin’s eyes. All of a sudden, as if drawn by a strange force, he took several steps toward Mirkin, extended his hand, and said with boldness and informality, which often mask internal timidity, “Accept a sholem aleykhem from a devout Jew!”

 

7

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MIRKINS ROOM WAS long and narrow, with one window opening into the courtyard and a large, wide stove-bench.1 The only furniture was an old iron bedstead on which, instead of a mattress, lay a folded blanket and a cushion taken from an armchair at the head of the bed. A small table and a stool stood near the window. Several dozen books lay in a large heap on the stove-bench, among them hunks of black bread and several lumps of sugar.

A young well-groomed man with a full face was in the room; he sported twisted reddish side curls and a small beard. He wore a satin cap and a floor-length coat made of fine cloth. He had boots and galoshes on his feet and a black silk scarf around his neck. The young man’s entire appearance and carriage bore witness to the fact that he came from a wealthy family and that he knew his own worth. His expression was self-assured, even haughty. With his hands behind his back, he paced the room slowly with an intense look of concentration, as if pondering a very serious and important matter. When the door opened, he turned his head slowly and looked at the people entering. Seeing Eizerman, whom he didn’t recognize, he took one step back in surprise; his face reflected both apprehension and incomprehension.

 

8

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EIZERMAN STOOD ALL the while silent and motionless, as if under a spell. The exchange produced an incredibly strong, almost overwhelming impression on him. From the first lines he understood what was going on and immediately grasped all the power of the subtle, murderous irony of the piece. Holding his breath, his mouth half-open and eyes wide-open, he listened to the reading—it seemed that he was hearing a severe, denunciatory sermon delivered by an ancient prophet. Everything he’d read earlier, not excluding even Hattot Ne’urim, seemed at that moment to be drab and trivial compared to that fiery, venomous “pronouncement.” How could one possibly compare some tale, half of which might have been invented, about people who, although they existed (Eizerman had no doubt of that), were concealed behind invented names, with this daring, sweeping denunciation hurled right in the face of one of the representatives of darkness and lethargy? Right here in this tiny room, on completely ordinary scraps of paper, a sharp spear was being forged that would pierce the heart of the mighty enemy. And in spite of this, the avenger remained in total safety and would have the opportunity to inflict his mortal blows again and again. . . . Before Eizerman’s eyes, and for the very first time, one of those “unheard-of deeds” was taking place in concrete form, the kind that groups of maskilim provoke; he was struck by the strength and the splendor of this “deed.”

 

9

ePub

“WHATS THE ORE MIKLET where you want to take me?” asked Eizerman with a smile.

“You’ll find out when we get there!” replied Uler in a conspiratorial tone of voice. “You see, it’s an apartment where any of us can stay,” he began to explain immediately. “That’s why we call it an Ore Miklet. Three people are living there now. You’ll see what sort of group it is, what fine people they are!

“You just mentioned robbers and criminals,” he recalled. “You should see Sonya Beryasheva’s father, the one Mirkin was just talking about—and then you’d understand what a robber and a criminal really is!”

“What are you talking about? Who is he?”

“You see,” Uler began heatedly, “this Sonya Beryasheva’s a young woman who’s just out of this world! Believe me when I say it. She’s not a young woman at all, but a real human being. You can talk to her about anything. She’s read absolutely everything! Mirkin gave lessons to her younger brother for half a year. He made her acquaintance, lent her books on the sly, and turned her into a free thinker. Now she’s no less than we are.”

 

10

ePub

THE SYNAGOGUE SEEMED to Eizerman to be brighter, larger, and more dazzling than those in Miloslavka. When he and Uler walked in, evening prayers were already under way. Uler headed off somewhere and disappeared; Eizerman began to look around at the congregation and noticed several men among them wearing short jackets, dickeys, and trimmed side curls. No one paid them any special attention. . . . Turning around, Eizerman suddenly found himself looking right at Sheinburg. . . . He was standing by the east wall,1 next to an old Jew in a yarmulke2 wearing a long satin frock coat, and he was coldly, haughtily staring at Eizerman.

He was embarrassed and dropped his eyes, afraid to give away his terrible secret. But he couldn’t restrain himself from glancing again in Sheinburg’s direction. He was now engaged in conversation with his neighbor. He was talking rather loudly, with a note of indignation in his voice and with vigorous gestures. From the individual words that reached him, Eizerman concluded that Sheinburg was complaining about the head of the synagogue.

 

11

ePub

THE APARTMENT THAT was referred to as the Ore Miklet was located at the edge of town, in an old half-derelict building that had long stood empty. No one knew exactly who owned the building, and even less by whose permission Elka Rasseyer had settled there. Her reputation in the neighborhood was of the worst sort. By profession, she and her husband, whom the neighbors hardly ever saw, were rag-pickers. But rumors circulated in the neighborhood that Elka’s husband was engaged in “dark affairs,” thievery, if not even robbery.

The house consisted of four rooms; the “landlady” occupied two of them; one was uninhabited because the ceiling had caved in and a large beam was resting on the floor. A former yeshiva student, Tsiporin, rented the fourth and largest room from Elka for one ruble a month. From his very first day there he made his apartment available to any freethinker who was in need of a place to stay. The room was soon turned into a communal apartment with an enormous number of constantly changing residents, and as a result, it acquired the name of the Ore Miklet.

 

12

ePub

FAEVICH CLIMBED DOWN from the sleeping bench, stood up straight, smoothing his hair, then turned to Eizerman and asked with good-natured irony, “Well, you haven’t begun to prepare for the gymnasium?”

“No, no!” replied Eizerman hastily, almost in fright. “I haven’t even studied grammar yet!”

“Do you really need grammar? Can’t you get along without it?” Faevich interrupted.

“What do you mean?” asked Eizerman, staring at him in astonishment.

“It’s very simple. Which do you really want: to be a thinking person, a genuine realist, or to know where to insert the letter yat?1 If you want to be a thinking realist, you don’t need any grammar! . . . When I came here I hardly knew one word of Russian. Of course, I got a teacher right away. He began by giving me fables2 to learn by heart; he started to explain nouns and adjectives and other profound insights. I studied that for one month—then I realized that wasn’t what I wanted! I dumped the teacher, dumped the grammar, and dumped the fables. I said to myself: I have to learn to understand the most difficult books, the most profound ones! And I gained my objective!”

 

13

ePub

WHILE LEAVING, FAEVICH bumped into a short, thin young man wearing a jacket with long flaps. He was walking along with his head bowed, quietly and modestly.

“Ah, Hillel!” Faevich greeted him.

“Is Mirkin here?” asked Hillel softly, as if in passing, without raising his head or looking at Faevich.

“No. He’ll probably come soon. . . .”

Hillel entered the room with the same inaudible step. Without greeting anyone or raising his head, he went over to the table and began examining a book that Tsiporin was binding.

“Well, what news, Hillel?” Uler asked, addressing him.

“Not much . . . ,” Hillel replied quietly. “Have you written the dictation?” he asked the yeshiva students who’d begun collecting their writing implements. “Were there many mistakes?”

“The teacher hasn’t checked them over yet.”

“What’s new with Beryasheva?” repeated Uler.

“Nothing . . . ,” replied Hillel reluctantly and looked at Uler coldly, indicating that he didn’t want to talk about it in front of the students.

 

14

ePub

MIRKIN CAME INTO THE room carrying a small bundle of books.

“You have some work from Zelingovich,” he said, handing the books to Tsiporin. “But they’ve asked that they be bound better. In some of your previous work, they say, pages have fallen out, several are in the wrong order, and the spine of the book is. . . .”

“To hell with them, those aristocrats! There’s no pleasing them!” Tsiporin said, interrupting him with annoyance.

Glancing at the table loaded with food, Mirkin exclaimed, “What a feast you have! Even sausage! Hey, you apostates, you!” he added with feigned anger. “What’re you thinking? You’ll devour that pork and as a result all sorts of misfortunes and calamities will befall the Jews!”

Switching to a more serious tone, he addressed Eizerman, “Kapluner will give you lessons in Russian and mathematics. Three times a week, from seven to eight in the evening.”

“You don’t say!” Eizerman cried ecstatically. “When do we start?”

“Today, if you like. . . . But it’s better to rest today; tomorrow I’ll take you there.”

 

15

ePub

AS SOON AS Eizerman had gone, Mirkin began speaking enthusiastically, with considerable agitation: “It’s essential to discuss a very important matter right now! It’s necessary to save a human being!”

“Sonya Beryasheva!” Uler explained hastily.

“Listen to what she writes!”

Mirkin read her note aloud.

“Do you know what produced this letter? Her father is giving her away in marriage against her will!” he added in horror.

This emotion was communicated to the others. Faevich jumped down from his sleeping bench. He was very pale; the muscles in his face twitched nervously. Uler, standing in the middle of the room, stared with wild, wide-open eyes. Even Kornblat, continuing to sway back and forth over his textbook, raised his head and glanced at Mirkin with an expression of tormented suffering, as if he were experiencing a toothache again.

“Who’s the intended? To whom is she being promised?” Uler, whose lips blanched from distress, asked in a half whisper.

 

16

ePub

KORNBLAT FOLLOWED THE conversation attentively, without letting go of his textbook. After some hesitation, he put the book aside and approached the table.

“Here’s what I have to say,” he began in a business-like manner. “There’s only one sure means to rescue her! It’s a difficult step, but if she agrees to it, she’ll immediately avoid this fellow, as well as any others. . . .”

“How?” his comrades inquired with interest.

“The simplest way of all. One has only to say a few words. . . .”

Harey-at!” blurted out Uler, guessing the answer.1

“Precisely!” confirmed Kornblat in a tone indicating that he was surprised his comrades hadn’t come up with such an easy solution before. “One of us will drop into Beryashev’s shop with two comrades as witnesses when Sonya is present (this will have to be arranged with her in advance), purchase something from her, slip a silver coin into her hand, and say aloud ‘Harey-at,’ and it’s all done! Not even a Tatar could help!”2

 

17

ePub

EIZERMAN LEFT THE Ore Miklet in an elevated mood, but at the same time he felt a vague sense of somberness and confusion that he couldn’t explain to himself. He tried to strike up a conversation with Tsiporin, who walked on ahead with his head bowed, but he didn’t reply or else answered abruptly and unwillingly. Eizerman fell silent; bouncing up and down clumsily, he followed fast behind Tsiporin. His mood soon became gloomy, and all his recollections were infused with dark colors. His new comrades at the Ore Miklet had greeted him with coolness and apathy; Mirkin, who’d treated him so warmly that morning, was now trying to get rid of him as quickly as possible. . . . Of course, he himself was to blame for everything: he’d bored them with his foolish chatter. . . . A strange sensation at his bare temples constantly reminded him that his side curls had been shorn; he regretted that he’d hastened that procedure and had elicited open mockery from his comrades, instead of their expected approval. . . . And finally, the real reason for his spiritual discomfiture occurred to him. Eizerman remembered his new friends’ remarks about learning and physical labor, remarks that contradicted his own ideas on this subject. Denying the necessity of systematic study, the freethinkers from the Ore Miklet almost seemed to be privileging physical labor over mental work, not only in theory, but also in practice. . . . Of course, there’s no reason to be ashamed of physical labor! On the contrary! A genuine advocate of Haskalah extols physical labor, mocks and reproaches fanatics for their contempt of such work. Eizerman knew all this very well. Nevertheless, in the depths of his soul, he couldn’t reconcile himself to this idea—and it seemed strange and bizarre to him that Tsiporin was a bookbinder; he considered this a profanation of the “sacred Haskalah.” . . . No matter how he tried to convince himself that Tsiporin was exactly the same kind of maskil as Mirkin and Uler, he still regarded him only as a skilled craftsman.

 

18

ePub

EIZERMAN LEFT KAPLUNERS home completely disheartened. He’d expected so much from the first lesson—and had gotten so little from it! He’d hoped the teacher would immediately reveal to him the source of “secular wisdom”; instead, he’d been handed a children’s story to read, had lingered on the pronunciation of individual letters as if that were important, and had been compelled to write out numbers for no purpose. . . . In addition, he’d been forbidden to utter one word of Yiddish.

In the gloomiest mood, his eyes downcast, Eizerman made his way back to the Ore Miklet. He walked along the same streets that he’d traversed earlier that day when he was feeling so inspired by bright hopes and dreams—but these streets now seemed entirely different to him, foreign and gloomy. . . .

When Eizerman returned to the Ore Miklet, the “conspirators” had managed to finish debating their plan for the “betrothal.” It was decided to make all the arrangements for the next day and to involve one more of their comrades in this affair, Geverman, who was considered a steadfast fellow. For some reason, Eizerman’s return cheered everyone up.

 

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