Reading Fradl Shtok’s From the Jewish Provinces is like taking a train ride through the countryside. At every stop, you get off, stop, and look around, taking in the sights and sounds that greet you. You note interesting characters and observe them for long enough to get a sense of the place and to wonder about their ties to it. You smell the foods they eat and hear one person calling to another down the street; a stranger smiles at you warmly, and then goes about her business. And then, almost as suddenly as it stopped, you hear the train whistle blowing, and you get back on to journey somewhere new again.
Shtok was born in present-day Ukraine and immigrated to the United States in 1907 when she was seventeen years old. Living on the Lower East Side, she first published poetry before turning to prose. From the Jewish Provinces includes both Shtok’s European and American stories. While each set is distinct in tone – the European stories veer towards sentimental, and those that take place in America are slightly sharper in their humor and observation – together, they create a portrait of a Jewish world with vibrant personalities and urgent questions, as well as reflecting a writer who is prepared to tackle them with both bravado and gentleness.
Many of the stories in Shtok’s collection concern social issues faced by women who are fated to ill-matched marriages and societal expectations. Shtok subtly points out the absurdities of this status quo through her determined characters, like a wife who insists on wearing silk slippers even while she attends to household chores. Many stories, like the tale of a woman whose husband is too oblivious to realize that his wife is fantasizing about the playwright Friedrich Schiller as he ham-handedly flirts with her, balance both humor and darkness.
Conveying small, vivid moments, Shtok creates characters that faithfully depict everyday life in all its complexity. One of the most enjoyable elements of Shtok’s storytelling is the use of gossip as a literary device. In “The First Train,” the reader learns through snappy dialogue that one character is believed to be a Zionist – and the unspoken consequences of such an affiliation. The interactions that Shtok depicts are so rich that whole worlds are built through the mere exchange of sentences.
It’s the inner monologues of her characters, though, where Shtok’s writing really shines. Even through stories only several pages long, Shtok manages to convey the depth of her characters’ lives: the anxiety of a schoolboy who has been told not to study with his beloved teacher, a guest at a wedding for whom a brief moment of dancing conjures a sense of previously unfelt aliveness. With rich inner monologues and deep emotion, Shtok elevates the seemingly small moments in these ordinary lives to a level of holiness.
Adina Applebaum is a Program Associate at the Whiting Foundation. She lives in New York.