Moriel Rothman-Zecher’s “Before All the World” is a boldly imagined tale of trauma and the terror of what comes after. Set in 1930s Philadelphia, Rothman-Zecher’s follow up to “Sadness is a White Bird” tells the story of Leyb, a young Jewish immigrant who was one of the only survivors of a vicious pogrom. At a former speakeasy known to be welcoming to “feygeles,” Leyb meets Charles, a Black man from the Seventh Ward who turns out to be fluent in Yiddish. Past and present merge when Gittl, the only other Jewish survivor of the pogrom, unexpectedly shows up in Philadelphia. The poet Gittl is not alone; instead, she carries the spirits of her siblings with her.
“Before All the World” is inseparable from its language. To focus on the plot is to do the book a disservice. “Before All the World” is framed as a translation that Charles is writing, and Gittl has presumably written the original. In a “Translator’s Note” at the beginning of the novel, Charles reflects on the difficulties of translation and “at times adhering to the rules which the author and I established, as above, at other times inventing rules of my own; striving at many junctions to be faithful to the Yiddish source, while also straying deliberately from its bound at others.” “Before All the World” has a stream-of-consciousness to it, and due to the choices in Charles’ translation, we can assume that the syntax and language are meant to harken back to Yiddish. The translation choices are often described in footnotes. At other times, we are not given context, and we are left to decipher the translation for ourselves: “And yoh there was still for Leyb the still small strum of a balalaika, yoh, the scent of aftershabbes, yoh, wine and candlewax and spiced dirt, and also strumming.”
It’s a difficult read, even for readers with knowledge of Yiddish. Sections unexpectedly jump to memories in Zatelsk, mimicking the ways in which trauma weds itself to the present. Reading “Before All the World” requires surrender, both to the language and the difficult events in which Rothman-Zecher describes. Although Charles is framed as the story’s translator, I instinctively found myself attributing sections to Rothman-Zecher and imagining him as the novel’s narrator. On one level, this is a work in translation from the 1930s version of Charles, who has learned Yiddish as a second language, and who speaks the language of an entirely different culture. But it is also a work in translation from Moriel Rothman-Zecher, a twenty-first century Israeli-American writer who carries his ancestors with him. “Before All the World” may be set in the 1930s, but it feels as though it is outside of time.
Rothman-Zecher should also be commended for his reimagining of Zatelsk, Leyb and Gittl’s shetl. This is not the generic, “Fiddler on the Roof”-style shetl that has dominated Eastern European Jewish imagination, but is instead a rich place of its own, full of specific details. Especially vivid and amusing is the description of how the Zatelsk residents own too many pairs of shoes, as no one outside Zatelsk “would ever dream of purchasing a pair of shoes from one of the cobblers of Zatelsk, given the knowledge of their astonishingly low quality of work spread through the neighboring villages like a carefree flush of tuberculosis.” Gittl, too, is a welcome reprieve from the stereotypical Jewish immigrant women who have permeated other works. She is the best of characters: one who cannot be easily categorized or described.
Through “Before All the World,” Rothman-Zecher has uncovered something extraordinary: trauma itself is a kind of translation. It’s a recreation of events that becomes more removed as time goes on, and language is our only guide.
“Before All the World”
By Moriel Rothman-Zecher
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 336 pages
Mara Sandroff is a fiction writer, critic and essayist based in Brooklyn, New York and Tucson, Arizona. She recently earned an MFA in fiction from New York University, and she is an alumna of One Story’s 2019 Summer Writers Conference and Kenyon Review’s 2021 Writers Workshop, a 2021 finalist in Tucson Festival of Book’s Literary Awards, and a voting member of the National Book Critics Circle. Her creative nonfiction has appeared in the Emerging Writer Series of Roxane Gay’s The Audacity. Currently, she is working on a novel that explores Jewish identity, intergenerational storytelling, and a young girl’s coming-of-age in a world that is (possibly) coming to an end. Write On, Door County will support her novel with a residency in December 2023. Find her online at marasandroff.com.