A Polish Shtetl Lost in Time


When I worked at the Forward almost 20 years ago, the office manager/cub reporter was Max Gross, a 20-something Seth Rogen-lookalike who had a knack for finding offbeat stories when he wasn’t answering the phone. (Everything I am going to say here is going to sound condescending — but trust me, this takes a turn.) His desk sat outside my office, and I could listen in while he soothed and sparred with the various kvetches and sad sacks who were still telephoning a Jewish newspaper with old but fading Yiddish roots.

One of his frequent callers was the widow of the legendary Yiddish novelist and poet Chaim Grade. In a page out of a Cynthia Ozick short story, she would call to complain that the Forward wasn’t giving her late husband the respect he deserved, especially when compared to (feh — his name should be blotted out) the Nobelist Isaac Bashevis Singer. Max was always gentle and patient with Mrs. Grade, much more so than I.

I lost touch with Max over the years, although I knew he worked for a commercial real estate publication and wrote a charming memoir/dating how-to book called “From Schlub to Stud: How to Embrace Your Inner Mensch and Conquer the Big City.” So I was blown away when I read Max’s first novel, out soon from HarperVia, called “The Lost Shtetl.” Relatively late for a first novelist, Max has written a book so accomplished, and pulled off with such authority, that I suspected there was a shelf of Max Gross novels that I had somehow overlooked.

“The Lost Shtetl” is a Jewish fantasy in the vein of Michael Chabon’s “The Yiddish Policemen’s Union” and Steve Stern’s Jewish magical realism novels. There are even echoes of Simon Rich’s New Yorker story, “Sell Out,” about a time-travelling Orthodox Jewish immigrant, soon to be the major motion picture “An American Pickle” starring, yes, Seth Rogen. Set in contemporary Poland, “The Lost Shtetl” imagines the discovery of an isolated village that somehow escaped both the Holocaust and the attention of Polish and Soviet authorities in the decades since the war. When the bastard son of a disgraced townswoman is sent on a mission to the outside world, it sets off a serio-comic “first contact” plot in which the pious Jews of Kreskol learn about helicopters, television and smartphones, and the rest of the world puzzles over the unlikely disappearance and reappearance of this Jewish Brigadoon.

The novel is a high-wire act, daring you to take seriously an implausible scenario. Max pulls it off by grounding the fantasy in stark realism: an extended section on integrating the shtetl’s economy with that of the wider world, for example, seems highly researched (and is a lot more fun than it sounds). Sections on the media’s fascination with the lost (or is it last?) shtetl are written with a journalist’s insider knowledge, and the ways in which Polish politicians exploit the discovery and eventually turn on the villagers is all too believable.

So too are the relationships among the residents of Kreskol, who are forced to confront the privations and shocks of a vicious, miraculous century — the Shoah, the birth of Israel, Communism, the Digital Age — all at once. Some are eager to embrace this strange new world, others want to hold it at arm’s length — not unlike their charedi Orthodox kinspeople in Israel and Borough Park, about whom they have no knowledge. Predictably, since this is a Jewish book, Kreskol splits into factions, a split made more tragic by the knowledge that both sides are essentially right.

And while the author takes delight and care in solving all the “problems” — social, economic, political — implied in the premise, the novel retains a human, beating heart, grounded in a love story between two young shtetl natives whose encounter with the modern world is brutal and tragic. 

Max appears to have learned more than patience from his calls with Chaim Grade’s widow and his time at the Forvertz: The novel’s narrator, a kind of first-person collective, sounds both contemporary and folkloric, as if one of the great Yiddish writers had somehow survived, like Kreskol, to tell its story. Explaining the rich agriculture that allows the town to flourish without outside contact, the narrator shrugs, “In short, if loneliness was to be our lot, we could survive it well enough, thank you very much.”

The various strategies for survival — an individual’s and a culture’s — are the great themes of the novel, which is haunted by an unimaginable loss. The only survivor as we understand the word is the aptly named Leonid Spektor, a teacher who can only describe what he experienced on the outside by turning real-life Nazi atrocities into the stuff of ghost stories.

“The Lost Shtetl” stands on its own, but, like nearly everything else these days, my experience reading it was eerily informed by the pandemic. Isolation has become our moment’s essential survival strategy; the more we invite contact, the more perilous life seems. Kreskol is both an ideal Jewish community, but an impossible one. There are dangers in opening up to the outside world: language, customs and faith are all imperiled. The book’s sad conclusion suggests the trade-off may not be worth it. If loneliness is to be our lot, we might survive it well enough. 

is editor at large of the New York Jewish Week and managing editor for Ideas for the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.