A Forgotten Satire of Yiddishe Mamas and Soviet Fools


Stories of a bustling courtyard populated by hapless sages and wise young fools fill Moyshe Kulbak‘s classic satirical family novel of Soviet Minsk. It’s a compelling, tender read, newly translated by Hillel Halkin with a rich introduction by Jewniverse’s own Sasha Senderovich.

The premise is familiar from other beloved Yiddish works—think Sholem Aleichem‘s Tevye the Dairyman from a generation before. Yet The Zelmenyaners spoke to an unprecedented experience as it unfolded in real time. Serialized between 1929 and 1935, as Stalin was solidifying his power, the novel traces the evolution of the religious Jew into the secular comrade, and small town Belorussia into the aggressively modernizing Soviet Union.

We meet the silent Bereh who marries his cousin Khayaleh, refusing the traditional Jewish wedding rites their families wanted. There’s proud Sonya, who is always cold, because her mother had “smuggled frigid rabbinic blood into the family.” And the intractable matriarch Bubbe Bashe, whose last wish is that someone “please turn off the electric light because…she couldn’t die in all that glare.”

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