Moriel Rothman-Zecher’s Before All the World is a novel of two title pages. There is the usual one and then there is a second that reads, ‘a mayseh. By Gittl Khayeles. Translated by Charles Patterson (Roses).’ The book-within-a-book even includes a ‘Translator’s Note’. The story – for which mayseh is the Yiddish word – will have to deliver after such a build-up.
Does it? The jumbled syntax, Joycean neologisms and page-long sentences that are Patterson’s way of rendering Yiddish take time to decode. But I can tell you that the story concerns a young Jewish immigrant called Leyb, who we first meet in a bar in Philadelphia at the end of Prohibition ‘overwatching the men what inpiled there every shabbes evening’ (that’s ‘looking over the men who entered there every Sabbath evening’ to you and me). Lacking ‘a fluent comprehension of modernishe amerikanishe’, Leyb is astonished when a fellow punter, a black man no less, starts speaking Yiddish to him. ‘You’re knowing to speak jewish? Leyb said in american. Don’t look so farvundert, said the man,’ who turns out to be our translator, Charles.
What is interesting in that exchange, and throughout the book, is the othering of ‘american’. Uncapitalised throughout, and always pointed out when spoken, English is the foreign language here; in this novel, outsiders are insiders. It accordingly seems like the most natural thing in the world when, a few