cover image Before All the World

Before All the World

Moriel Rothman-Zecher. Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $27 (336p) ISBN 978-0-374-23166-8

Rothman-Zecher (Sadness Is a White Bird) delivers a rich and engrossing narrative of two Jewish immigrants in the U.S. and a Black writer who translates their story from the Yiddish. After a massacre at the fictional Zatelsk shtetl during the anti-Bolshevik pogroms in the early 1920s, survivor Leyb Mireles makes it to the U.S. as a young boy. Over a decade later, 19-year-old Leyb meets Charles Patterson, a 33-year-old communist ghostwriter, at a Philadelphia speakeasy catering to gay men. They strike up a friendship, but after Leyb misconstrues another man’s actions as sexual advances, the stranger beats him. Leyb is then arrested in a police raid and further assaulted. The violence triggers Leyb to remember the attack at Zatelsk, and after his release he tracks down Charles and the two men become close. Meanwhile, Gittl Khayeles, 33, another survivor who rescued Leyb from the massacre and who’s spent the intervening years in various Ukrainian and Belarusian cities, arrives in Philadelphia at the behest of a rich Jewish woman who summons Gittl after reading her poem about the pogrom in a literary journal. Gittl clings to an oft-repeated mantra, “all the world is not darkness,” while searching for Leyb. She eventually writes Leyb’s and her stories in a Yiddish manuscript, which Charles then crudely translates in 1935 (he calls the shtetl a “dustvillage”). As Rothman-Zecher gradually unfolds the remarkable stories of how Gittl reconnects with Leyb, and how Charles comes to possess Gittl’s manuscript, Charles offers droll commentary on his creative license as a translator and sustains an inventive blend of languages (“Leyb inbreathed one breath through his nose, awaytook one glass from Charles’s hand, downdrank half its contents in one zhlyuk”). It’s a powerful story, brilliantly told. Agent: Julia Kardon, HG Literary. (Oct.)