Bend in the Road, set in Eastern Europe in the 1880s, introduces us to two couples that find safe havens in the insular world of a traveling Yiddish theater troupe. IN THE LION’S DEN brings us Daniel Bercovich, a young man in the first throes of finding his identity. Can the man he comes to love accept a new side to him? Yuval Smolenski finds more than the inspiration for his music, he finds something everlasting in FROM STAGE TO STAGE. These Jewish men in love must deal not only with the stigma of that love but also fear the rise of anti-Semitism. Can their love survive all the forces that surround them?
Review by T J Pennington
Bend in the Road is a book composed of two stories, In the Lion’s Den and From Stage to Stage. Both are the stories of gay Jewish men who are actors in a troupe roaming around Poland circa 1881.
I was rather interested in how the author was going to deal with this. There were, of course, traveling troupes of actors in Eastern Europe–primarily, they appeared in the courtyards of synagogues around the time of Purim, put on comedies and satires, and then went back to their own villages and their day-to-day jobs. They were, for the most part, amateurs who put on a yearly performance.
A troupe of amateur Jewish actors could not travel far, of course. Poland, at that point, was owned by Russia and was part of the Pale of Settlement (1772-1917). Jews were restricted. They could not travel far or often without official permission; they could only live or sleep in certain areas; they could not own land; they could not brew alcohol or run taverns. Secondary education for Jews was severely restricted and at times was forbidden outright. Jewish professionals and artisans were sometimes forcibly evicted from their homes in the city and compelled to move to the smaller, all-Jewish villages in the country. Jewish women were even more confined–the only women who could travel throughout the Pale without fear of legal reprisals were prostitutes. (The prostitutes had special passports, proclaiming their profession.)
And on top of all the restrictions and legal discrimination were the vicious and bloody pogroms.
So I envisioned a tale about men shuttling between a collection of relatively close villages, putting on plays, and then going back to their home village and picking up their daily lives, and about the culture shock experienced by a very secular English Jew as he tried desperately to fit in to a world light-years from the one he knew for the sake of a man he liked and was attracted to…but whose faith and traditions and way of thinking were difficult for him to understand.
But Jeanne Barrack chose to tell stories that were quite different.
Aryeh Nachman, whose English name is Lionel Nachman, is the hero of In the Lion’s Den. We are told that Aryeh’s tutor calls him this because “Aryeh” is Hebrew for “lion.” It’s not. “Ari” is Hebrew for “lion.” “Aryeh” is what a mother, father or melamed (Hebrew primary school teacher) would call a small boy named Ari. The implication is that his teacher doesn’t regard him as an adult.
Also, “Nachman” is a rather noteworthy name in Judaism–it’s the name of Reb Nachman of Breslov (April 4, 1772 – October 16, 1810) , a rabbi, scholar and holy man –and the grandson of the Baal Shem Tov (the Master of the Good Name), who was the founder of the modern Hasidic movement. In the case of the Rabbi of Breslov, “Nachman” is a first name, not a surname–many Jews of the time didn’t have surnames. Even so, it’s rather like a poverty-stricken orphan having the surname of Rockefeller; the name makes you wonder if there’s a familial connection or if whoever filled out the kid’s birth records just grabbed the name at random.
The bastard son of a rich Englishman and his Jewish maid, Aryeh is tall, dark, handsome, gifted at languages, and oddly ignorant of Judaism or Jewish customs despite five years spent studying the Law of the Torah. He is also a spoiled and selfish young man who feels no obligation to be faithful to his lovers though he expects fidelity from them. And he is not good at accepting “no” for an answer–as the story begins, he’s been working his way toward the region of Galicia in Austro-Hungary because he wants to be reunited with his former tutor, a young man named Shimon who kissed him once and then refused to take up with him. Despite the fact that Shimon has already said no and informed Aryeh that he is going home to wed a merchant’s daughter, Aryeh goes after him. He simply cannot conceive of a world where he cannot have what he wants.
In Krakow, Poland, however, Aryeh runs into a traveling troupe of Jewish actors and falls in with them. And among the members of the troupe is the young man he will fall in love with–the tall, strawberry-blond Daniel (or Dani, despite the fact that this isn’t the Yiddish nickname for Daniel), who is “beautiful and very young,” innocent, modest, sweet, shy, fond of “pretty things” and prone to blushing, as well as painfully naive. Despite having lived in close quarters with other men for the past eighteen years, Dani is oddly ignorant of sex and sexuality. He notices when someone stares at him intently, but he’s completely unaware of the fact that he himself is extraordinarily handsome and, at least in the beginning, doesn’t understand why any man would look at him with the slightest bit of interest. He is, to be blunt, a chick with a dick.
Now, someone who prefers reading about male homosexuals who behave more like Michaels than Michelles probably will not enjoy reading about a naive, sentimental pretty-faced man who, despite the fact that an eighteen-year-old in the nineteenth century would have been considered an adult, is constantly described in terms of boyhood. On the other hand, extraordinarily effeminate men who embody the stereotypes generally accorded to female characters are very popular among some readers of male/male romance, especially those who enjoy yaoi mangas and animes. For such people, Dani would be a godsend.
Unfortunately, I’m not one of them.
The leader of the troupe is named Moyshe, but really, he’s Tevye from Fiddler on the Roof, alternating between normal conversations and loud, indignant proclamations to God. As for his wife, Rivkeh…well, she is every stereotypical Jewish mother from jokes and sitcoms, ordering anyone in the house to “Eat, eat!” and proclaiming of a character that no one has met yet that “he’s a doll, a real mensch!” Malkah, the wife of the actor who plays the villains, is the resident matchmaker, trying to set up Dani with her niece from Gdansk (which, in 1881, was part of Prussia). She thinks nothing of asking her niece’s mother to send Dani a “picture” of the girl, though an Orthodox Jew would most likely have problems with the whole “graven images” issue even if portraits and photographs were cheap and easily available even to the poor, which they were not. These are stock characters, rather than individuals–but they’re familiar, which some readers might find pleasant or reassuring.
Of course, there must be a villain of the piece, and that is the girlishly named Beryl. (This is a prime example of the need for proofreading as well as Spell-check. B-E-R-E-L is a man’s name in Yiddish; B-E-R-Y-L is a woman’s name that became popular among American Jews around the early part of the twentieth century.) Naturally, Beryl shows inordinate interest in Dani; naturally, Dani is horrified without being sure why. Sadly, Dani finds it impossible to stand up for himself and tell Beryl to fuck off. Nor does he slug Beryl, nor play any number of unpleasant tricks on him that would make him look stupid. Nor does he tell anyone–such as the leader of the troupe–that Beryl will not leave him alone. Dani is, to put it plainly, a uke, and ukes, in anime, manga and fiction, are generally cast in a helpless, passive, stereotypically female mode. Therefore, Dani cannot fight or oppose Beryl, nor can he protect himself; his love interest, Aryeh, must do that for him.
There is, to be frank, not much of a plot in In the Lion’s Den. Aryeh is a gifted natural actor–we are told this a number of times–and he fits into the world of the troupe easily. There is no culture shock, no period of adjustment. The main conflict arises from the fact that Aryeh wants Dani and Dani wants Aryeh, but, for a while, despite the fact that both of them are dropping anvils around each other, neither is willing to admit an attraction out loud, and each is convinced that he is the only one who feels any attraction. Then, when they do figure out that they’re both attracted, Dani goes into meltdown because Aryeh is able to pull back and stop touching him; in Dani’s circular logic, this means that Aryeh doesn’t love him, because if he loved him, he wouldn’t be able to stop. Then he decides that Aryeh and Yuval, the homosexual composer-lyricist-
instrumentalist of the group, are in love when that’s the furthest thing from either man’s mind. (And yes, this does make four homosexual characters in one small troupe.) It’s like a French farce, where most of the difficulties could be ironed out if someone would just SAY something. It will probably come as no surprise that Aryeh and Dani end up together with the approval of the entire troupe.One thing that I found distracting was the author’s habit of salting the dialogue with Yiddish words. Since for the most part the characters were supposed to be speaking Yiddish anyway, it was odd to see an untranslated Yiddish word crop up in the middle of conversation.
And many of the words were used in a way that was, unfortunately, incorrect. Using Yiddish words correctly–as opposed to dropping a Yiddish word like “schlemiel” in conversation–can be tricky at the best of times; the literal meaning and the connotations are often drastically different from one another. I have lived in a Jewish neighborhood for forty years. I am familiar with most of the vocabulary in this book, as well as the connotations of the words…and even I would double and even triple check before using them, because it would be so easy to miss a shade of meaning.
Take the word “beshert,” which the author uses frequently.
I told you it was a beshert that you found him
is a typical sentence.
As a verb, “beshert” means “destined” or “fated.” However, when used as a noun, as here, “beshert” means “destined one.” A destined one is the person God appointed to be your spouse from the beginning of eternity. There’s a Hasidic legend that says that forty days before a baby is born, a cry echoes throughout heaven–“This boy for this girl!” (The legend is strangely silent about same-sex couples.)
So the speaker is saying, “It was a destined one that you found him.”
Another word that gets misused a great deal is “momzer.” Literally, it means “bastard,” and Aryeh uses the term to describe himself. It’s worth noting, however, that by Jewish law, Aryeh is NOT a momzer. He is illegitimate, but being a momzer involves more than that. For Aryeh to be a momzer, he would have to be the child of a coupling forbidden by the Torah–either adulterous or incestuous. His parents were not married to anyone else, and his mother was his father’s servant, which makes incest unlikely. And illegitimacy isn’t the issue here that it might be in other cultures. Here are some of the laws regarding precedence and capitivity :
“For example, in procuring their release from captivity,” A priest takes precedence over a Levite, a Levite over an Israelite, and an Israelite over a bastard… This applies when they are all [otherwise equal]; but if the bastard is learned in the Torah and the priest is ignorant of the Torah, the learned bastard takes precedence over the ignorant priest (Mishnah, Horayot, 3:8).
So a learned bastard of adulterous or incestuous parentage stands higher than an ignorant high priest. Scholarship trumps worldly status.
Aryeh is clearly not a scholar. But that’s his own fault. If he were poor and illegitimate but scholarly, he could STILL be considered a matrimonial catch.
And then there’s this about Rute, the mentally slow sister of the troupe’s composer-lyricist, Yuval:
He sighed. “Such a shonda, a shame. She’s a little slow, but such a voice!
“Shonda” DOES mean “shame,” but not in the sense the word is used here. To quote the Yiddish glossary : A “shonda for the goyim” means to do something shameful, publicly witnessed by non-Jews, thus bringing shame upon Jews in general (because, the theory goes, we are all held accountable for the worst deeds of the worst of us.) Also, “Such a smart girl like that. It’s a shonda she’s such a meiskeit (physically unattractive person).”
So a shonda is less about “it’s a pity she’s a bit slow” than “it’s shameful and humiliating to all Jews that she is slow.” The connotation is very different.
Other problems crop up in historical or religious details. I’ve already mentioned the contradictions between the book and the actual laws during the Pale of Settlement. To give another example, Aryeh’s artist-lover Simeon (no relation to the aforementioned Shimon who kissed Aryeh) is arrested in France for homosexuality. Which is strange, since France decriminalized homosexuality in 1791 . It was the first Western nation to do so.
There’s also this detail about a young woman, a stranger in town, who died in childbirth:
If it weren’t for the Rabbi’s interceding, she wouldn’t have been buried in the cemetery!
According to Houses of Life by Joachim Jacobs and Hans-Dietrich Beyer, funerals in shtetls were paid for by a group within the village called the chevra kaddisha. There were even special sections within the cemetery for different groups–Cohanim, children, people who died violently…and women who died in childbirth. Also, in the shtetl, when someone died–even a stranger, shops were closed and people were expected to attend the funeral. The idea was that when someone died–whether a stranger or odious or whatever–his or her fellow human beings should mourn.
Moyshe paid him money to hire someone to say Kadish for her each year and the Rabbi promised he’d have a marker put up for her.
And that’s an alien concept. You didn’t PAY someone to say Kaddish; it was a good deed (and one blessed by heaven) to pray for those who had no one to say the Mourner’s Prayer for them. The rabbi, if he was any kind of rabbi at all, would have encouraged his congregation to do so, as well as prayed for her himself…probably for the rest of his days.
Another anachronistic concept pops up in Aryeh’s protest against Shimon’s marriage:
“You’d sell yourself and enter a loveless marriage, and that you don’t consider a sin?”
Arranged marriages and deliberately marrying someone of good, noteworthy or scholarly family and/or someone who could support you and your family were acceptable, even expected, in both Jewish and secular societies of the time. There was also usually a “getting to know you” period in which presents were exchanged and conditions for the marriage contract were drawn up. It’s unlikely that Shimon would be marrying a total stranger by the time he DID get married. Again, Aryeh is voicing a concept that is modern rather than period–that only marrying for love is acceptable. It’s a notion commonly accepted by romance fans…but it simply does not fit.
And finally there is this about Aryeh’s Bar Mitzvah:
As he neared the age of thirteen, his mother had begged his father for someone to prepare him for his confirmation. Finding someone willing to begin with the “Aleph Bet” took some doing, but one was found.
The author is talking about preparing for the Bar Mitzvah–a ceremony that celebrates a boy coming of age as a Jew, accepting the fact that he is of age to assume religious and ethical responsibility for his actions. And given the tradition of scholarship among the Jews–boys often started studying at cheder (Hebrew school) when they were about three, and rarely later than six–studying Hebrew and Torah would not be something that had to be crammed in shortly before the age of thirteen. Aryeh should have been learning about both all along.
Moreover, in calling the Bar Mitzvah a confirmation, the author is describing a modern American Reform Jewish attitude toward the Bar Mitzvah, rather than the more traditional one. In the Orthodox way of thinking, a young man could take on ethical, spiritual and moral responsibility, but he would not have to confirm his faith; what could a Jew be but a Jew?
The second story, From Stage to Stage, is a sequel to In the Lion’s Den and begins in 1882 Prague. Yuval is talking to Aryeh in the garden of a boarding house while Aryeh’s sister Ruteleh and Dani fuss over the baby of a member of the troupe. Dani, it should be noted, is wearing one of Ruteleh’s dresses:
Dani wore one of Rute’s lightweight wrappers, a gift brought back by Yuval for her. The latest fashion from England inspired by the Bohemian lifestyle, the peacock colors suited Dani’s golden curls. Perhaps it was incongruous to be worn over his shirt, but it was the closest he could get in polite company to the manner in which he wanted to wear it.
No one even suggests that wearing women’s clothing outside where he might be seen by someone who was NOT a member of the troupe might attract unwanted attention to him and his male lover. No one points out that a man wearing a woman’s garb or a woman wearing a man’s garb is against Jewish law, either. It’s fine, because Dani likes it. And as quickly as that, we are in the world of OKHomo
The story’s point of view meanders around for a bit; I couldn’t really tell whose story it was going to be. But then the readers learn that Moyshe and Rivkeh are breaking up the troupe and moving to America (we aren’t told why), that Yuval has just returned from a whirlwind trip around Europe (I don’t know how he got permission to travel) and that the troupe’s final performance at a wedding (never mind that itinerant players and wedding singers were NOT the same thing) will be Yuval’s adaptation of Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Nightingale.” A gay version:
What if he made the nightingale even more magical? The Emperor could still grow ill, but before Death comes for him, perhaps the nightingale would arrive earlier and sing to him and when he listens to him, he grows stronger. Perhaps, the nightingale would fall in love with the Emperor and the Emperor fall in love with him. Whenever they are by themselves, the nightingale becomes human. He looked at what he had written. ‘Him.’ The emperor falls in love with ‘him.’ He’d have to be more careful. Even something as innocuous as a slip in a pronoun could be misinterpreted. Though in this case, it would be exactly what he meant.
A gay romance drama, het-ified. Written for a wealthy Orthodox Jewish couple, who are going to be married somewhere in Eastern Europe in the late nineteenth century.
Is it me, or is there a fundamental disconnect here?
It goes on in the same vein. The mother of the bride isn’t a well-to-do Orthodox matron from Prague, but a modern Jewish-American alrightnik. You can tell from the way she speaks:
“Excellent news, my dear. I can’t wait to see the faces of the other women of my club. Now, we can go ahead with the rose gazebo and the canopy.”
But Elizabeth Silberstein isn’t quite as Hyacinth Bucket-y as she sounds. She’s more like Lady Chatterley, because she’s definitely trying to seduce the gardener. The problem is, Tsvi is gay. And this is not a gay man who will ever marry a woman. Oh no. If you were measuring from 0 to 6 on the Kinsey scale, this guy would score a ten.
Yuval meets Tsvi when he goes to the Silberstein house. Sets for “The Nightingale” must be constructed and music composed, and Yuval and the set designer need to know where the play will be performed so that the sets and the acoustics for the music will fit. I can understand that. But then I started to read about the vast estates of the Silbersteins.
They have a house with an enormous back lawn, a greenhouse, orchards and gardens (plural)–in the middle of Prague. Prague, a place that has been quite a large city for more than 1,100 years. Also, the Silberstein estate is supposed to abut AltNeu Park. I cannot find anything called AltNeu Park in Prague. There IS an Alt-Neu Synagogue in Prague’s old Jewish Quarter–it’s the oldest active synagogue in Europe–but there’s no mention of a park near it.
Tsvi is struck by Yuval’s handsome, confident good looks as soon as he sees him. Yuval initially thinks that Tsvi looks like a golem–his features are broken, scarred and roughly made–but then Tsvi smiles one of those transformative smiles that reveal a soul in all its honesty and beauty, and instantly, Yuval is head over heels in love with a man he doesn’t even know. Tsvi, of course, is utterly convinced that Yuval is straight. Regrettably, so is Elizabeth Silberstein. I found myself wishing that she would stop making plays for all the gay guys and just get herself a decent dildo.
Things continue roughly as you would expect them to. Yuval finds a beautifully tuned piano at the Silbersteins and can scarcely keep away from it or the gardens. Tsvi hears Yuval performing and begins singing Yuval’s songs to himself; Yuval hears Tsvi’s voice and realizes that Dani will never, ever be able to sing these songs as they are meant to be sung. Naturally, he compliments Tsvi. Naturally, Tsvi tries to brush the compliment off. Naturally, Yuval is so moved by the other man’s voice that he lightly kisses Tsvi, and convinces the Silbermans to give Tsvi permission to practice with the troupe. Of course Tsvi has never felt so welcomed and loved before, and is astonished that people are not cringing at the sight of his face. Yuval is more attracted to Tsvi than he’s ever been to anyone. And, just as in the case of Aryeh and Dani, everyone in the troupe realizes that the two belong together…except for them.
There’s more (a tragic backstory involving a young man who was attracted to Tsvi and who didn’t take being turned down well, the head gardener at the Silbermans who would just as soon molest Tsvi as beat him up, Yuval and his visit to a male prostitute, and Yuval’s mentally retarded sister, who is basically a cheerful archetypal Fool), but really, I had no doubt that these two were going to end up together, and they do. On Shabbos, actually. The two of them are so happy and the rest of the troupe so accepting that I could not figure out how the story would go on–the HEA had already been written. Once all their problems are solved–and the last loose end is tied up when, just as in the case of Aryeh and Dani, one of them is threatened by a dangerous man with sexual assault and violence on his mind and, just as in Aryeh’s and Dani’s case, the assailant is caught and driven off–the two men finally figure out that they love each other and don’t want to part.
All in all, the actors remind me of the small professional troupes who circulated around the Catskills’ Borsht Belt in the 1920s and 1930s. And that would be a story worth telling, mind you. It just wouldn’t be identical to the experiences of a shpieler troupe in Eastern Europe in the late nineteenth century.
This is a situation where the stories are more plausible if you don’t know the period. This is not so much a historical novel as a novel with historical flavor. If you know anything about Yiddish, the Pale of Settlement, the Maskilim, or the practices and traditions of Judaism itself, you won’t find the book remotely believable. If, on the other hand, you are looking for a wallpaper historical with a couple of yaoi pairings, you will very likely be extremely satisfied. And some people are looking for that kind of book, and would enjoy it immensely.
Personally, however, I cannot recommend Bend in the Road, as it has been widely praised for research and historical accuracy–which search after search proved to be untrue. Now, I don’t mind historically inaccurate tales; if I did, I wouldn’t watch Merlin. But I strongly dislike historical novels that are supposed to be accurate and aren’t, because there are far too many people who believe that historicals are, by definition, 100% true. Inaccurate historicals convince people that they know the facts and don’t need to learn any different.
Because of this, and because there were so many errors, not only in historical accuracy but also in language and in religious and cultural concepts, I’m forced to give the book 1.5 stars. I believe the author can do much better than this…but I cannot review a novel based on what I think the author’s best work could be. I can only judge based on what is there.
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Filed under: 19th Century, 1½ stars, Fiction, novella, Reviews | 10 Comments »