a green background with small sketches of trees all over -- and in a clearing, the title in yellow type.
From the cover of "The Lost Shtetl" by Max Gross.

‘The Lost Shtetl’ and ‘The Orchard’: 2 new novels of Jewish culture shock

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Books coverage is supported by a generous grant from The Milton and Sophie Meyer Fund.

For those attuned to the Torah reading cycle, one of the striking aspects of the Genesis narratives is that the characters are often moving to foreign places. From Adam and Eve to Joseph, nobody stays where they started.

As I read two ambitious new debut novels exploring, among other things, the experiences of protagonists thrust into new environments, I was reminded that culture shock is a deeply Jewish theme.

Max Gross’ “The Lost Shtetl” begins with a scandal that rattles the small, entirely Jewish Polish town of Kreskol. Pesha Lindauer has disappeared, and her rage-filled ex-husband has apparently gone after her. Fearing that there may be a violent crime in the works, the town’s elders send one of the town’s misfits, Yankel Lewinkopf, to go to the nearest city to engage the authorities.

There is a detail I didn’t mention: This story takes place in the 21st century.

By a historical accident, this fictional town hidden in the woods escaped the attention of both the Nazis and the Polish authorities, and has been functioning self-sufficiently in total isolation for decades.

Thus, when Yankel, who cannot speak Polish and is dressed like a relic from the 19th century, ultimately shows up in the larger city of Smolskie, he is whisked to a hospital for observation. As he is assessed by doctors, he expresses absolute ignorance of the modern world. In one of the book’s poignant moments, when he is informed that nearly all Polish Jews were murdered during World War II, he responds, “Just how dumb do you think I am?”

Some think he is crazy, and some think he is lying. But when he is ultimately believed, the Polish government and the media descend on Kreskol, and nothing will ever be the same for the Jewish town that time forgot.

The novel portrays two arenas of radical change. One is the transformation of Kreskol itself. Once its existence is known, the town sees an influx of bureaucrats, bargain hunters, Jewish tourists and non-Jewish apartment hunters, as well as paved roads, electricity, a new currency and a sewer system (accompanied by tax collection). Some townspeople welcome the changes and others resist them, and as bitter rivalries emerge among the Jewish residents, the initial promise of a better life gives way to a less rosy scenario.

Equally interesting are the changes within Lewinkopf himself, who, upon returning to Kreskol, takes the opportunity to leave again, sneaking onto a helicopter with a news crew headed for Warsaw. With few prospects in Kreskol (he had been sent on his mission largely because, as the son of a deceased prostitute, he was seen as expendable), he is energized by his encounter with the modern world, particularly after he finds, and falls in love with, the disappeared Pesha.

Gross manages to create an unbelievable situation that feels quite real. And he does it with doses of humor that do not diminish the serious issues at hand, including the evocation of antisemitism in both the past and present.

cover of "The Orchard" by David Hopen: a dark blue background with an illustration of yellow flamesAnother novel published this fall, “The Orchard” by David Hopen, presents a very different sort of culture shock. Aryeh “Ari” Eden is a teenager in a strictly Orthodox neighborhood in Brooklyn whose life is consumed by study and ritual observance. When his father is offered a new job, the family relocates to Florida.

Now living in an affluent Jewish suburb of Miami, Ari spends his senior year in a high school that could hardly contrast more with his rundown and insular Brooklyn yeshiva. The new school is ostensibly Modern Orthodox, but religion is a secondary concern for its wealthy and ambitious college-bound students. Ari’s next door neighbor is the school’s star athlete, and Ari is brought into a social group that introduces him to the world of parties, boats, luxury cars, teen romance, drugs and alcohol.

But this is not a vapid group of kids, and one of the unexpected dimensions of the book is the large portion of it devoted to philosophical and religious discussion. Much of it transpires in heady and challenging sessions led by the school’s principal, Rabbi Bloom — with some sections potentially difficult for readers without a background in Judaism, particularly as there is a fair amount of Hebrew terminology used.

The orchard of the title hearkens to a haunting Talmudic tale in which four great rabbis enter pardes, which can be translated as an orchard. Only Rabbi Akiba emerges whole from this mysterious venture. Without engaging in spoilers, the boys with whom Ari is closest increasingly take on their own sets of serious risks, partly as a challenge to the ideas they are encountering.

It has been quite a while since I’ve read a book focused on the lives of teenagers. I appreciated Hopen’s skill in conveying the powerful experience of attempting to find one’s own identity during those tumultuous years — which, in Ari’s case, is only intensified by the displacement and revelation that he experiences.

“The Lost Shtetl” by Max Gross (416 pages, HarperVia)

“The Orchard” by David Hopen (480 pages, Ecco)

Howard Freedman
Howard Freedman

Howard Freedman is the director of the Jewish Community Library in San Francisco. All books mentioned in his column may be borrowed from the library.