Pioneers: A Tale of Russian Jewish Life in the 1880s, by S. A. An-sky; Michael R. Katz, trans. Indiana University Press. 154 pages. Hardcover $60, paperback $20.00.
An-sky brilliantly captures a week in the life of young Jewish intellectuals fleeing their tiny villages to find the possibilities of personal growth in larger towns where the enlightenment has begun to work its way. It’s a revolution of sorts that is aimed at dissolving anti-Semitism by shrinking the difference in outlook and behavior between Jews and their non-Jewish neighbors. This living portrait of the Haskalah, the Jewish enlightenment movement, vividly dramatizes the movement’s concern with the mastery of secular subjects, European languages, Hebrew, and trades.
Framed by the arrival of a young student to the larger town and the departure to the younger student’s village by his somewhat older role model and mentor, the body of the novel is filled with rich and sometimes outrageous dialogue. The young men chatter and debate endlessly about new ideas, what they’ve been reading, and the outmoded models of thought, conduct, and history of traditional Judaism. They have been smothered by it and must now exile themselves from home to build communities of free-thinkers unfettered by superstition. They question authority. They are filled with a spirit of rebellion, curiosity, self-discovery, and self-righteousness. They are, or would be, maskilim. . . .
To read the entire review as it appears on the Jewish Book Council web site and later this year in Jewish Book World, click here: Review of Pioneers: A Tale of Russian-Jewish Life in the 1880s by S. A. An-sky