Wandering Soul : An artful historical tale proves that the Jewish novel is still alive at the end of the millennium : MAZEL,<i> By Rebecca Goldstein (Viking: $23.95; 357 pp.)</i>

<i> Brett Singer, the author of "The Petting Zoo" and "Footstool in Heaven," teaches in the masters of fine arts program at the University of Memphis and is working on her third novel</i>

Rebecca Goldstein’s “Mazel”--winner of the National Jewish Book Award--is a book as thick and teeming as the world of Eastern European culture to which it gives voice. “Mazel” is Yiddish for luck, and the idea that “there is, after all, such a thing as mazel” represents the credo of Sasha (nee Sorel) Sonnenberg, the voluble heroine of Goldstein’s fifth book.

“Mazel” is divided into nearly as many partitions as was the Poland of the 1930s and ‘40s. The story starts out in Lipton, N.J., a comfy suburban stronghold that houses so many Orthodox Jews and synagogues that it has come to be called the “Jerusalem of New Jersey.”

When we meet Sasha she is 70ish, wise and beautiful. The first two and the last five chapters--all of which are set in contemporary New Jersey--form a framing device for the rest of the novel, which takes place in Jewish Poland between the two world wars.


These New Jersey scenes are anchored around the marriage and subsequent birth of a son to Sasha’s granddaughter, Phoebe. Phoebe, a mathematics professor at Princeton, is an expert on the mathematics of bubbles and, more disconcerting to Sasha, a born-again Orthodox Jew, or ba’alat tshoouvah, one who returns to the faith. Though Phoebe has no problem negotiating the separate realms of skepticism and faith, her grandmother is deeply dismayed by what she sees as an absurd return to the narrowness of ghetto life.

In the middle part of the book we are taken back to Sorel/Sasha’s girlhood in Galicia. Shluftchev-on-the- Puddle is a mythical Polish town--a shtetl straight out of Sholom Aleichem, rife with folkloric mischief, gossip and heartache.

The most important character introduced in this section is Sorel/Sasha’s eldest sister, Fraydel. Where Chana, the second sister, busies herself with domestic chores, preparing herself to be a kalleh, a marriageable maiden, Fraydel wanders the village, making up stories, oblivious to the opinions of the shtetl folk who regard her as a meshuga, or crazy person.

Fraydel is more than a garden-variety meshuga. She wanders two worlds at once, her soul more bound up with the airy world of ideas and stories than with the homely details of the home. Fraydel, like all luftmenschen, (literally people with their heads in the clouds), is more spirit than flesh. There is something possessed or haunted about her character, though Goldstein only suggests this.

Usually, in Yiddish folklore--as in most, if not all, cultural mythologies--the character of the wandering soul is haunted as a consequence of some moral transgression that casts him or her outside of the fold. Fraydel is completely innocent, an eternal maiden, who breaks the law not out of any malevolence but only as a means to escape marriage, which is what the law and custom both require of a woman. When the shtetl matchmaker miraculously produces a willing, if not suitable, groom, Fraydel seems to go along, to the amazement of her mother, Leiba. The Sabbath before the wedding, Fraydel sabotages the marriage contract by picking flowers, which is forbidden on Shabbos. After Fraydel has turned up missing on this momentous Saturday, Sorel is sent to find her:

“She looked up, shading her eyes so that she might be able to see in the glare of the strong Sivan sun. There was a little group of boys prancing around, skipping, pointing. So much excitement!


“She could make out little Tzai and Duddi scampering down the street toward the frolicking band of. . . .

“It was Fraydel! Fraydel was in the middle of these boys, who were dancing around her and singing! ‘Fraydel, Fraydel da meshuggena maydel! Zie klaipt bliemen on da Shabbos! Zie iz yetzt an apikoras!’ ‘Fraydel, Fraydel, the crazy girl! She picks flowers on the Sabbath! She is now a heretic!’ ”

A more grievous transgression occurs when Fraydel, who is utterly bedazzled by the roaming Gypsies who populate the area, takes the impressionable Sorel with her to the Gypsies’ camp, where both girls eat food that isn’t kosher. Fraydel remains caught between her wish to join the Gypsies and the loving bosom of her family. Eventually, she drowns herself, a Yiddish Ophelia without even a Hamlet.

Before she dies, Fraydel bequeaths to Sorel a hunger for story and ritual as well as a curiosity for the wide world. After Fraydel’s suicide, the family moves to Warsaw, and a wealthy assimilated aunt, who is a modest patron of the arts, sees in her tall, blond niece the makings of a great dramatic actress. And sees not only a Rachel, the famous actress of modern Yiddish theater, but even a Sarah Bernhardt.

As history bites at the heels of all Eastern European Jews, Sorel transforms herself into Sasha, a worldly independent young woman who earns a place in the repertory of the Bilbul Art Theatre, a modernist Yiddish theater group. Goldstein loosely bases the Bilbul Art Theatre on the Vilna Troupe and similar avant-garde theater groups of the ‘20s and ‘30s that promulgated free love, equal rights for women and other radical leftist ideals.

This is a historical novel with a sweep so vast that Goldstein must be praised for her ambition as well as for her knowledge of Judaism, Yiddish culture and the Yiddish language itself. She has proven that the Jewish novel--despite its countless death knells--is still alive at the end of the millennium. In her artful creation of Jewish female archetypes--ranging from the contemporary yentas of Lipton, N.J., to the inhabitants of the far reaches of Lithuania and Warsaw, she has written female characters as worthy of Philip Roth and Grace Paley as they are of their grand European progenitors--Sholom Aleichem and S. Y. Agnon.