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Tales of the Old World and the New by Chone Gottesfeld

By Ira Leibowitz

Related to: Podolia (Province)Book Reviews

By Chone Gottesfeld.  Translated from the Yiddish by Jacob Richman.  New York: Thomas Yoseloff, 1964 (278 pp.) [originally published in Winter 1999 Mishpacha, Vol. 18, No. 4].

None of the following may be reprinted or republished without permission of the publisher.

Chone Gottesfeld, a Yiddish-language playwright and Forward staffer, published this memoir -- really a series of vignettes -- shortly before his death.  His stories display a dry, penetrating wit that skewers many, including himself.  At heart he is a gentle man who loves humanity.

Gottesfeld is from Skala, Galicia (now Skala Podolskaya, Ukraine), a town 20 miles northwest of Kamanets Podolskiy.  His Chasid father, a small trader, suppresses his enthusiasm for the theater because "no decent Jew went to the theater except the miscreants, who shaved their beards."  After studies in Chernovtsy and Vienna -- which put his father in debt -- in 1910 Gottesfeld heads for America, having heard that one can both work and study there.

In New York City he fails in several pursuits, save for a modest, irregular income through his humorous sketches.  He feels lucky at first when his new landlady, honored by boarding a writer, refuses to ask for rent.  But he soon finds out that he must listen to her poetry.

In perhaps the book's most riveting section, Gottesfeld returns to Skala in the mid-1930s to visit his father's grave.  What he sees shocks and saddens him.  The porch of his old house has collapsed.  The once-vibrant synagogue is ghostlike and nearly deserted; the windows are caked with dust.  Few weddings take place, the cemetery caretaker tells him, but many funerals. The sense of foreboding is palpable.

"Tales" is valuable to the family historian as a cultural touchstone.  It is a record of Jewish society in communities of the Old World and the New at a certain place and time.

Ira Leibowitz

  • Last Modified: 06-08-2012
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