‘The Lost Shtetl’
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‘The Lost Shtetl’

Max Gross explains why his book is funny, and sad, and why it wanders

This photo shows an eastern European shtetl; Kreskol probably looked a lot like it. (History & Art Images via Getty Images)
This photo shows an eastern European shtetl; Kreskol probably looked a lot like it. (History & Art Images via Getty Images)

You know the famous optical illusion that shows two facing profiles that also are a cup, and you can see it either one way or the other, profiles or cup, except in those really short transition times when you somehow narrow your eyes and discipline your brain so you can see it as both?

Max Gross’s “The Lost Shtetl” is like that.

The novel — which Mr. Gross will talk about on Sunday at Temple B’nai Abraham in Livingston (see box) — is funny. Or at least it’s witty, with wild images and piercing insights that make you want to giggle or inhale sharply.

It’s also unrelentingly bleak, skewering every group that it takes on, and daring its readers to tell themselves that they don’t belong to any of them, because of course they do. You do. We do.

It’s told like a folk story, conversationally, with plot twists that you don’t see coming but realize are entirely necessary. It’s told partly by an omniscient narrator, and partly by a first-person guide who remains entirely anonymous, a sort of one-person a-gendered Greek chorus. And it ends with an entirely unexpected, perhaps unearned but maybe entirely appropriate punch — and one that the reader will get to, and get to react to, only after reading the whole book.

And the book’s entirely pathos- and sentiment- and nostalgia-free. It’s about a Polish shtetl, but there’s no one single dancing chasid swaying around its edges. (Except maybe the book’s closest-to-hero figure, who once circled his hospital room, arms raised, to Ray Charles’ “The Mess Around.”)

So what is this novel about?

It’s about a sort of eastern European Brigadoon, a town that time forgot until passion intruded, except in this case it’s passion combined with history. And the history of the Jews in Poland is not a happy story. (And there’s no Lerner and Loewe to set it to music.)

Why did he write the book this way? Why make it funny? Mr. Gross starts by quoting the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, who said (or at least is reported to have said), “A serious and good philosophical work could be written consisting entirely of jokes.”

And “I have a natural tendency to write funny,” he said. “A lot of jokes hide something. Here, they’re hiding the pain and sadness of the Holocaust, and the lost life in Europe.” Both the lost lives and the lost way of life, that is.

The story in “The Lost Shtetl,” as shaggy-dog and wandering as it is, focuses on the way things used to be, the way they are now, the way that some people cling to the past and others do not. It’s also about the Holocaust, and the way memory of it fades, and the relationships between Jews and Poles. It’s about relationships in general. (And what novel isn’t?)

Mr. Gross has written a few novels — the two that came before “The Lost Shtetl” were “buried alive,” he said; one was about “an Orthodox Jewish vampire who can’t consume blood and therefore is a neurotic Orthodox Jewish vampire.” It’s a wonderful concept, he said, but it didn’t work.

He’s also written a sort of self-help memoir, “From Schlub to Stud,” that capitalizes on his uncanny resemblance to Seth Rogen, as well as his ability to be full-on funny and open and personal when he wants to be.

Still, where did “The Lost Shtetl” come from?

Max Gross (Julian Voloj)

Mr. Gross grew up in Brooklyn and went to private school there — but it was Brooklyn Heights, the WASPy part of Brooklyn, not the Jewish part, and his private school wasn’t a yeshiva, but the (very secular) St. Ann’s. College was Dartmouth, “the most goyische of the Ivies.”

“I came from an extremely secular background,” Mr. Gross said. “But we were very interested in Jewish topics, particularly World War II and the Holocaust.

“My grandparents all were born in America, but all but one of my great-grandparents were born elsewhere, and I knew two of them.

“My great-grandmother, Yetta Cooperman, whose name I use in ‘The Last Shtetl,’ died when I was a little kid, 4 or 5, but my great-grandfather, Isidor Cooperman, lived into his 90s, and died when I was 11 or 12.

“He was a very mysterious figure. I didn’t see him every day, or even every week, but he was a presence and a bit of a mystery in my life, because he didn’t speak much English, and it was a struggle.

“He was always there, and always at a little bit of a remove.”

After college, Mr. Gross spent a summer as an intern at the Forward, and then he went to Israel for a yearlong stay as writer with the Arad Arts Project. When he came back, in 2001, he returned to the Forward. A misunderstanding there — a chat with an editor about what he saw as his future, which he read as a warning that he should look for a future elsewhere but the editor meant as an actual chat about his future, whether or not he planned to stay at the Forward — propelled him into a job at the New York Post, where he worked in the sections that covered residential real estate, food, and travel. A decade later, married, soon to have a child, and so no longer as interested in travel, he moved over to the Commercial Observer, which he edits; it covers the commercial real estate industry. That remains his day job.

As the covid pandemic wanes (although it’s necessary to realize that it’s still here), Mr. Gross has gone from online talks about his book — which, it is important to add, won a National Jewish Book award for fiction last year — to in-person ones, and he likes to change the content.

One talk, he said, focuses on his work at the Forward, where he “was on the freak beat,” he said. “When strange stories came in, I’d get them.” One such story, which the Forward broke in 2003, and then the New York Times covered, was about an about-to-be-slaughtered carp in a fish store in New Square, destined to become gefilte fish — and eventually did become that delicacy — who “began speaking in Hebrew, shouting apocalyptic warnings and claiming to be the troubled soul of a revered community elder who recently died,” the Times reported back then.

That was Mr. Gross’s story. New Square is the headquarters of the tight-knit, punctiliously observant Skverer community — New Square is the sort-of-transliteration of New Skver, and old Skver, in Ukraine, is where the community began, in the nineteenth century.

“It was a very interesting experience,” Mr. Gross said. “I got off the bus — it was before there were smart phones, and I didn’t have a car, and I didn’t even know how to drive, so I took a bus up there — and I had to ask for directions. And I remember having this thought — ‘oh God, I’ve landed in Poland.’ It was a shtetl. I saw a flock of geese pass me in the street.

“It wasn’t the inspiration for the book, but I have thought a lot about it since then. A lot of these communities are replanted shtetls. They have kept themselves to themselves. To a certain extent, there’s a lot of Kreskol” — the lost shtetl of the novel — “in those communities.”

Mr. Gross also gained insight into the old-world Yiddish community that had been transplanted to New York and was well on its way to vanishing from old age during the calls that he took at the Forward. “I was the low person on the totem pole there, so I always answered the phone, and I would speak to the cranks who would call.

“I say ‘cranks’ with utter respect,” he continued.

“I was the repository of a lot of invective. And it was very interesting. I would hear some of these loony stories, and I would hear the last gasp of a generation. There were a number of Yiddish poets and writers who were still alive, and on their last legs.

“I got into a contentious phone relationship with the widow of Chaim Grade” — that was Inna Grade, whose husband was considered to be one of the most important 20th-century Yiddish writers. “She would call me every week to berate me for not giving her husband enough respect in the pages of the Forward.”

Inna Grade’s passion and inflections and invective also found their way into the rhythms of “The Lost Shtetl.”

It’s not clear exactly what Mr. Gross will talk about on Sunday, he said; what is clear is that it will be funny, smart, and illuminating. Like “The Lost Shtetl.”


Who: Max Gross

What: Will talk about “The Lost Shtetl”; a Q&A and book-signing will follow

When: On Sunday, November 21, at 3:30

Where: In person, at Temple B’nai Abraham, 300 East Northfield Road, Livingston; audience must have proof of vaccination or PCR test. It’s also streamed.

How much: It’s free

For more information and link: tbanj.org

 

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