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Interview'I wanted this lost world to come to the entire world'

Israeli Wingate prizewinner’s novel brings female empowerment to the shtetl

Set in a 19th-century Pale of Settlement, Yaniv Iczkovits’s ‘The Slaughterman’s Daughter’ sees a woman trained to perform a job reserved for men bring her sister justice

Yaniv Iczkovits, author of 'The Slaughterman's Daughter.' (Photo by Eric Sultan)
Yaniv Iczkovits, author of 'The Slaughterman's Daughter.' (Photo by Eric Sultan)

LONDON — Israeli writer Yaniv Iczkovits is no stranger to winning literary prizes for his historical novel, “The Slaughterman’s Daughter.” Since its publication in Hebrew in 2015, Iczkovits has received both the Ramat Gan and Agnon prizes, and the book was also shortlisted for Israel’s prestigious Sapir Prize. But Iczkovits describes being announced the winner of the 2021 Wingate Literary Prize this past March as his best moment as a writer.

“I was sure I wasn’t going to win. Everyone had prepared me and said I had no chance, that they’re going to go for the big names,” Iczkovits tells The Times of Israel via Zoom, from his home in Tel Aviv.

Chosen from a shortlist of six other titles that included “House of Glass” by Hadley Freeman, “Apeirogon” by Colum McCann, “When Time Stopped” by Ariana Neumann, and “We Are the Weather” by Jonathan Safran Foer, Iczkovits says he was astounded.

“It was the first time I had been nominated for an international prize and I was really, really surprised, [especially] as the other writers are so amazing,” he says.

The annual UK prize, worth £4,000 ($5,600), was established in 1977 and is awarded to the best book — fiction or non-fiction — to “translate the idea of Jewishness to the general reader.”

“The Slaughterman’s Daughter,” translated from the original Hebrew by Orr Scharf, is Iczkovits’s third novel, but the first to be translated into English. The judges’ decision was unanimous and, acknowledging its “excellent translation,” called the book “epic literature… a fantastic, surprising romp through a really important part of Jewish history, with an amazingly unpredictable storyline.”

Set in Russia’s Pale of Settlement at the end of the 19th century, the book tells the story of devoted wife, mother and trained ritual slaughterer Fanny Keismann, who vanishes one night from her small hometown of Motal. She is on a quest to track down her missing brother-in-law, Zvi-Meir, “a buffoon posing as a genius,” and save her sister from destitution and despair.

During her journey, Keismann comes across an unusual assortment of characters including members of the Russian army, the Tsar’s secret police and a drunk, wannabee cantor, all of whom either help or hinder her mission. An energetic, finely-structured crime caper, “The Slaughterman’s Daughter” is an engrossing, profound and evocative story, full of fable and wit.

Illustrative: ‘In the Shtetl’ by Zoya Cherkassky (Courtesy of the artist)

The novel opens with a real late-19th century notice, written by a woman seeking the whereabouts of her husband, who has abandoned his family. When Iczkovits first came across it, he says he immediately knew his protagonist was going to be a woman and that he wanted to write about an agunah — a “chained” married woman whose husband refuses to grant a get, or Jewish writ of divorce, thereby preventing her from remarrying.

“It’s a problem that still exists in Jewish society the world over, but it seems like it’s become a major problem in Israel,” Iczkovits says. “The story could have taken place here, I didn’t have to set it in the shtetl.”

Bringing a dead community back to life

Iczkovits was drawn to writing about the lost world of the shtetl — the small villages where Jews from the “Old Country” often lived — partly because his family came from Eastern Europe. Still, he found that trying to discover details about prewar Jewish life at that time, other than concerning persecution, was not so easy.

“My grandparents told me a lot of great stories about their life before World War II. But apart from that, I couldn’t get any [additional] information except about pogroms and antisemitism,” Iczkovits says.

My grandparents told me a lot of great stories about their life before World War II. But apart from that, I couldn’t get any information except about pogroms and antisemitism

He wanted to bring the characters, their communities, and the rich culture that had once existed to his readers’ attention, and show that it is still influential in the lives of many Jews.

“In Israel, we tried to build a new Jewish character that was reluctant to admit we once had a whole different life as a minority,” Iczkovits says. “I wanted to examine how far we are from that Jewish past, and also see if there are any similarities with who we are now.”

Yaniv Iczkovits, author of ‘The Slaughterman’s Daughter.’ (Photo by Eric Sultan)

Once Iczkovits decided that his protagonist was going to be a woman, he wanted her to have some kind of weapon.

“As guns weren’t a possibility for women to have at that time [Jewish women didn’t serve in the army or have access to weapons], I thought about a knife. But then I didn’t know if a woman could even be a shochetet,” he said, using the term for a female ritual slaughterer.

After consultation with Prof. David Assaf from the Department of Jewish History at Tel Aviv University, Iczkovits learned there were no women ritual slaughterers in the 19th century. However, although it’s not preferred, Jewish law does not forbid it.

“So, we did more research and found out that in the 14th and 15th century, there was evidence of two women that used to be slaughterers. That was enough,” Iczkovits said.

Illustrative image of a demonstration of a ritual goat slaughter for ultra-Orthodox Jewish students in Zichron Moshe, on April 26, 2011. (Yaakov Naumi/Flash90)

The character Keismann is a loving wife and mother, but she also desires to “do something wild and crazy,” to break free from societal expectation and challenge injustice — a conflict, Iczkovits says, that he could relate to. In 2002, together with David Zonsheine, Iczkovits initiated the “combatants’ letter,” which declared a refusal to perform mandatory military service in territories occupied by Israel.

“When I was younger, I was much more courageous, more political and more of an activist,” says Iczkovits, who spent a month in military prison for his refusal to do his reserve duty in any areas occupied by Israel. “I risked a lot,” he says, “but however complicated a position it was to be in, it’s how change happens in the world.”

Once Iczkovits had a family, though, it became much harder for him to continue his activism.

“I had much more to lose. I could endanger my career and my family. So, I can truly identify with Fanny’s conflict — that’s why I sent her to do the hard work,” he says.

I had much more to lose. I could endanger my career and my family. So, I can truly identify with Fanny’s conflict — that’s why I sent her to do the hard work

The significance of tikkun, the Jewish concept of amending or fixing, drives many of the characters’ actions and decisions — in particular those of Keismann. As well as wanting to make amends for her sister, Keismann is aware she is not content just to live a traditional Jewish life. But the meaning of tikkun also resonates in the book’s original Hebrew title, “Tikkun After Midnight.”

“The title in Hebrew is crucial,” Iczkovits explains. “The question of tikkun is central to the book. It asks if it’s possible to achieve, but also, which of the characters undergoes tikkun and if so, in what sense: tikkun olam, [the ancient Hebrew term] that means repairing the world, or personally, by [amending or repairing oneself.]”

‘The Slaughterman’s Daughter,’ Yaniv Iczkovits. (Courtesy)

For Iczkovits, Piotr Novak, the head of the regional secret police, is a character as important as Fanny and also one with whom he shares a personal affinity.

“He is an army veteran, a colonel, who took the job in the secret police out of a sense of duty and national pride. He finds out that it is entirely different from what he had thought to be, which is what I discovered my own army experience,” Iczkovits says.

Novak undergoes a change in his prejudicial attitude towards Jews, Iczkovits says — “his tikkun” — and realizes that his actions, and those of his informants, have been immoral and unjust.

Learning to speak like Gogol

Iczkovits has a love of 19th-century Yiddish and Russian literature, and although there are echoes of those influences in “The Slaughterman’s Daughter,” he did not want to imitate great Yiddish writers such as Sholem Aleichem, nor write in a contemporary language. He experimented with his writing until he found the right rhythm and form, and as the book takes its characters to different places, the language gradually shifts.

“I needed to find some kind of mid-zone that could mitigate between the old and the new. The language of Sholem Aleichem or Isaac Bashevis Singer is more present in the shtetl, whereas when Fanny arrives at the army camp, you hear more Isaac Babel. And when Novak speaks, you’ll find more [Nikolai] Gogol,” Iczkovits says.

Illustrative: Isaac Bashevis Singer (photo credit: MDC Archives / Wikipedia)

However, there were times when Iczkovits would have to take a few months away from writing because he couldn’t find the right language or hear the voice to fit a certain character.

“I then try to be open, I don’t try to force it. I don’t sit in front of the computer for days, feeling frustrated. I just wait for something to happen, and it usually does,” he says.

The book also has an undeniable cinematic quality, from the Coen brothers to Quentin Tarantino.

“Yes. I think it’s almost inevitable today to be influenced by cinema and TV, especially TV, whereas in the past, maybe it wasn’t like that,” Iczkovits says, when asked if that was a conscious decision.

Not unsurprisingly, he is in negotiation regarding the book’s film rights.

Philosophical about his writing

Prior to becoming a full-time writer, Iczkovits held a postdoctoral fellowship at Columbia University and was also a lecturer in philosophy at Tel Aviv University. His academic background in philosophy certainly influences his novel writing, he says.

I didn’t want Fanny and her gang to only be accessible for Hebrew readers and Israeli society. I wanted this lost world to come to the entire world

“I don’t try to write a book with a philosophical message because I think the emotional experience is much more important than the rational. But my area of academic expertise is in the philosophy of language, so it’s very interconnected. As a writer, I’ve gained an understanding of how language works and what different forms I can use in different contexts and for different characters,” Iczkovits says.

Returning to the Wingate Prize, Iczkovits expresses happiness and gratitude that his book will now have a greater reach.

“I didn’t want Fanny and her gang to only be accessible for Hebrew readers and Israeli society. I wanted this lost world to come to the entire world, to teach something about Judaism, about Jewish culture — that it was really distinct and unique,” he says.

The more he researched, Iczkovits says, the more he learned this “lost world” wasn’t even close to what we think it was.

“We had villains, we had tzaddikim [righteous people], we had stupid and smart people,” says Iczkovits. “Life in these places was more complicated than just saying, ‘Yeah, the shtetl, there was antisemitism and there were pogroms.’ It was so much more.”

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