Max Gross’s ‘The Last Shtetl’ Is a Modern Yiddish Folktale Like You’ve Never Read Before

"Jews are endlessly fascinating in our pushy, difficult, whip-smart, energetic, traditionalist, inventive, kindhearted way," the debut novelist tells Alma.

I can’t remember the last time I have read a more Jewish novel than Max Gross’s The Lost ShtetlBroadly, the story is a modern-day Yiddish folktale. Specifically, Gross imagines a shtetl, a Jewish village in Eastern Europe (in this case, Poland), that lost all contact with the outside world and has been forgotten. In Kreskol, the villagers have no idea what happened in the 20th century: They missed the Holocaust, the establishment of the state of Israel, the invention of wifi, and so much more. When a woman, Pesha, disappears from Kreskol, followed by her ex-husband, an orphaned baker, Yankel Lewinkopf, is sent beyond the walls of the shtetl to find them. What he finds instead is modern day Poland.

As I wrote in Alma’s favorite books for fall 2020, The Lost Shtetl is a story of Jewish resilience, faith, assimilation, and, of course, antisemitism. The novel is at once funny and heartbreaking, gorgeously told by Gross in this debut novel.

I had the chance to chat with author Max Gross over e-mail about everything shtetls, Jewish fiction, and his own relationship to Jewishness and the wilderness.

This interview has been lightly condensed and edited for clarity.

Where did you draw inspiration from to imagine this lost shtetl?

To a certain extent I didn’t think as much about Eastern Europe as the book would suggest — a big part of my thinking was about Brooklyn and Queens or Monsey or Kiryas Joel. I don’t know how much time you’ve ever spent in some of the neighborhoods where the non-Lubavitsch Hasidic Jews live, but it is truly a parallel dimension. I’ve known former Hasids who are now in their 20s and 30s who grew up speaking Yiddish, didn’t know their American birthdays, hadn’t ever looked at a television before they left the fold. One of the thoughts I had years ago when I started reporting on them when I was a writer for the Forward was that Borough Park might as well be in Galicia.

Naturally, I was always very interested in the writers of the lost shtetls: the Shai Agnons, the Isaac Bashevis Singers, the Sholem Aleichems — they inspired much. But I was thinking about the shtetl as something enclosed and insular, like a Brooklyn neighborhood.

What was your research process like?

I probably did things backwards. I began writing the story and when I finished the first draft, I sat down and started reading more about shtetl life and Polish history and contemporary Poland, and made my corrections in due course.

I probably couldn’t have done it that way if I didn’t have some sort of basic knowledge. I don’t pretend to know that much, but I spent a lot of my life reading about Holocaust and pre-Holocaust European Jewry, not to mention all those Yiddish writers I just talked about. I could get the first draft done without some sort of yawning historical plot hole that would sink the whole enterprise.

My most important source was a book called There Once Was a World by Yaffa Eliach about the shtetl of Eishyshok in Lithuania, but there was also Glenn Dynner’s books Men of Silk and Yankel’s Tavern — I wound up hiring Glenn to look over a relatively late draft of the book for mistakes, as well as a former professor at Hunter named Esther Goodman whose parents were Holocaust survivors from a shtetl. (I got a reasonably good bill of health from both.)

As for contemporary and historical Poland, there were a couple of books I relied on, notably Adam Zamoyski’s Poland: A History, and I have a friend I grew up with named Ignacy Zulawski who I would bombard with questions. Finally, I coaxed my editor at the New York Post to send me to Poland on a travel story back in 2014 — I was well into the book when that trip took place, and I didn’t spend very long in Poland, but I thought it was important to see what it really felt like in the here and now.

I was hooked from the very first page, when you selected a Yiddish proverb for the epigraph — “To a worm in horseradish, the world is horseradish.” 

Confession: I actually stumbled upon that in a Malcolm Gladwell story about gourmet ketchup. No fooling. One of the people he quoted mentioned this old Yiddish expression, and it stopped me in my tracks. “Wait a second,” I thought, “Kreskol lives in horseradish. They’ve always lived in horseradish. This is all they’ve ever known.” It was a nice starting point. Plus, it was an earthy little proverb. It deals with things people really care about like horseradish and worms.

What was the most challenging part of writing The Lost Shtetl?

The fact that I’m not a very fast writer, and the idea kept mushrooming. I think when you’ve got a good idea for a book or a story, most writers feel a pressing need to get it out in the world as quickly as possible. In my completely paranoid, lunatic way, I became unquestioningly convinced that I would be hit by a bus before I had a chance to publish and it kept driving me nuts that I was taking so long.

At first, I thought The Lost Shtetl was going to be a story. Then a novella. Then a slender novel. Then what it is — a moderately lengthy novel. I kept thinking, “Welp… that new chapter will take me another, oh, four months to finish. I really, really hope that bus doesn’t get me.”

Can you talk about the narrative decision to make it seem as if the villagers — all-knowing — were telling us the tale?

I always believed it had to be in the style of a Yiddish folktale, something that the local gossips had pieced together from snooping. One of the things that I wound up cutting from the final draft was the afterword, which was about the narrator. But I thought it was better to just leave the voice a bit of an enigma; an old hand telling tales.

At times reading it, I felt like Kreskol actually existed — but then would be reminded that no, Jewish shtetl life was truly destroyed. What do you think would happen if a place like Kreskol was found in 2020?

I think it would garner a lot of media attention, the people in town would feel great ambivalence, the government would try to take a role in integrating it into contemporary Poland, and… well, let’s say that the rest of my answers are in The Lost Shtetl.

I was really struck by the ending. I won’t spoil it for others, but did you know you were writing toward this end the whole time?

Second confession: I originally wrote a different ending. My first one was darker and more upsetting — and my editor, Tara Parsons at HarperVia, told me that it was just too bleak. And, I have to admit, she was right. I think this ending is stronger. However — without spoiling anything — the last line was the same in every single draft I wrote. (And I wrote many.) That’s where I knew I had to wind up.

It’s funny, before he started writing The Power Broker, Robert Caro knew what the last line of the book was going to be. And presumably he knows what the last line of the LBJ books will be. When I read that I thought that was probably… unhelpful. Or, it would dilute the finished product. Shouldn’t you follow the book where it leads you and not to a predetermined outcome? I’m not so sure anymore. It offered a nice blue light to follow in the night.

The story touches on what feels like eternal Jewish themes — assimilation, faith, resilience. What does your Jewish identity mean to you?

It’s one of those questions that I’m constantly revising my answer on. I’m not religious. I used to tell people that in my family, we considered it acting Jewish of us if we ate a bagel on Yom Kippur. And yet Judaism has been a constant obsession with me since I was a kid. It only intensified when I went to Dartmouth for college, which was a very, very goyische place. (No offense to my beloved alma mater.)

I think my personal Jewish identity is most closely related to the sweep of Jewish history. There’s a reason that so many Jews become writers; we’re attracted to a story that takes so many crazed turns. The lows would be meaningless if not for the highs alongside them. It’s not just pogroms and the Shoah — it’s Einstein and Kafka and Ruth Bader Ginsberg. It’s going into the middle of the desert and saying, “Okay, we’re going to start a country” —and pulling it off, despite the many problems and contradictions the “I” word has. (We won’t go there.) As a writer, to me, being a Jew is being part of a great novel.

Okay, quick follow-up because I also went to Dartmouth. What is your relationship to the wilderness/outdoors? Kreskol is isolated from the world, mainly due to its physical isolation — how do you view the role of the wilderness and the wild in the novel?

I’m glad you asked that question, Emily! I am — if I can borrow a term from the movie Broadway Danny Rose — “strictly pavement.” I grew up in Brooklyn and spent so much of my life avoiding nature. (Just to give you a sense of how deeply New York is ingrained in me: I didn’t even learn how to drive until I was 35.) It was really only when I got to college in Hanover, New Hampshire that I was forced to confront that sort of rugged existence. It was very strange for me; I coped with it. But I think it gave me a sense of realism about the isolation of a place like Kreskol. There was no undue romanticism. So, thank you, Dartmouth!

What does it mean to you to write “Jewish fiction”?

When Pulp Fiction came out, I remember reading an interview with Quentin Tarantino where he said he didn’t want to be known as “the gun guy.” i.e., he didn’t want to just be associated with violence and crooks. (Yeah, right.)

But I sympathize with that. One of the things I think a lot of writers are most worried about is repeating themselves, and I’m no different. I’m a little concerned that doing a book that’s sooo Jewish, that will follow me around for the rest of what I hope will be a long and varied career. (Although, heck, my first book — a little humor memoir about dating — was called From Schlub to Stud so I guess I’m sort of asking for it.)

That being said, my affection for American Jewish fiction is pretty bottomless. Saul Bellow is one of the five or 10 best writers America has ever produced, and I’m counting Fitzgerald, Melville, Poe, Twain, and Whitman on that list. Not to mention Philip Roth. Not to mention J.D. Salinger, whose religious/ethnic identity is murkier, but who I think told an at least half-Jewish story.

Jews are endlessly fascinating in our pushy, difficult, whip-smart, energetic, traditionalist, inventive, kindhearted way. I’m proud to help contribute to the collective project of trying to document ‘em.

Were there writers that directly inspired The Last Shtetl?

A lot of Jewish writers, but a lot of non-Jewish ones, too. I think anyone who has read Isaac Bashevis Singer will instantly recognize his influence on The Lost Shtetl. Aside from his short stories, he wrote a really great novel called Satan in Goray which was about a town that succumbs to false messianism. It had a lot of influence on the “Terra Incognita” chapter of The Lost Shtetl. (Fun fact: “Terra Incognita” was my original title for the book.)

But there were three writers that I would say exerted just as big an influence as Singer. The Lost Shtetl is a thought experiment: What would happen if something crazy like a tribe of Jews were left alone without knowledge of the Holocaust? And one story that I always loved that runs in that vein is F. Scott Fitzgerald’s story, The Diamond as Big as the Ritz. Fitzgerald took a fantastical premise and treated it seriously,which turned out to be very funny. I think (unconsciously because this only occurred to me recently) that was something that probably influenced me.

An even bigger (and much more conscious) influence was One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, which is one of my very favorite books. In that book, Garcia Marquez really created an entire universe with Macondo; that was something I was thinking about a lot in trying to construct Kreskol.

Finally, Yankel’s story was, in many ways, a Jewish Dickens story; he’s one-part Pip, one-part David Copperfield, one-part Oliver Twist, with just a bissell of Conrad’s Lord Jim. As a reader, I came to Charles Dickens a little later than most; I think a lot of people read him in high school. I waited until college before I was assigned Great Expectations and it blew my hair back. A few years ago I sobbed like a baby at the end of David Copperfield — not because it was especially sad, but because it was over. I felt like a dear friend was going off to war whom I would never see again.

What do you hope readers take away from your novel?

It’s a question I’ve thought about a lot — and I imagine most writers think about a lot. I’ve always been wary of a book having a message. Therein lies the road to propaganda. I believe art should be much more about the beauty of the chorus line than the rectitude of the Sunday sermon. I thought the plot and characters of The Lost Shtetl evoked the general nervousness and anxiety of life in the modern world — the profound desire to return to one’s roots long after that dream is impossible. I wanted to explore this without judgment or an opinion to stamp on my readers. But much more than that, I really wanted a rollicking tale. I wanted something funny that wouldn’t bore anybody. I wanted everyone to be taken by surprise by all the little twists and turns. I want anyone who picks up The Lost Shtetl to think back on the hours they spent with the book fondly.

Header image design by Emily Burack.

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