Shlepping the Exile
By Michael Wex
St. Martin’s Press
In some ways, Shlepping the Exile by Michael Wex is a classic coming-of-age tale. Set in the late-1950s, it’s the story of a young teenager discovering popular culture, girls – one girl in particular – and dealing with the sudden death of his father.
But Yoine Levkes isn’t just any bar mitzvah boy in the era of skinny Elvis, beat poets and cool jazz. He lives in a small town, Coalbanks, Alberta, a fictionalized version of Lethbridge, where his is virtually the only Chasidic family in a tiny Jewish community where many – including the family of the girl of his dreams, Sabina Mandelbroit – are not observant.
While Wex is best known for his books about Yiddish like Born to Kvetch and Just Say Nu, my favourites of his books have been his comic and very Jewish-centric fiction like The Frumkiss Family Business and The Adventures of Micah Mushmelon, Boy Talmudist. Add Shlepping the Exile to that list.
Actually, this is not strictly a new book. It’s a reworked and expanded version of his first book, written in 1983 and originally published by a hard-to-find small press in Canada a decade later.
The book unfolds from Yoine’s perspective. He’s a smart kid torn – or, at least, caught somewhere – between his old world parents and their deeply religious life and the popular culture he’s drawn to; not to mention the effect his raging hormones have on his desires to know Sabina in every way imaginable. It is fun and often laugh-out-loud funny to see the world through the young boy’s eyes as he navigates his way between the frum life he was born into and the secular world around him, as he discovers that even the supposedly righteous are flawed human beings with secrets and as he copes with the death of his father during Chanukah.
One of the best sections in Shlepping the Exile comes as Yoine recounts the details surrounding his father’s funeral and the way the rabbi – who travelled to Coalbanks from Calgary to conduct the service – uses the event for his own self-promotion in direct contradiction to how his devout father wanted his funeral to unfold.
Yoine grew up with Yiddish as his first language and Wex, a skilled Yiddishist, weaves the old Jewish language throughout the book. He does it in ways that even non-Yiddish speakers will understand, often by double-speak in which the character repeats what’s said, first in Yiddish and then in English, and by supplying a glossary at the end of the book. Non-Yiddish speakers will find their vocabulary grows quickly as they read.
Shlepping the Exile is a funny, often poignant, presentation of Jewish life in a place with few Jews, and of a young boy navigating that place and time with eyes that are open much wider than his parents had ever imagined. Wex captures it all with wit and with great authenticity.