Set in 19th-century Poland, the Israeli writer Yaniv Iczkovits’s 2015 novel has as its protagonist Fanny Keismann, who joins up with a motley crew of shtetl outcasts to hunt for her deadbeat brother-in-law. Recently published in English as The Slaughterman’s Daughter, the book gets its title from the profession of Fanny’s father, who has taught her the art of killing beasts in the kosher fashion. Adam Kirsch, in his review, describes it as a “picaresque tale” that “combines martial-arts bloodbath and Gogolian satire, feminist fantasy, and Zionist parable.”
There are no Zionists in Iczkovits’s tale, and the movement is spoken of in dismissive terms: “Those who dream of Palestine inevitably end up dying of malaria,” observes one character, a tsarist secret policeman. But the novel reprises, in an antic key, one of the central ideas of early Zionism: that Diaspora Jewry suffered from its physical passivity, its unwillingness to take up arms and fight. Among the surprising achievements of the state of Israel was to transform the world’s image of Jews from hapless victims to brave and resourceful warriors—though the world doesn’t necessarily like the new version any better. In this sense, Iczkovits’s adventurous Jews are Zionists whether they realize it or not.
[Thus], when Fanny steals away from home in the middle of the night, headed for Minsk, it’s a good thing she has a trusty blade strapped to her thigh. Before long she has to use it to defend herself from bandits, leaving three of them dead on the road with their esophagus and trachea neatly sliced: “Pleased with the kosher slaughter she has just performed, she returns the knife to its sheath,” Iczkovits writes.
Suddenly we are in a [Quentin] Tarantino movie, with Fanny as a Yiddish version of the Bride, Uma Thurman’s sword-wielding avenger in the Kill Bill movies. There’s no room in a traditional Jewish community for such martial prowess, Iczkovits observes—“not due to their being spineless or faint-hearted, but rather by virtue of their reason and pragmatism.” As a hated, outnumbered minority, East European Jews developed an ethos of meekness and minding their own business. . . . But Fanny’s transformation suggests that there’s a potential warrior lurking inside every docile Jew.