As pointed out at Moby Lives yesterday marked the 93rd year after the death of Sholem Aleichem. (No, I don’t think 93 has any real numerological significance, but anniversaries are a nice reason for writing about someone’s work/life. And this does happen to be the 150th year after Aleichem’s birth . . . )
Most well known for his Tevye stories, which served as the basis for the musical The Fiddler on the Roof, Aleichem was one of the great comic Jewish writers of modern times and led an interesting life (from Moby Lives):
Born Solomon Rabinowitz in 1859, the son of a merchant in the Ukrainian village of Pereyaslav, he wrote his first book at fourteen: a dictionary of Yiddish curses overheard at home. Despite jobs teaching Russian and writing for Hebrew newspapers, it was his writings in Yiddish—humorous stories about village life—that brought him fame. Using the Yiddish greeting (“Peace unto you”) as his pseudonym, he published 40 volumes of stories and plays, single-handedly creating a literature for what had been primarily a spoken language. Pogroms forced Aleichem to flee Russia in 1905, eventually landing him in New York City, his fame undiminished. When Aleichem was introduced to Mark Twain as “the Yiddish Mark Twain,” Twain interrupted to call himself the “American Sholom Aleichem.” Upon Aleichem’s death in 1916, 100,000 mourners flooded the streets of Manhattan for his funeral. His will, however, asked friends to remember him by an annual reading of one of his funny stories. “Let my name be recalled in laughter,” Aleichem wrote, “or not at all.”
Recently, Melville House reissued Stempenyu: A Jewish Romance, which was the first of Aleichem’s books to be translated into English, and supposedly it the story that inspired Fiddler on the Roof.
For those interested, Tevye the Dairyman and Motl the Cantor’s Son was recently reissued by Penguin Classics in a new translation by Aliza Shevrin.
And Viking also brought out the first complete translation (also by Aliza Shevrin) of Wandering Stars, a late novel of Aleichem’s about the world of Yiddish theater. Tony Kushner wrote an excellent foreword to this book that really makes me want to carve out the time to read it (or at least have someone review it in full for the site . . . if anyone’s interested, e-mail me at chad.post at rochester dot edu).
The reader of Wandering Stars can, if this is the kind of thing the reader likes to do, catalog its imperfections, of which there are enough to keep any literary scorekeeper busy and happy. Time lurches wildly in Aleichem’s novel, and the narrative along with it. The opinionated, distractible narrator, when he’s doing his job, rather than taking a rest while allowing letters written by the characters do the storytelling, seems less interested in his two protagonists than in the fantastical secondary cast that surrounds them. And who can blame him? The secondary characters are magnificent, men and women cooked up out of wit, terror, panic, hunger, chutzpah, pathos, and spleen (especially spleen), effortfully and arduously cooked — peeled, chopped, boiled, or fried — rather than dreamed up or imagined.
That this is a knotty, knobby, odd novel of fits and starts and sudden jolts is possibly due to its serialized newsprint origins and its lateness in Sholem Aleichem’s writing life; or possibly conventional wisdom and Reb Mendalle Mocher Sephorim are right about him, and Aleichem is found at his best in his short stories and occasional pieces. We might thus consign his novel to culture’s remainder table, unless we consider how appropriate its strangeness is to its subject. Though like many other, more perfect novels, Wandering Stars is about love, it’s about love between Jews who work in the theater. So it should be strange and imperfect. Theater is almost never perfect; its imperfections, its incompleteness and its tawdriness, are among the principal sources of its power. And do I need to tell you that life for Jews isn’t perfect? I don’t.
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