Sholem Aleichem turns 150: It’s a mitzvah
The writer known as Sholem Aleichem (Sholem Rabinovich, 1859-1916) was a towering figure in the Yiddish-speaking world, praised in his own lifetime as “the Jewish Mark Twain.” The critic Irving Howe later singled him out as “the one absolute Yiddish genius.” When Aleichem died, some 100,000 mourners crowded the New York neighborhood in which he spent the last years of his life.
Today, however, he has been almost wholly eclipsed by Isaac Bashevis Singer, the Nobelist whose work appeared first in Yiddish in the Jewish Daily Forward and then in the New Yorker. Compared with Singer, the comic tales of Aleichem strike critics as old-fashioned and sentimental. Indeed, if Aleichem is remembered at all nowadays, it is because his stories of Tevye and his daughters were the basis for “Fiddler on the Roof.”
To introduce Aleichem to a new readership -- and to commemorate the 150th anniversary of his birth -- Viking is publishing a new edition of “Tevye the Dairyman” and “Motl the Cantor’s Son,” the books that made him famous, and a long out-of-print novel, “Wandering Stars,” all freshly and lucidly translated by Aliza Shevrin.
As if to acknowledge that Yiddishisms are no longer quite as much a part of American English as they used to be, the novel is supplied with a glossary for the reader who does not already know that a momzer is a bastard, a shnorrer is a moocher, and the phrase sholem aleichem -- which the author adopted as his pen name -- is actually a traditional greeting that means “peace to you.”
Set in the years before World War I, “Wandering Stars” is the story of a pair of love-struck and star-struck adolescents from a shtetl in Bessarabia -- Leibel, the son of the richest man in the village, and Reizel, the daughter of its poor but beloved cantor -- and how they make their way to America as performers who aspire to stardom in “the golden land.” Starting in a backwater of the Russian empire and ending at the Bronx Zoo, the novel mirrors a journey that many of its original readers had taken themselves.
Still, “Wandering Stars” is clearly the invention of a gifted storyteller. Like Charles Dickens (and Singer too), Aleichem’s work was often written for serialization in daily newspapers, which accounts for the episodic structure of “Wandering Stars” and explains why every chapter is approximately three pages long. To win and keep our attention, Aleichem embellishes the tale with close calls and outright disasters, scandals and heartbreaks, and he often whispers an aside directly to the reader about one character or another: “and it must remain between us,” he will playfully caution.
To the reader who knows and loves Singer, many of the characters and scenes will seem familiar, and we can readily detect the literary DNA that he inherited from Aleichem. What is most surprising and pleasing about “Wandering Stars,” however, is the glimpse that it affords into the world of Yiddish theater. “A new world revealed itself to them, in which strangely costumed people disguised themselves and strode boldly about,” Aleichem writes about the first appearance of an acting troupe in the town of Holeneshti. “From the moment the curtain rose, Leibel and Reizel were enchanted, transported to a world of imps, spirits, devils, and angels. Once the curtain fell, it vanished!”
So the stage is an escape route for the young lovers in more than one sense. For the run of the play, they find a way out of the crowded houses and stifling traditions of the shtetl, sitting side by side in the darkness and daring to hold hands. But each of them is also emboldened to leave town in the wake of the traveling theater company and pursue their own stage careers in the wider world. Eventually, they are renamed Leo and Rosa, and they achieve the kind of stardom that was available to performers on the Yiddish stage -- Leo as an actor and Rosa as a singer. That’s why playwright Tony Kushner, who contributes an illuminating (and not uncritical) foreword to “Wandering Stars,” calls it “a great novel about theater” as well as “the catastrophe of change, shtetl dwellers becoming ghetto dwellers becoming artists, cosmopolitans, socialists or Zionists, or frequently both.”
As we follow Leibel and Reizel on the separate journeys that will deliver each of them to America, we are introduced to a vast cast of characters, all of them comical and colorful. A bejeweled and boastful impresario, for example, puts on a play billed as “ ‘Dora, the Rich Beggar,’ by Shakespeare, Improved and Staged by the only Albert Shchupak.” The actor who sets Leibel on the path toward stardom is embittered by the success of his young friend: “Had Holtzman the time and the ability to write,” we are told, “he could have put together a fat book of curses in alphabetical order.” And we are given a taste of the kind of wordplay that will one day provide “Fiddler” with its famous title: “A cow flew over the roof and laid an egg” is the phrase that Leibel’s father utters when he is told something that he finds too incredible to believe.
The thread that runs through an otherwise chaotic and digressive tale is the attenuated love story of Leo and Rosa, long separated from each other and reunited only at the very end of the book. By then, we are able to appreciate the poignancy of the letter that Leo sits down to write to Rosa when he learns that they are both in New York City: “I wish to inform you, Reizel, that I, Leibel, Benny Rafalovitch’s son from Holeneshti -- do you remember him? -- am here downtown in New York, an artist with the Yiddish Nickel Theater, and my name is now Rafalesco.”
“Wandering Stars” is a wistful reminder of why Sholem Aleichem achieved celebrity in his own day and, at the same time, an old-fashioned potboiler of the kind that once decorated the daily newspaper: “Two serialized romances at a time were printed in every paper throughout the year,” observes the author in a sly moment of self-reference, “one better than the other, a true paradise!” A century-and-a-half after the birth of its author, the publication of “Wandering Stars” is both an act of homage to the author and a source of rare pleasure for a new generation of readers.