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Second Fiddle

This year marks the 150th anniversary of Sholem Aleichem (1859-1916), who has the melancholy glory of being the greatest writer in a language that barely outlived him. When Sholem Rabinovitch, the son of a timber merchant from the Ukrainian shtetl of Voronkov, decided to pursue his calling as a writer in Yiddish, he was taking a considerable risk. The "jargon," as it was derisively called, might have been the living language of millions of Eastern European Jews, but it had almost no history as a literary language; it lacked both the sacred authority of Hebrew and the secular prestige of German. Sholem Aleichem's genius was to turn the very humility of Yiddish into a literary strength. His pen name, taken from the common Yiddish greeting "Peace be with you" or "How are you," emphasized that he was a writer of everyday life, of plain vernacular speech. And his most famous creations--above all, Tevye the Dairyman, now known to millions thanks to the musical Fiddler on the Roof--are, like the language they speak, extraordinary in their commonness. It is no accident that the very first of the Tevye stories, published in 1895, is titled "Kotonti--I am Unworthy." Indeed, after using this Hebrew word, Tevye goes on to protest that he is unworthy even to say he is unworthy:

Kotonti!--I am unworthy! This I tell you in the language our Father Jacob spoke to God in the portion, Vayishlach, when he went to meet Esau. But if this is not entirely appropriate, I beg you, Pani Sholem Aleichem, not to be upset with me, I beg you, as I am an ordinary man and you certainly know more than I do--who can question that? After all, living one's whole life in a little village, one is ignorant. . . . I don't know what you found so interesting that you would devote your time to an insignificant person like myself, to write me letters and, unbelievably, to put my name in a book, make a big fuss over me, as if I were who knows who. For that I can certainly say, Kotonti!

This is how Aliza Shevrin, the leading translator of Sholem Aleichem, renders Tevye's voice in Tevye the Dairyman and Motl the Cantor’s Son, a new Penguin Classics edition of the writer's two best-known works. In the introduction to that volume, Dan Miron argues that Sholem Aleichem was at his best as a writer of short stories, where he could fully assume the idiosyncratic voices of his characters. That is why, Miron says,

novel writing, in spite of the author's high aspirations, never became his highest level of achievement. . . . Always aware of the limitations of the reading public, he simplified and overexplained his characters and their interactions and insisted on being entertaining even where the narrative hardly justified his intervention.

Ironically, this dismissive verdict applies all too well to the other new Sholem Aleichem project that Viking/Penguin is launching this month: a new translation, also by Shevrin, of the novel Wandering Stars. First published in 1909, the book had an abridged English translation in the 1950s, but Shevrin's new version represents the first time the whole novel has appeared in English. Wandering Stars is a significant part of Sholem Aleichem's oeuvre: the Moscow State Yiddish Theater performed a dramatization of the book in the fateful month of June 1941, and its heroes, the star-crossed lovers Leo and Rosa, appear on the Sholem Aleichem monument in Moscow. But the novel is, as Miron warns, nowhere near Sholem Aleichem's best work, and readers who come to it expecting a book-length reprise of Tevye or Motl are likely to be disappointed.

Wandering Stars was written as a newspaper serial, like so many classic novels in Yiddish and English. (In what newspaper, we do not learn from Tony Kushner's enthusiastic but unhelpful preface.) But unlike I.B. Singer, or Charles Dickens, Sholem Aleichem is not at his best in the form. Instead of making each short chapter advance the plot boldly, or bringing a vivid new character on stage, he often seems to be scrabbling to fill space. Many chapters largely repeat what has happened earlier, for the benefit of readers who may have forgotten; others are little self-contained skits, with no relation to the larger story.

That story, in fact, seems to engage Sholem Aleichem very little, and it is possible, and even useful, for the reader to forget about it for many pages at a time. Wandering Stars opens in the Bessarabian shtetl of Holoneshti, where a Yiddish theater troupe has just opened for business in the stable of Benny Rafalovitch, the richest man in town. No one in the audience is more enchanted than Leibel, Benny's son, and Reizel, the daughter of the poor cantor Yisroeli, whom he loves. On the night of the actors' departure, the young Romeo and Juliet declare their love, against the backdrop of a dramatically convenient fire:

Leibel did not know how it happened. They were both sitting on the threshold of Yisroyeli’s house, her small, childlike hand in his hand. He raised it to his warm lips and kissed her fingertips. She did not remove her hand but looked at him frightened, and her large black gypsy-eyes gleamed and twinkled in the red glow of that rare beautiful enchanted night.

What power had seated them so closely, so tightly next to each other, these two young, innocent, childlike souls? What power had made them pour out their hearts to each other? What power had suddenly brought them so close as if they had been friends forever?

It was the marvelous power of that strangely enchanted night. A night of hidden magic.

This kind of ardent sentimentality cannot help but appear as a concession to what Miron calls "the limitations of the reading public." Nor do the hero and heroine become much fuller characters as the plot proceeds on its melodramatic course. The night of the fire, Leibel and Reizel each decide to run away with the theater troupe, but they are accidentally separated. For the rest of the novel, they fail--for no very good reason--to make contact with each other, even as they rise to fame as performers. Rosa Spivak, as she is now known, hides her Jewishness in order to become a great opera singer, consorting with royalty and earning huge fees from the Paris Opera. Leo Rafalesco, on the other hand, becomes a star in the Yiddish theater, and much of the novel is devoted to his dealings with bullying impresarios and jealous co-stars in Lemberg, London, and finally New York.

These satirical glimpses of the world of Yiddish theater were born of Sholem Aleichem's own experience--he tried, and failed, to write hits for the New York stage--and they are one of the novel's chief pleasures. Still more interesting, for their historical value, are the author's descriptions of New York and the Lower East Side around the turn of the century--the same greenhorn’s-eye view that he captured (even more memorably) in "Motl the Cantor’s Son." Here is Sholem Aleichem on the Jewish pastime of kibitzing, which I was surprised to learn was "born on American soil":

It remains difficult for me to convey what a kibitzarni really is. It's a kind of club, or cafe on the Lower East Side of New York, where a certain class of intelligentsia gathered, involved in literature, theater, and politics. These people belonged to opposing camps, factions, and political parties, were often rivals, and almost without exception detested one another, could not bear the sight or sound of one another's names. Such bitter, sworn enemies were they that if one of them were to die, the other would dance a merry jig on his grave. . . . First they would exchange pleasantries and compliments and chitchat a bit across the tables; then they'd progress to barbs, mockery, malicious jokes, and wicked gossip. They would then move on to washing someone's dirty linen in public, with devastating critiques and humorous exaggerations; stepping on toes; and enjoying the sight of another's squirming to the point of apoplexy--all in good fellowship, all while joking, grinning, and laughing. The kibitzarni was a sort of free-for-all gehennam where people roasted and broiled one another, a kind of steam bath where they beat one another black and blue.

It's hard to decide, from this description, whether we should be nostalgic for the original kibitzarni, or glad we were born too late to suffer through it. Such sociological observations are the most engaging things in Wandering Stars. There is, perhaps, a more serious and literary novel trapped inside it--a novel about the place of art in Jewish culture, about the difficulty of being a serious artist when the public prefers schmaltz, about the temptations that lead Jewish performers to abandon their roots for the wider stage of gentile culture. But these remain only hints in a book that, most of the time, settles for the ragged, intermittent vitality of the picaresque.

Adam Kirsch is a contributing editor at The New Republic. This article originally appeared in Nextbook.

By Adam Kirsch