When Ukrainian-born writer Sholem Rabinovich died in New York City in 1916, throngs gathered in three boroughs to greet his funeral cortege. Rabinovich, who went by the pen name Sholem Aleichem ("peace be with you"), was a humorist and a champion of the Yiddish language — in the words of his New York Times obituary, a "Jewish Mark Twain."
Most people today are familiar with Aleichem's stories about Tevye the Dairyman, which were adapted into the Broadway musical Fiddler on the Roof. But while the musical tends to sentimentalize Aleichem's version of life in the shtetls of Eastern Europe, the author's original work is often more complex.
In honor of the 150th anniversary of the author's birth, translator Aliza Shevrin has published Wandering Stars, a new translation of Blundzhende Shtern, Aleichem's story of two lovers in the Yiddish theater as they wander around Eastern Europe, London's East End and Manhattan. Playwright Tony Kushner, who writes an introduction to the translation, says that readers may be surprised by the novel's edginess.
"When you read Wandering Stars you'll be shocked if you haven't seen ... before how violent the emotions are, how full of rage the comedy is," says Kushner. "You can discern underneath that anger how much suffering there was, how much injustice and difficulty and loss there was in the lives of these people. ... Comedy was very much a way of channeling that and surviving the difficulty of living."
The decline of Yiddish has bathed Wandering Stars in the glow of nostalgia, but when Aleichem wrote the novel, it wasn't about a culture that used to be; for him, the Yiddish world was alive — warts and all. And the Yiddish theater, says Aleichem's granddaughter Bel Kaufman, was one one of her grandfather's passions.
"He loved the theater," says 97-year old Kaufman. "He used to say, 'If I was not a writer, I certainly would have been an actor.' He used to read his stories to standing ovations."
Kaufman says her grandfather would have been pleased to know that his work would be translated into English and performed in the U.S. — though, she adds, the musical doesn't offer the most authentic representation of Grandfather's worldview. "Sholem Aleichem hated the rich," Kaufman says. "And here Tevye's singing 'If I were a rich man.' "
Kaufman is the author of the 1965 novel Up the Down Staircase. She remembers her grandfather's smile, his voice and the way he used to speak to her in Russian.
"When I was very little and we walked together, he told me that I helped him write. How? By holding on tightly to his hand. He told me the tighter I held his hand, the better he wrote," Kaufman says.
Kaufman adds that her grandfather was a very successful writer — but not a commercially successful one.
"He had inherited a lot of money from his wife's father and he lost it gambling on grain and sugar on the market. In fact, his stories of Menahem-Mendl, the Luftmensch, the man who is always running after a dollar and never quite making it, is very much like like [Aleichem's] life," she says.