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Authors: Sholem Aleichem

Tags: #Fiction, #Short Stories (Single Author)

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Indeed, in his autobiography
From the Fair
, Sholem Aleichem describes his stepmother as being just such an “apropos curser” and confesses to having modeled several characters on her—one of whom is no doubt the woman vendor from “Competitors.”

Finally, there is the story “Elul,” whose ending, if we do not know what lies behind it, must strike us as rather forced. After all, it does not seem quite credible for an apparently normal girl, even if her father is a smirking bully, suddenly to kill herself just because a jilted and possibly pregnant friend has done the same. But there is a clue here, and that is Mikhail Artsybashev’s novel
, which the two girls have been reading in secret. All but forgotten today,
was a literary sensation when it appeared in 1907 (the shopboy Berl’s “summary” of it, of course, is a hilariously garbled version of the story). Written during the period of Czarist reaction that followed the abortive Revolution of 1905 by an author who was himself a professed anarchist, the novel, with its curious combination of (for then) daring erotica, world-weary cynicism, and obsession with death, led to a wave of youthful suicides in Russia, comparable to that caused in Europe by
Sorrows of Young Werther
over a century before. The times were ripe for it; they were what Tevye’s youngest daughter calls the disillusioned “Age of Beilke” as opposed to the idealistic “Age of Hodl”; and Etke, the daughter of the narrator, was patterned on cases of actual youngsters swept up in an adolescent death cult.

Apart from the fact that they are all monologues,
The Railroad Stories
do not fit into any one mold. Some, like “The Miracle of Hoshana Rabbah” and
“Tallis Koton,”
are sheer hijinks; others, like “High School,” have an aspect of social satire; still others, like “The Man from Buenos Aires,” “A Game of Sixty-Six,” “It Doesn’t Pay to Be Good,” and “Fated for Misfortune,” belong to that ironic genre of gradual exposure wherein the reader comes to realize that the speaker is not the kind of man he is pretending to be. “The Automatic Exemption,” “Burned Out,” and “Go Climb a Tree If You Don’t Like It” are comic studies in hysteria and mania; “The Happiest Man in All Kodny” is a piece of pure pathos with few comic lines in it; and yet another story, “The Tenth Man,” is a single brilliant joke whose punch line is withheld till the last moment. Indeed, there are perhaps only two things that all these narrators have in common: each has his distinctive verbal tic or tics, one or more favorite expressions that keep recurring as a kind of nervous identification tag, and each has an obsessive, an uncontrollable, an insatiable, an almost maniacal need to talk.


This obsessive garrulousness is common in Sholem Aleichem and is in effect a precondition of the monologue, which can hardly be based on taciturn types. The speakers of his stories talk when they have something specific to say and they talk when they do not; in his famous monologue “The Pot,” for example, a woman, whose nagging voice is all we ever hear, comes to see a rabbi about some minor matter of Jewish law, chatters on and on about one unrelated subject after another without ever coming to the point, and stops only when the rabbi, still not having gotten a word in edgewise, finally faints from exhaustion.… There is something of this pot woman in many of Sholem Aleichem’s characters, who seem to be saying, “I talk, therefore I exist.” Nothing frightens them so much as silence—most of all, their own.

Jews have perhaps always been a highly verbal people, certainly since the time when their religion became centered on a growing number of sacred texts and the constant exposition and reexposition of them; the vast “sea of the Talmud” itself, as it is called in Hebrew, is but the edited record of endless oral discussions and debates among the early rabbis, and for centuries, down to the yeshivas and synagogues of Sholem Aleichem’s Eastern Europe, the most common method of studying the Law was to talk about it aloud in groups of twos and threes and fours. Here the spoken word is still a functional tool of analysis and communication. In Sholem Aleichem’s world, however, it has become something else—or rather, many things: a club, a cloud, a twitch, a labyrinth, a smokescreen, a magic wand, a madly waved paper fan, a perpetual motion machine, a breastwork against chaos, the very voice of chaos itself.… His characters chute on torrents of words and seek to drag others into the current with them. And succeed. When the storyteller in “Baranovitch Station” breaks off his unfinished tale because it is time for him to change trains, his fellow passengers cannot believe that a Jew like themselves would rather stop talking in the middle of a sentence than miss his connection.

No one understood better than Sholem Aleichem that this astonishing verbosity, this virtuoso command of and abuse of language, was at once the greatest strength and the ultimate pathology of East European Jewish life. Reviled, ghettoized, impoverished, powerless, his Jews have only one weapon: the power of speech. And because it is a weapon that has come down to them honed by the expert use of ages, they wield it with the skill of trained samurai, men, women, and children. (One of Sholem Aleichem’s most wonderful long monologues, the picaresque
Motl, Peysi the Cantor’s Son
, is narrated by a ten- or eleven-year-old boy.) What can a Jew not accomplish with his tongue? He can outsmart a goy, bury an enemy, crush a wife or husband, conjure up a fortune, turn black into white, turn white into black … and believe it all has happened, so that the very sense of reality becomes distorted and defeat turns into victory, humiliation into triumph, grimy wretchedness into winged flight. Don Quixote would have felt at home in Kasrilevke and Anatevka. He might even have learned a few tricks there.

Yet can we be so sure that this defiant quixotism, when all is said and done, does not represent a real triumph of sorts? In a discussion
of Sholem Aleichem’s story “Dreyfus in Kasrilevke” (in which, being told by a fellow Kasrilevkite, who has just read it in the newspaper, that Dreyfus was found guilty, the town’s Jews refuse to believe it), Professor Ruth Wisse writes:

Here, too, the oppressed replace the world’s reality with the reality of their argumentative concern. But the Sholem Aleichem story equates the Jews’ far-sightedness with faith.… Dreyfus in Kasrilevke is judged by God’s law; and is God’s truth to be sacrificed for journalism?

And she quotes the final lines of the story:

“Paper!” cried Kasrilevke. “Paper! And if you stood here with one foot in heaven and one foot on earth, we still wouldn’t believe you. Such things cannot be! No, this cannot be! It cannot be! It cannot be!”

Well, and who was right?

“It cannot be”: such is the true human voice of Sholem Aleichem’s world and the only one he really cared about. For a great writer, he was in some ways oddly limited: he rarely wrote more than cursory descriptions of people, places, and things and was not outstandingly good at them; abstract ideas did not interest him; and even his dialogue reverts quickly to monologue or peters out in misunderstandings and cross-purposes. As a consequence, those of his novels that are not monologic do not rank with the best of his work, and, when their comic thrust fails, they often lapse into sentimentality. (As all cynics are said to be wounded idealists, are not all humorists wounded sentimentalists?) The solo voice was his specialty: he had an uncanny ability to mimic it, to catch its rhythms and intonations, to study it as the mask and revelation of inner self. (Y. D. Berkovits relates how, upon emigrating westward in 1906 and first stopping in Austrian Galicia, whose Yiddish was quite different from that of Russia, Sholem Aleichem imitated the natives so well that soon they could not tell him from a local!) This voice is indomitable. It keeps on talking. It will not be stilled. “It cannot be!” is what it says, and in one way or another it is right.

Human speech, of which nearly all the fiction in this volume is composed, is both the easiest and the hardest language to translate: the easiest because it is usually syntactically so simple, the hardest because it carries the greatest freight of those localisms and culture-bound words of a community that can never have a
true equivalent in other languages. And this is especially so of Yiddish, that Jewish tongue woven on a base of middle high German and richly embroidered with Hebrew and Slavic, whose syntax is far simpler than German’s but which is culturally more remote from the languages of Christian Europe than any of them are from each other. True, one needn’t exaggerate the difficulties: professional translators are used to insoluble problems, and they generally manage to solve them. There are, however, two aspects of Yiddish speech that, because they have no real parallel in English and cannot be satisfactorily approximated in it, deserve to be mentioned.

The first has to do with formulas for avoiding the evil eye. Superstition and the fear of provoking or attracting the attention of hostile forces, or simply of causing offense, are of course universal; but in Yiddish (perhaps because it was the language of a culture in which aggression, given little external outlet, was always felt to be threateningly close to the surface) this anxiety is so extreme that it dictates the use of a wide variety of appeasing expressions in daily speech. Thus, one should not mention a dead person one has known without adding
olov hasholom
, “may he rest in peace”; one does not boast of or express satisfaction with anything unless one says
, “no evil eye” (i.e., touch or knock wood); if one mentions a misfortune to someone, one tells him
nisht do gedakht
nisht far aykh gedakht
, “it shouldn’t happen here” or “it shouldn’t happen to you”; if one makes a remark critical of somebody, one prefaces it with
zol er mir moykhl zayn
, “may he forgive me”; if the criticism is aimed at Providence, one says
zol mir got nisht shtrofn far di reyd
, “may God not punish me for my words.” Moreover, such expressions cover only the specific case; if a person is talking about a deceased relative, for example, and mentions him ten times, it is good form to say
olov hasholom
after each. The result is that one or several sentences of spoken Yiddish can contain a whole series of such phrases that break the speech up into a sequence of fragments punctuated by anxious qualifications. The translator can and should retain some of these, but being overly faithful to them makes the English tiresome, and I have left quite a few out. Wherever the reader sees one such expression in the English, he can assume there may be more in the Yiddish.

Secondly, there is the widespread use in Yiddish of Hebrew, not in the form of quotations, as with Tevye, but of idioms that have
become rooted in popular speech, commonly transplanted there from religious texts and prayers. These occupy an ambivalent position: on the one hand, they are understood and used even by uneducated speakers, yet on the other, their Hebrew etymology continues to be recognized and their sacral origins are not obscured, so that they often produce ironic or comic effects. For example, when the arsonist who narrates “Burned Out” relates his neighbors’ suspicions of him, he does not say that they accuse him of “setting fire” to his house and store, but rather of “making
boyrey me’oyrey ho’eysh.”
Literally these Hebrew words mean “He Who creates the light of fire,” but they belong to a blessing (“Blessed art Thou O Lord our God, King of the Universe, Who creates the light of fire”) that is said every week in the
, the ritual of ending the Sabbath on Saturday night, part of which involves lighting a candle (an act forbidden on the Sabbath itself) and holding one’s hand up to the flame. What can the translator do with such untranslatabilities, which are not uncommon in Yiddish, and especially not in a comic Yiddish like Sholem Aleichem’s? Shut his eyes and hope to think of something! And in this case I did, because suddenly I remembered a snatch of a comic ditty that I knew as a boy in New York about a Jew who burns down his store for the “inshurinks,” just like the narrator of “Burned Out.” It was sung in a Yiddish accent to the tune of the Zionist anthem
, and one stanza of it went:

BOOK: Tevye the Dairyman and the Railroad Stories
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