Wonder of Wonders: A Cultural History of Fiddler on the Roof (9 page)

BOOK: Wonder of Wonders: A Cultural History of Fiddler on the Roof
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Samuel, a rising star of the Jewish intelligentsia, was well placed to blaze the English-language trail through Sholem-Aleichem (though he could not predict or, in the end, condone the Broadway musical to which it led). Having come back to
as an adult after an indifferent youth, he burned with the zeal of a convert. Born in Romania in 1895 and raised in the Jewish immigrant quarter of Manchester, England, he showed little sign that he would become, as the Yiddish scholar Emanuel S. Goldsmith dubbed him, “the leading spokesman of Jewish rejuvenation and creative survival in America for half a century.” By his bar mitzvah, he had declared himself an atheist and a socialist, identities he sustained into his young adulthood. But when he dropped out of Manchester University after his three-year scholarship came to an end and migrated to the Lower East Side of New York in late 1914, a few months shy of his twentieth birthday, he had already grown weary of the “dogma” and “intellectual bullying” of party politics.

In New York, Samuel fell under the spell of the commanding intellectual oratory of the Zionist leader Shmarya Levin. Samuel stalked Levin’s public appearances, at first struggling to keep up with his rich, allusive Yiddish but always sitting transfixed in the front row. (Samuel would go on to translate Levin’s three-volume autobiography.) The Yiddish and Hebrew he had disregarded as a boy he now reached back for, the better to participate in the cultural and political disputations tearing up the intellectual world he wished to join. Samuel frequented the Yiddish theater—Jacob Adler, even in his waning days, impressed Samuel most—and swallowed up the competing daily papers and the new Yiddish poetry of every faction. His uncle Berel, a tailor eking out a living by mending and pressing clothes in a grimy shop on East Fifteenth Street, served as Samuel’s unwitting tutor, simply by shooting the breeze in his pungent Yiddish. The language itself, Samuel later reflected, was his “gateway into Jewish life.”

His experience in Europe after the First World War stoked his Jewish nationalism. In 1917, Samuel was drafted into the United States Army and, because of his fluent French, put to work in counterespionage in Bordeaux. From there, he took a seven-week stint as a secretary and interpreter for the Morgenthau Commission to investigate pogroms in Poland at the end of the war. Samuel found that the speeches he was called on to translate for Henry Morgenthau Sr., a German Jew and a staunch assimilationist, stuck in his craw. In researching the outbreaks of antisemitic violence, Morgenthau operated, in Samuel’s view, with unctuous consideration of Polish authorities and their chauvinism, “as if the pogroms had been two-sided”; the resulting report, issued in October 1919, implied to Samuel’s dismay that “it was natural for the Poles to have regarded the Jewish minority as a hateful obstacle to Polish national liberation,” that if the Jews had just kept their heads down and blended in better, they wouldn’t have brought such trouble upon themselves. Samuel returned to New York in 1921 ready to dedicate his life to the Jewish cause.

He worked for a number of years as spokesperson for the Zionist Organization of America, before setting out as a freelance essayist, translator, and speaker—in short, as a public Jewish intellectual, or, more aptly, as an intellectual Jew, for while the members of a younger generation of literary and political commentators from Jewish backgrounds were just beginning to argue the world with radical fervor at City College in the 1930s, they “defined themselves Jewishly by their alienation from their Jewishness.” Samuel had long left Marxism behind; writing in journals like
Jewish Frontier
—not in
Partisan Review
—he had as his driving purpose “to help Jews acquire an interest in Jewish knowledge with the hope that they will transmit it to their children.”

To reel the second and third generations back from the brink of assimilation so as to share a stake in Jewish continuity, Samuel declared Judaism part and parcel of America’s noblest heritage. Never mind the grimy ghetto melodramas and the shmaltzy songs that embarrassed their audiences’ children. In stentorian tones and perfect tweeds, a pipe perched on his lip, a dreamy glint in his dark, myopic eyes, Samuel held forth about the great achievements and contributions of Jewish literature. Among his twenty-six books (plus another two dozen books he translated), Samuel took Arnold Toynbee to task for Christian bias, assembled a history of the Beilis blood libel case, examined antisemitism as a disease of the Western mind, chronicled the emergence of Israel (three different times as the story evolved), and translated into English I. J. Singer, Sholem Asch, and Haim Nachman Bialik, among others. The years 1953 to 1971 featured his radio (and, in the later years, TV) conversations about the Hebrew Bible with the thoroughly genteel and Gentile Mark Van Doren. Samuel promoted the Bible’s literary importance, making it relevant—and justifiable—to even the most secular of listeners. “The man who does not see in the prophets, in the Moses narrative, in the Ruth story, in Job, in the Song of Songs, the highest type of individual genius,” Samuel wrote, “should apply his literary faculties exclusively to the study of crossword puzzles.” Sholem-Aleichem, he analogized, was to Yiddish culture as Dickens was to Victorian England, Balzac to nineteenth-century France, and Shakespeare to Elizabethan England.

Sholem-Aleichem was something more even than they: he was “the mirror of Russian Jewry.” Samuel could see him no other way in the dire moment of his reflection: he was working on his pathbreaking translation of Sholem-Aleichem under the pall of emerging news of the Nazi genocide. In Samuel’s circle, details trickling in about the “final solution” were a constant and urgent matter, even as the organizational Jewish establishment hesitated to press for a direct American response and the news media failed to cover it adequately.
The World of Sholom Aleichem
, published by Knopf in 1943, would have to be more than a collection of stories. It was a literary call to arms (not only by dint of the advertisement for war bonds on its jacket flap). As Ben Hecht asserted that his widely performed and radio-broadcast pageant
We Will Never Die
, featuring scenes of murdered Jews recounting their demise, functioned as “the first American newspaper reports on the Jewish massacre in Europe,” so Samuel maintained that Sholem-Aleichem could rouse readers with a different sort of summons. Tracing a bitter line from Sholem-Aleichem’s world to the peril of the moment, Samuel writes, “It was a principle of Russian law that everything was forbidden to Jews unless specifically permitted. But by an oversight which Germany has since corrected, the right to remain alive was not challenged.” Rather than tell how Europe’s Jews were suffering atrocities and dying, he could tell how they had lived.

Samuel didn’t simply render Sholem-Aleichem’s stories in English—he considered that impossible, given the intricacies, idioms, and allusions in the original. So he “transmitted rather than translated” them. He interjected his descriptions of the cultural realm in which the plots unfolded. “Every other sentence cries out for a paragraph of explanation,” Samuel asserts, by way of self-pardon for his free hand with the material. “I wrote round him and about him.”

The resulting work is as compelling as it is bizarre. Samuel renarrates selected pieces of Sholem-Aleichem’s fiction into an amalgamation of storytelling, biography, criticism, and contemporary commentary. In part the book resembles the condensed, simplified
Tales from Shakespeare
by Mary and Charles Lamb; in part it contrives a new form of literary ethnography, drawing sociological conclusions from Sholem-Aleichem’s creations and presenting him not so much as a deliberating writer but as “the common people in utterance … the ‘anonymous’ of Jewish self-expression.” It’s as if in handing Sholem-Aleichem over to the English-reading audience at such a precarious moment, Samuel had to deliver an authentic, unassailable record. His offering couldn’t be a concoction, not even the concoction of a great literary genius. With this book Samuel was erecting a cenotaph, marking the loss of a civilization that was being annihilated even as he wrote—“an exercise in necromancy.” He needed what he depicted to be real, worthy of lamentation, untainted by artifice.

He declares as much. Referring to anthropological case studies from the late 1920s and 1930s of a small, presumably average American city, Samuel asserts, “We could write a Middletown of the Russian-Jewish Pale basing ourselves solely on the novels and stories and sketches of Sholom Aleichem, and it would be as reliable a scientific document as any ‘factual’ study; more so, indeed, for we should get, in addition to the material of a straightforward social inquiry, the intangible spirit which informs the material and gives it its living significance.”

No one carries that spirit more fully than Tevye, “the best known and best loved figure in the world of Sholem Aleichem.” The Tevye Samuel gave to English readers was “[a] little Jew wandering in a big, dark forest, symbol of a little people wandering in the big dark jungle of history,” a Tevye stripped of irony and refinished in sentimentality. He emerges from Samuel’s pages as the dominant exemplar, even the spokesperson, for the murdered Jews of Eastern Europe—as if the world of Sholem-Aleichem were so static that the distance between 1915 and 1945 had collapsed into a day, and his characters so real that they could stand in for the millions who perished.

Samuel is also the first to make Golde a shrew. Exaggerating Sholem-Aleichem’s portrait of Tevye’s no-nonsense wife and channeling Tevye’s sexism, Samuel—who confessed in a letter to a friend his “very real hatred” of women—baselessly renders Golde “without equal at handing out a dinner of curses and a supper of slaps.” The misogynist tinge clings to the character in many later versions, often mitigated onstage, at least, by the warmth and likability of the actors who came to play her.

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The “world” of Samuel’s title is the shtetl (though the word he uses is “townlet”). “Arguably the greatest single invention of Yiddish literature,” as David Roskies puts it, the shtetl was now reinvented in the decade or so after the war, for American use.
The World of Sholom Aleichem
was first to establish the image of the shtetl as a Jewish pastoral, a self-contained, albeit beset, domain where Jews of all classes endured through time marked out in Sabbaths and holy days. Though Samuel notes that in the original stories Tevye resides on the edge of a rural village among Gentiles, his book so thoroughly associates the dairyman with the “little people” of Kasrilevke it’s easy to conclude, reading
The World of Sholom Aleichem
, that Tevye lived in the shtetl among them. And that is where he explicitly is placed in a radio play based on Samuel’s book that aired on a new radio program sponsored by the Jewish Theological Seminary,
The Eternal Light
, in early 1945. There in Kasrilevke Tevye remains when, two years later,
The Eternal Light
The Daughters of Tevye
. This first English-language dramatization of the Tevye stories, made for the midcentury ecumenical program that aimed to promote harmony among Jews and Christians, turns them into saccharine; here, Perchik goes off not to Siberia but, happily, to finish university in Petrograd, and a daughter called Rachel heads to Seattle to marry a hometown boy who made good in America. From here on, Tevye (in English) is a man—a spokesman—of the shtetl.

Writing in the face of its final demise, Samuel can’t help but present the shtetl romantically as “a remarkable civilization, with values which the world cannot spare.” He selects carefully from Sholem-Aleichem’s oeuvre to keep him bound by the shtetl, claiming that the author paid little mind to characters who entered the wider world stage: he ignores novels like
The Flood
Wandering Stars
, and
The Bloody Hoax
. Thus he sets in motion the American image that grows and persists in the works that came after. As they followed, they reiterated his assertion of the most enduring and endearing shtetl ideal: that its “prosperity was spiritual rather than material.” This became the overriding trope of American remembrances of Eastern European Jewry—what Lucy Dawidowicz impatiently describes as an image of people “forever frozen in utter piety and utter poverty.”

This false but strangely reassuring image found eager audiences among American Jews who were trying to reconcile news of European Jewry’s slaughter with their own dash to assimilate. It appealed to them as the antisuburb, notes the historian Edward S. Shapiro, its simple dignity and sense of community contrasting with the bland conformity and acquisitiveness of suburbia: the shtetl conferred an admirable patrimony. In addition to helping to send
The World of Sholom Aleichem
into a tenth printing, American Jews flocked to the blockbuster Chagall retrospective opening at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in the summer of 1946, then mounted at the Art Institute of Chicago in the fall. The next year, they purchased the volumes of photographs of Jews in interwar Poland by Roman Vishniac—
boys at desks, wizened men with vacant eyes, barefoot girls with smudged cheeks. One of the books featured an introduction by the theologian Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel that practically lifted Samuel’s summation: Vishniac’s albums presented “one great portrait of a life abjectly poor in its material condition, and in its spiritual condition exaltedly religious.” Heschel’s line was quoted on the book’s dustcover. (He elaborated the idea further in his own book,
The Earth Is the Lord’s: The Inner World of the Jew in Eastern Europe

Myth building makes quick riddance of inconvenient facts. That Chagall’s hometown of Vitebsk was a burgeoning cultural center and no primitive backwater did not stand in the way of his reputation as an authentic, if fanciful, chronicler of Old World spirituality; that his wife, Bella Chagall, came from a well-to-do family and studied at Moscow University was no impediment to her whimsical memoir of girlhood Sabbath and holiday observances in
Burning Lights
, another popular book of the period, being absorbed into the dominant narrative. Vishniac’s project—commissioned by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee in the late 1930s with the fund-raising aim of awakening American consciences to the plight of European Jewry as Hitler rose to power—was designed to show the most vulnerable segments of the community and thus to leave out the diverse and sizable population of Jews who carried on modern, cosmopolitan lives in major cities; that did not prevent his images from visually coming to define the entirety of the destroyed Jewish culture.

BOOK: Wonder of Wonders: A Cultural History of Fiddler on the Roof
4.46Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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