Moshkeleh the Thief: A Redis­cov­ered Novel

Sholom Ale­ichem, Curt Leviant

  • Review
By – September 9, 2021

Moshkeleh the Thief isn’t quite a redis­cov­ered nov­el, as its sub­ti­tle claims. It’s true that this (excel­lent) trans­la­tion is the first time this par­tic­u­lar sto­ry has been ren­dered in Eng­lish. It’s also true, as the intro­duc­tion notes, that its lack of inclu­sion in the stan­dard twen­ty-eight vol­ume col­lec­tion of Sholom Aleichem’s mas­ter­works (Ale Verk) means that few out­side of the most engaged cir­cle of Yid­dish read­ers would have been aware of its exis­tence pri­or to now. From the per­spec­tive of lin­guis­tic acces­si­bil­i­ty, this is cer­tain­ly a wel­come trea­sure. But anoth­er way in which Moshkeleh isn’t quite redis­cov­ered is in its sub­ject mat­ter: read­ers with even a pass­ing famil­iar­i­ty with Sholom Ale­ichem (and, more to the point, Tevye the Dairy­man, his most famous char­ac­ter) will find them­selves won­der­ing if they have encoun­tered this sto­ry before. This is not a cri­tique — defin­ing shtetl lit­er­a­ture for gen­er­a­tions is pre­cise­ly what Sholom Ale­ichem is known for.

Moshkeleh fol­lows the mis­ad­ven­tures of a Moshke, a so-called horse thief and per­son of equal ill rep­u­ta­tion and leg­end in his vil­lage some­where in the Pale of Set­tle­ment. He becomes embroiled in an effort to recov­er a daugh­ter of one Chaim Chosid, who has run off to a monastery with a non-Jew. The beats are famil­iar, but hard­ly unwel­come; even in its more repet­i­tive moments, Moskeleh gives the read­er a glimpse into a world that has van­ished, a world that is as com­plex as it is consistent.

Moshkeleh was orig­i­nal­ly seri­al­ized in a War­saw paper, and thus the chap­ters are digestible and paced to leave the read­er want­i­ng more. It is a quick read, a total immer­sion into Moshke’s world that can be fin­ished over the course of an after­noon. Per­haps most unique in this text is the char­ac­ters’ rela­tion­ships to non-Jews — some­thing notably on the fridges of much of Sholom Aleichem’s oth­er work, and Yid­dish lit­er­a­ture from this era more broad­ly. Curt Leviant, the trans­la­tor, notes in the intro­duc­tion, Read­ing Moshkeleh Ganev, we feel as if pre­vi­ous­ly unknown pho­tographs of Russ­ian life have sud­den­ly been unearthed…Sholom Ale­ichem thus expands our under­stand­ing of East Euro­pean Jew­ish and non-Jew­ish soci­ety, and offers us a glimpse of a seg­ment of a pop­u­la­tion that exist­ed, but by a con­spir­a­cy of silence, lit­er­ary con­ven­tion, or shame, was kept behind closed shut­ters in literature.”

Moshkeleh the Thief is a treat to be savored for fans of Sholom Aleichem’s work. It is not whol­ly unique, but it doesn’t need to be — the excel­lence of the trans­la­tion brings his wit and skill to life in Eng­lish. Ale­ichem is not unlike one of his own delight­ful char­ac­ter descrip­tions in Moshkeleh: choos­ing his words very care­ful­ly, like some­one slow­ly eat­ing matza.”

Jus­tine Orlovsky-Schnit­zler is a fre­quent con­trib­u­tor to the Jew­ish Women’s Archive and Lilith mag­a­zine, liv­ing and work­ing at home in the South. 

Discussion Questions