Tevye the Dairy­man and Motl the Can­tor’s Son

Sholem Ale­ichem; Aliza Shevrin, trans.; Dan Miron, intro.
  • Review
By – November 10, 2011
This year, Sholem Ale­ichem would be 150 years old. L’Omeer Trinkn a lekheiy­im (let’s drink a toast) to cel­e­brate the pub­li­ca­tion of this new trans­la­tion of his best known works. 

Sholem Ale­ichem (1859 – 1916), the pen name of the most beloved and best-known Yid­dish writer Sholem Rabi­novitch, is some­one I have loved for years and is ever-present’ in my home. You ask what I mean by that. Back in 1961, while I was liv­ing in Paris, Ida Kaminska’s com­pa­ny, the Yid­dish State The­atre of Poland, came to Paris with two plays, one of which was Tevye der milkhik­er (Tevye the Dairy­man) star­ring mem­bers of the renowned the­atri­cal Kamin­s­ka fam­i­ly. It was a ten-hand­ker­chief pro­duc­tion; five hand­ker­chiefs for cry­ing and five for laugh­ing. About that same time, my hus­band and I trav­eled to Lon­don, where we pur­chased three black and white lith­o­graphs by the Russ­ian artist Abra­ham Kaplan of scenes from Sholem Aleichem’s sto­ries. My favorite has always been Tevye sit­ting on a bench talk­ing to Sholem Ale­ichem with the leg­endary town Kas­rilevka in the back­ground. This is how Sholem Ale­ichem came to be a pres­ence in my home and has remained as a good guest. 

So with all of these mem­o­ries and images, I set out to reread these two mag­nif­i­cent nov­els pub­lished in a new trans­la­tion by Aliza Shevrin. Dan Miron has writ­ten a major intro­duc­tion to these two lit­er­ary mas­ter­pieces. It includes a review of Sholem Ale­ichem as a writer, an in-depth dis­cus­sion of his cre­at­ed char­ac­ters, Tevye and Motl, as well as an explo­ration of the sur­round­ing reli­gious and polit­i­cal changes occur­ring in that area of the world at the end of the 19th and begin­ning of the 20th cen­turies. 

For those who think they already know Tevye because they had seen the Broad­way pro­duc­tion or the film of Fid­dler on the Roof, they are in for a sur­prise when they read the mono­logues on which the musi­cal is based. In the nov­el, there is a depth and rich­ness of char­ac­ters that did not ful­ly trans­fer to the musi­cal. And the lan­guage! As Dan Miron writes: No one else was to tap the immense resources of Yid­dish as he [Sholem Ale­ichem] did while endow­ing his entire corpus…with unpar­al­leled lin­guis­tic élan and unflag­ging rhyth­mic dri­ve.” This is equal­ly true for the sec­ond nov­el in this vol­ume, Motl the Cantor’s Son

The trans­la­tor, Aliza Shevrin, has also inter­po­lat­ed into the text the actu­al Tal­mu­dic quo­ta­tions (with a source some­times not­ed), along with Tevye’s inter­pre­ta­tions,” which are often col­or­ful and cre­ative exten­sions of the orig­i­nal. For exam­ple, in the chap­ter Today’s Chil­dren,” Tevye says: You were talk­ing about today’s chil­dren. Here’s what Isa­iah said: I have nour­ished and brought up chil­dren—you bring them into the world, they make your life mis­er­able, you sac­ri­fice your­self for them, you slave away night and day, and what comes of it?” Thus, by hav­ing the quo­ta­tion as part of the sto­ry, the read­er gains a mul­ti-lay­ered dia­log­ic read­ing expe­ri­ence. 

Just a word about Motl the Cantor’s Son, which is no doubt less famil­iar to many: It is an immi­gra­tion tale of com­ing to Amer­i­ca. The descrip­tions of see­ing New York City for the first time through the eyes of this young nine-year-old Motl are beyond deli­cious. For exam­ple: 

The ride into the city of New York is dread­ful. The ride itself isn’t so bad, but trans­fer­ring from one trol­ley to anoth­er is dif­fi­cult. As soon as you sit down— aha! You’re fly­ing like eagles through the air over a long, nar­row bridge, afraid for your life. They call it the ele­vat­ed here. Do you think that’s it? Just wait a bit. You get your­self out of the ele­vat­ed, and you have to switch over to anoth­er car. You reach it by going down steps, as if into a cel­lar, where you ride under the ground so fast that your eyes pop out of your head. They call this the sub­way. Why is one car called ele­vat­ed and the oth­er subway? 

As you read, you enter into the char­ac­ters and their expe­ri­ences. 

Because these nov­els are writ­ten as mono­logues with a great deal of dia­logue in an oral style, they demand to be read out loud. Find a friend and read them chap­ter-by-chap­ter aloud to each oth­er. If not, then wel­come in Sholem Ale­ichem, put two glass­es of tea on the table and begin the read­ing. What a mar­velous sto­ry­teller Sholem Ale­ichem is; he is also a great lis­ten­er! 

There is a two-page glos­sary of select­ed Hebrew, Yid­dish, and Russ­ian words at the end of the book.

Be sure to check out the Jew­ish Book Coun­cil’s Yid­dish Lit­er­a­ture” book club read­ing list.
Penin­nah Schram, well-known sto­ry­teller & author, is Pro­fes­sor of Speech and Dra­ma at Yeshi­va Uni­ver­si­ty’s Stern Col­lege. Her lat­est book is an illus­trat­ed anthol­o­gy, The Hun­gry Clothes and Oth­er Jew­ish Folk­tales (Ster­ling Pub­lish­ing) and a CD, The Min­strel & the Sto­ry­teller, with singer/​guitarist Ger­ard Edery (Sefarad Records). She is a recip­i­ent of a Covenant Award for Out­stand­ing Jew­ish Edu­ca­tor and the 2003 Nation­al Sto­ry­telling Net­work’s Life­time Achieve­ment Award.

Discussion Questions