Tevye the Dairyman and Motl the Cantor's Son (Penguin Classics)

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9780143105602: Tevye the Dairyman and Motl the Cantor's Son (Penguin Classics)

 

For the 150th anniversary of the birth of the "Jewish Mark Twain,"a new translation of his most famous works

Tevye the Dairyman and Motl the Cantor's Son are the most celebrated characters in all of Jewish fiction. Tevye is the lovable, Bible-quoting father of seven daughters, a modern Job whose wisdom, humor, and resilience inspired the lead character in Fiddler on the Roof. And Motl is the spirited and mischievous nine-year-old boy who accompanies his family on a journey from their Russian shtetl to New York, and whose comical, poignant, and clear-eyed observations capture with remarkable insight the struggles and hopes and triumphs of Jewish immigrants to America at the turn of the twentieth century.

For more than seventy years, Penguin has been the leading publisher of classic literature in the English-speaking world. With more than 1,700 titles, Penguin Classics represents a global bookshelf of the best works throughout history and across genres and disciplines. Readers trust the series to provide authoritative texts enhanced by introductions and notes by distinguished scholars and contemporary authors, as well as up-to-date translations by award-winning translators.

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About the Author:

Sholem Aleichem is the pen name of Sholem Rabinovitch (1859-1916), the most beloved writer in Yiddish literature. Born in Russia, he fled the pogroms and immigrated to New York in 1905.

Aliza Shevrin is the foremost translator of Sholem Aleichem, having translated eight other volumes of his fiction. She lives in Ann Arbor.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Table of Contents

 

Title Page

Copyright Page

Dedication

Introduction

 

TEVYE THE DAIRYMAN

KOTONTI—I AM UNWORTHY

THE GREAT WINDFALL

THE ROOF FALLS IN

TODAY’S CHILDREN

HODL

CHAVA

SHPRINTZE

TEVYE IS GOING TO ERETZ YISROEL

“GET THEE GONE”

VACHALAKLOKOS

 

MOTL THE CANTOR’S SONWritings of an Orphan Boy

PART ONE - Home in Kasrilevka

PART TWO - In America

 

Glossary

TEVYE THE DAIRYMAN AND MOTL THE CANTOR’S SON

SHOLEM ALEICHEM is the pen name of Sholem Rabinovitch (1859-1916), the most beloved writer in Yiddish literature and the creator of the famous Tevye character in the musical Fiddler on the Roof. His hundreds of short stories, plays, novels, poems, and feuilletons are still read, studied, produced, and translated all over the world.

Born in a small town in Ukraine, he began writing in Hebrew at an early age and first supported himself as a teacher of Russian. He also worked as a government rabbi, a clerk, and a businessman-speculator. He married the daughter of a wealthy landowner, upon whose death he became the administrator of her family’s large estate in Kiev. He turned to writing Yiddish fiction in 1883 and encouraged a number of Jewish writers, who were writing in Hebrew, to write in Yiddish as well, offering to publish their work as an incentive.

After the 1905 pogrom in Kiev, Sholem Aleichem and his large family left Russia, seeking refuge in Italy, Denmark, Switzerland, and America. He returned to Europe a year later, making personal appearances to great acclaim, but in 1914, at the start of World War I, he settled in New York, where his wit and writings caused some to call him the “Jewish Mark Twain.” He died two years later after a long illness, writing until his last day. His funeral procession was witnessed by one hundred thousand mourners.

ALIZA SHEVRIN is the foremost translator of Sholem Aleichem, having translated eight other volumes of his fiction as well as novels and stories by Isaac Bashevis Singer and I. L. Peretz. The daughter of a rabbi, she grew up in a Yiddish-speaking household in Brooklyn and attended Farband Yiddish schools until the age of fifteen. She holds a bachelor’s degree in agriculture from Cornell University and a master’s degree in social work from the University of Kansas. The recipient of a Rockefeller Foundation Fellowship to preserve Yiddish works by rendering them into English, she has also been a visiting scholar at the Rockefeller-Bellagio Study Center in Italy, where she translated Sholem Aleichem’s novel In the Storm. She lives with her husband in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

DAN MIRON is William Kay Professor of Hebrew and Comparative Literature at Columbia University and Professor of Hebrew Literature at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He is the author of A Traveler Disguised.

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Penguin Books Ltd, Registered Offices: 80 Strand, London WC2R 0RL, England

 

This translation first published in Penguin Books 2009

 

 

Translation copyright © Aliza Shevrin, 2009 Introduction copyright © Dan Miron, 2009

All rights reserved

 

PUBLISHER’S NOTE This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

 

LIBRARY OF CONGRESS CATALOGING-IN-PUBLICATION DATA Sholem Aleichem, 1859-1916. [Tevye der milkhiker. English]

Tevye the dairyman : and Motl the cantor’s son / Sholem Aleichem; translated by Aliza Shevrin; introduction by Dan Miron. p. cm.—(Penguin classics)

eISBN : 978-1-101-02214-6

1. Sholem Aleichem, 1859-1916—Translations into English. I. Shevrin, Aliza. II. Miron, Dan. III. Sholem Aleichem, 1859-1916. Motel Peysi dem hazens. English. IV. Title. V. Title: Motl, the cantor’s son. PJ5129.R2T’.133—dc22 2008028578

 

 

 

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For my family, with love:
Howie
our four children and their spouses
our seven grandchildren

Introduction

SHOLEM ALEICHEM

Sholem Rabinovitch (1859-1916), born in the Ukrainian regional center of Peryeslav but raised throughout his childhood in the tiny village of Voronkov (where he was steeped in the ambience of the eastern European Jewish hamlet, the shtetl), first received a traditional Jewish cheder (primary school) education. Then, the family having moved back to Peryeslav, he attended a Russian high school—his father’s partial exposure to modernity (as a follower of the Hebrew Enlightenment) made this possible. Thus he amassed Jewish booklore, was fully proficient as a Hebraist, and was inspired by modern Russian literature and liberal ideals. A scion of the old-style Jewish middle class (the family’s business was the cutting and shipping of timber)—which, under the circumstances of the relatively advanced capitalism in Russia of the late nineteenth century, came down in the world—he was motivated since childhood by two dreams: to become fabulously rich and to become a famous Jewish writer who would elevate Jewish literature to the level of its Russian counterpart. The former dream sent him to the stock exchanges of Kiev and Odessa, where he squandered the considerable wealth of his in-laws, the Loyev family. (That fiasco engendered his first literary masterpiece, an epistolary story based on the correspondence of the misguided speculator and broker Menachem-Mendl and his wife Sheyne-Sheynd, which he started in 1892.) The second dream he managed, to a considerable extent, to realize.

Initially Rabinovitch intended to become either a Russian or a Hebrew writer. (He would try both options with scant success.) But in 1883 he “bumped,” as if by accident, into Yiddish, the spoken language of eastern European Jews, and soon became obsessed with the meshugas, the dizzying idiomatic energy of that language as a writing tool. No one else was to tap the immense resources of Yiddish as he did, while endowing his entire corpus, no matter how varying and uneven the artistic level of its many hundreds of units (the twenty-eight volumes of his official collected edition barely cover half of his output), with unparalleled linguistic élan and unflagging rhythmic drive.

In the 1880s the use of Yiddish did not bestow upon a writer literary status, so the young author, driven by high ambitions, decided to gentrify and elevate it forthwith as the language of a respectable European literature. He proceeded to publish “thick” and very selective literary almanacs in the contemporary Russian format; launched a critical campaign against Yiddish Schund (trash) and for realism in Yiddish writing; and produced a series of realist novels that he dubbed “Jewish novels,” which tried to synthesize romance (considered an essential ingredient of the novel genre) and realities of the Jewish traditional milieu (where romance was not allowed to play an important role). In the process he managed to establish intimate contact with the then rapidly growing Yiddish reading public through the “funny” persona Sholem Aleichem (an absurd appellation meaning “how d’you do”). Comic, folksy personae were rife in Yiddish writing of the time, mediating between the semitraditional, barely educated reading public and modernist, “enlightened” authors. In this respect and in others Sholem Rabinovitch learned much from the practices of his mentor Sh. Y. Abramovitch and his persona Mendele the Book Peddler. However, Sholem Aleichem, crafted as a whimsical, clever, high-spirited, but quite unruly and unpredictable vagabond, caught the imagination of the readers as did no other persona. People fell in love with his jocular causerie and regarded him as a welcome guest. The success of the persona was such that Rabinovitch could not afford to part with it, and its features merged with the core of his literary-performative identity.

This was one reason that novel writing, in spite of the author’s high aspirations, never became his highest level of achievement. As a chatty, omniscient narrator, Sholem Aleichem rarely allowed for a sophisticated novelistic synthesis. Always aware of the limitations of the reading public, he simplified and overexplained his characters and their interactions and insisted on being entertaining even where the narrative hardly justified his intervention. His stories were far more subtle; in them, the characters were allowed to speak for themselves, and Sholem Aleichem was reduced to the role of a silent but omnipresent interlocutor, one whom the characters wished to impress, cajole, or even attack. Informed by this formula, the author created his chief masterpieces, Tevye der milkhiker (Tevye the Dairyman, started in 1894) foremost among them. Here and in a long series of brilliant monologues written between 1900 and 1910, Sholem Aleichem, having “regressed” from the novelistic synthesis to its “primitive” rudiments (monologue, letter), achieved the shimmering brilliance of a world-class master.

Following the failed revolution of 1905 and the subsequent pogroms, he decided to leave forever his Ukrainian homeland. He tried and failed to establish himself as a playwright in New York, then began a life of wandering in western and central Europe. In summer 1908 he collapsed with an attack of open pulmonary tuberculosis, which for some years bound him to sanatoria and southern winter resorts. The pace of his literary production, however, did not slacken. Moreover, his writing gained in depth and scope from an exposure to modernistic trends, particularly those of contemporary Russian “Silver Age” literature. Sholem Aleichem reassessed his views of men, women, and children and felt free to expose undercurrents of egotism, frustrated sexuality, and nihilism in his characters’ behavior. He also reassessed his earlier liberal and Zionist ideals and concluded that Jewish existence depended on making a shift from an idealistic eastern European culture to the materialism and hedonism he detected in the Jewish immigrant community in the United States. Motl Peyse dem khazns (Motl the Cantor’s Son) was the masterpiece he produced during this phase of his development.

The outbreak of World War I caught him in Berlin as the subject of a hostile country; he thereupon managed, with great difficulties, to reach New York, where he attempted to resume his writing career. His health, however, was failing, and the bitter news that his son had succumbed to tuberculosis in Europe overwhelmed him. He died in May 1916 in New York, the most popular Yiddish writer ever. A large part of the eastern European Jewish community of the city came into the streets in a state of mourning comparable to that which would follow the death of Rudolph Valentino, the film star. Sholem Aleichem bequeathed to the Jewish world not only his literary works but also a universal recognition that the new American Jewish community was a resourceful sociopolitical entity with its own culture and a distinct role to play both in American affairs and in those of world Jewry.

WHO WOULD WANT TO LISTEN TO TEVYE?

I will speak, that I may find relief; I will open my lips and answer.

—JOB 32:20

 

 

For over a century Tevye der milkhiker (Tevye the Dairyman) has been universally acknowledged as Sholem Aleichem’s masterpiece. Endowed with a deep humanity, a delicate equilibrium between tragedy and comedy, and a vivacious comic narration, Tevye soars above the author’s other achievements, brilliant as they are. Its vitality is such that it has survived a score of translations of uneven quality and questionable fidelity; various stage adaptations (including one prepared by the author himself), which for ideological or commercial considerations wrenched the story’s heart out of its ribcage, crudely transmuting and obfuscating its meaning; and even a successful stage version as one of Broadway’s schmaltziest musicals, Fiddler on the Roof, which superimposed upon the popular imagination a Tevye figure—a diluted, semi-Judaized Zorba—that tenuously, if not accidentally, resembles Sholem Aleichem’s original creation no more than a beautified postcard resembles the reality of a foreign city. To withstand all this treatment, a work of art has to possess a formidable inner strength. Our task here is to point to the sources of that strength.

In the last century scholars and critics dwelled mainly on Tevye’s social and cultural implications or on the character of Tevye and his symbolic or archetypal significance. Both topics are, of course, of considerable importance, but neither yields a full understanding of the work’s unique qualities.

Its social and cultural significance is far-reaching. A historical panorama, the unfolding of which would normally necessitate the writing of a cycle of voluminous novels, is here squeezed into eight short novellas. The affairs of a provincial dairyman and the fortunes of his daughters become prisms that refract much of what is essential in the history of the Jews in the czarist empire during the last two turbulent decades of its existence. Because the eight tales were written intermittently, in each one the author was in a position to look at a different aspect of progressively endangered Jews living amid a hostile non-Jewish population and under a hostile autocratic regime. Starting with the rustic mock-idyll of Tevye’s “miraculous” deliverance from penury, the tales gradually shed light on wider historical arenas, pointing to realities that loom far beyond the protagonist’s provincial circumference: the revolutionary mo...

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