Sholem Aleichem’s Wandering Stars

by Barak Fravasi

“It was all a matter of luck. In London the cantor and his family have been starving in a cellar, begging favors from the London charities and depending on the advice of good people like Mr. Klammer. But in New York to cantor suddenly became a celebrity. He stood three feet taller, and his reputation resounded from one end of the city to the other.” (287)

English translations of Sholem Aleichem’s Wandering Stars have not been so lucky. The first, published in 1952, was reviewed in the New York Times by Philip Rubin, who faulted the novel for not being like the stories and popular novels people had come to expect from Sholem Aleichem. Rubin said very little about the story, or the characters, which may have been just as well given that the translation not only abridged the Yiddish original, but changed its ending.

Aliza Shevrin’s English translation of the complete novel was published earlier this year by Viking, and should have received widespread notice. Instead, the Times has yet to review it, more than two months after its publication, and Tony Kushner’s introduction to the new translation seems to improve on Rubin’s damnation by faint praise only slightly: although he is enthusiastic about the book, he accepts the idea that the hero and heroine are somehow less than full characters, and he refers repeatedly to the novel’s obvious “imperfections”.

Perfect or not (whatever that means!), Wandering Stars is a wonderful and significant book. The story concerns two children, and the theater: the teenage son of a Russian shtetl’s wealthiest family, (the “Rothschilds of Holeneshti”), and the cantor’s teenage daughter, are first taken with each other — with an attraction both sweet and mature beyond their years — and then taken (in every sense) by a traveling Yiddish Theater group:

“And this was all done by ordinary people? No, these were not ordinary people like you and me. These were imps, spirits, devils, or angels. Their postures and gestures, the way they moved and talked — everything was full of charm, enchantment, magic. From the moment the curtain rose, Leibel and Reizel were enchanted, transported to a world of imps, spirits, devils, and angels. Once the curtain fell, it vanished!” (21)

Leibel and Reizel are smitten and stagestruck, and then taken from Holeneshti. Their paths diverge, but eventually they become successful performers who cross paths in London and finally in New York. Unlike the characters that surround them, however, the feelings and behaviors of Leibel (who becomes the famous Yiddish actor Leo Rafelesco) and Reizel (who becomes the famous concert singer Rosa Spivak) are never completely predictable or understandable. Whereas Rubin and Kushner both found a lack of substance in the novel’s main characters, it’s possible to find the opposite: from the moment their eyes meet until the culmination of their relationship at the end of the book (ten years and 400 pages later), Leibel/Leo and Reizel/Rosa are remarkable in their never being simply true to our expectations of them — and indeed they become something different than what each expected to find in the other.

In the figures of the parents of Leibel and Reizel, of the theater directors and managers, of the nudniks and nudges, of the clamoring capitalist and the defiant unionized waiter, we have in Wandering Stars plenty of typical characters. They are entertaining, and would have made the novel a good-enough read on their own. Moreover, they allow the narrator(s) to comment on yiddishkeit in the “Old Country” and in America, and simultaneously assert a sort of Jewish superiority while admitting to all the shlemiels, shlimazels and shmegeges in our midst.

In Leibel/Leo and Reizel/Rosa, however, we find characters who aren’t merely clever elaborations on a joke or two, and their emotional swings reveal artistic personalities both peculiar and conflicted:

You were always a loser, and you’ll always be a loser! Rafelesco berated himself, eating himself up alive. The company members kept bothering him about his first appearance. Reporters asked for interviews, while streetwalkers smiled at him and made tempting propositions. And Henrietta [his co-star] pestered him with her toilettes and photographs. He did not know what was happening to him. He was lost in a void.” (334)

The narrative too has mood swings that give Wandering Stars some darker passages than most English readers would expect from a Sholem Aleichem novel. Written after the author’s own immigration to New York, in 1905, and the separation from his family, the chapter “America! America!” includes the following:

“For Jewish emigrants the entry was torture, an ordeal, a foretaste of gehenam, a purgatory where sinners had to purify their souls in order to enter Paradise. Once this purgatory had been called Castle Garden, but today it was known as Ellis Island. The name had changed, but the woes and sufferings, the sighs and the tears, the humiliations and the torments remained the same, and with God’s help they would remain so as long as some people lorded it over others, as long as some people needed to demonstrate that they could still be bestial.” (267)

Neither of the passages I’ve just quoted appeared in Frances Butwin’s English translation of 1952, and one hundred years after the serial publication of Wandering Stars in Yiddish it may be difficult to appreciate its “edginess” for other reasons. It’s easy to forget, for example, that the American Jewish embrace of yiddishkeit is a fairly recent phenomenon. In the extraordinary twelve-volume Jewish Encyclopedia published by Funk and Wagnalls in 1901, there is no entry for either “Yiddish” or “Yiddish literature,” and the short entries on Abramovitch, and Rabinovitch describe them as writing in Hebrew and “Judeo-German” (though the entry on Peretz does use the word “Yiddish”). The combination of kibitzing harshness and self-conscious historical wisdom at the heart of  successful Yiddisher humor doesn’t shock us as it might have shocked the editors of the Jewish Encyclopedia at the turn of the 20th century; in the midst of a description of the success of Leibel’s/Leo’s New York debut, for example,  we find another passage omitted from the 1952 translation:

“That silky young man with a fine, noble, pallid face, the long hair, the large, tired-looking eyes, the newly sprouted blonde beard, and the open-necked shirt begged comparison to Jesus Christ.” (366)

One of the themes in Wandering Stars is the new life made possible by the freedom, speed, and strange camaraderie amongst the Jews in America, even as the meshugas of this new life is inescapable:

“America is, God bless it, a free land, even freer than London. Here everyone does what he wants. Come the High Holidays, this one runs to the synagogue, another goes to work in a shop. Come Yom Kippur or Kol Nidre, this one weeps at the Ya’ales, another goes to a ball, a Yom Kippur ball, it’s called. A group of young people gather together and over a glass of beer and a pork sausage they make their peace with the old Jewish God for His evil deeds, for His edicts and for His pogroms, and take him to task so he will have what to remember till next year’s Kol Nidre! If you’re talking about a free country, here you can do anything!” (327)

Perhaps what drew Sholem Aleichem to his main characters, his wandering stars, was the desire to break with, or at least try to resist the temptations of, much that was predictable in the typologies of the old world. The temptations of the old world and the new are at the center of Wandering Stars and, for better and worse, the willingness to resist the expected suggests an excellent “fit” between such a character and America.

“Who knew which counted more in America: piety or vanity? Maybe one needed to have both. Anything could happen in America.” (268)

We should be thankful for Aliza Shevrin’s complete English translation of  Wandering Stars, and feel lucky too: the novel turns out to be much more than just another Tevye.

Wandering Stars, a novel by Sholem Aleichem, translated from the Yiddish by Aliza Shevrin, with a forward by Tony Kushner (Viking, 2009).

Wandering Star, by Sholem Aleichem, translated by Francis Butwin (Crown Publishers, 1952).

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