Wandering Stars, a late novel by the celebrated Yiddish humorist and author Sholem Aleichem, was due for a new translation. The first English-language rendering of the book, written in 1952 by Frances Butwin, significantly abridged the story. And more than this: Butwin modified the original ending so that his translation would finish on a happy note.
This new 2009 translation, by Aliza Shevrin, has restored to the novel, among the lost scenes, all of its misery. For this is a dark and hopeless book, its bleakness undercut only by Aleichem’s particular brand of quick Yiddish wit.
It is, ostensibly, a love story. At the turn of the 20th century, an itinerant Yiddish theatre troupe blazes into the Bessarabian shtetl of Holeneshti. The entire town is enraptured by the newly arrived, altogether neurotic company, but none so much as Leibel, the rich man’s son, and Reizel, the poor cantor’s daughter.
As taken with the stage as they are with each other, the youngsters run off with the troupe in the night. But they are almost immediately separated, and spend the span of over 400 pages finding their way back to one another. In the process they both achieve tremendous and improbable fame: she as a singer, he as an actor.
American playwright Tony Kushner, in his forward to this latest translation, suggests that Leibel and Reizel are stage roles waiting to be filled rather than whole characters. And indeed our protagonists are blurred and insubstantial, abandoned by the author in most scenes. Even the event of their reconciliation comes as a short-lived afterthought.
Aleichem takes his pleasure instead in an eccentric secondary cast of characters, each one more miserable and morally corrupt than the next. He has a gift for writing neuroses; almost every piece of dialogue he pens comes out in whine.
A money-grubbing theatre director with three insatiable wives, a comedian with a hacking cough, an asthmatic Jewish salesman, a tailor from the Bowery with false teeth, a round, perspiring actress with Oriental eyes. These are the personages that populate a novel that, with the traveling theatre, traverses the Jewish diaspora, from the Old Country to London and New York.
“The brothers had very different faces,” Aleichem describes in a characteristic moment. “Nissel looked like a German sausage eater going to church on Sunday, and Isaac looked like a Russian corporal who had just completed his term of duty and had promised himself never again to drink whiskey, only beer.”
As a narrator, Aleichem is as peculiar a personality as any member of the acting company. He is easily distracted from his own narrative—musings on a certain character’s back-story can go on for pages—and as a result, Wandering Stars hurdles about in time. Like a critical Jewish bubby, the writer has an opinion about every development, a judgment to pass on every person, as though he hadn’t thought them up himself one by one. Above all, he is a boisterous storyteller, one who delights in hyperbole, who recommends restaurants to and shares secrets with his readers, who deliberately passes over in silence scenes he deems inappropriate.
Aleichem’s New York is at the same time unfeeling and full of prospects. “... In this land ... you yourself must stop passersby and announce, ‘Sir! I am so-and-so and know this-and-that. Maybe you can use a pair of hands?’ Hands—that was the main thing. There were no people, only hands, hands talking, hands begging, hands shouting ‘Hand! Hands!’” The author’s characterizations of Jewish neighborhoods are heartfelt in their harshness. Into these shtetls and urban ghettos he breathes incredible life, all the more so because he is not afraid to include himself in the community. Arriving with his characters in London, he writes:
Nowhere else did the Yiddish pulse beat so strongly as in this English Whitechapel… Its atmosphere was our atmosphere, its language our language, the hustle and bustle, the chasing, the shouting, the hand gestures—all ours… What I mean to say is that the Jews there were no different from anywhere else. They lived off one another, tore the food out of one another’s hands—what am I saying, hands? They tore the last morsel from one another’s mouths. In a word, when you arrived in Whitechapel, you had come home.
It is not easy to translate Yiddishisms into English without giving up the idiosyncrasies of the language. Shevrin laments in her introductory blurb that it was even more difficult here than usual, because the characters’ Yiddish speech often takes on the subtle colorations of the places they visit. But in her translation she has managed to capture the distinct rhythms of the vernacular. No matter that the dialogue is spelled out in English; it is clear from just a few lines that these are Yiddish speakers.
And thankfully, Shevrin recognizes that certain words—like momzer and schlimazel and shnorrer—ought not be translated at all. For these there is a handy glossary at the back.
Breyndele: You’re the same good-for-nothing you always were. Tell me where that lowlife is now, your boss, may he burn in hell.
Murovchik: Who? Schupak? He’s in Odessa, may the cholera suffocate him this very winter!
Breyndele: Don’t you mean the plague?
Murovchik: I’ll agree to a simple, miserable death in the middle of the day, so long as there isn’t a deep frost.
Wandering Stars is a strange book by any account, doubly confusing (and less amusing) if one has no understanding of Yiddish culture. When compared to the merry short stories for which Aleichem is best known—Fiddler on the Roof, the spirited musical, is loosely based on his tales surrounding Tevye the Milkman—it seems especially dismal. But of this period of progress and change in Jewish life Aleichem writes with such earnestness, that in depth this ranks with the best of the author’s work.
In a letter to her mentor Reizel, our heroine, writes: “Nothing pleases me. The more life gives me, the more I demand… Is there happiness to be found in this world at all?” It is a desperate question, but one that the novel has already answered. There is happiness to be found in laughter.
Even in its bleakest moments, Wandering Stars entertains. If despair and indigence can be comical, Aleichem asks, then what is there to be so serious about?