Friday, February 13, 2009

Help the jackass of your neighbor and your jackass of a neighbor too - Sholem Aleichem's masterpiece "Hodl"

Tevye's oldest daughter, in "Today's Children," turned down a proposal by a rich man to marry a poor tailor. The next daughter, Hodl, does something even worse: she falls for a university student. She "reads and write both Yiddish and Russian and swallows books like hot cakes." That'll lead to trouble.

Here Tevye first meets the student, Peppercorn:

"Just then I looked ahead and saw a young man trudging along by the side of the path, a bundle under one arm, all sweaty and falling off his feet. 'Hurry up or you'll be late for the wedding!'* I called out to him. 'Come to think of it, hop aboard; I'm going your way and my wagon is empty. You know what the Bible says: help the jackass of your neighbor if you pass him on the road, and your jackass of a neighbor too.'**

He laughed and jumped into the wagon without having to be asked twice." (p. 55)

Tevye likes the student and invites him home. Soon Peppercorn is tutoring Tevye's daughters, and is practically one of the family. Just one problem:

"But I will say this for Peppercorn: when he opened his mouth, it erupted like a volcano. You wouldn't have believed the things that came out of it then, such wild, crazy ideas, everything backwards and upside down with tis feet sticking up in the air. A rich Jew, for instance - that's how warped his mind was - wasn't worth a row of beans to him, but a beggar was a big deal, and a workingman - why, a workingman was king, he was God's gift to the world - the reason being, I gathered, that he worked.

'Still,' I would say, 'when it comes to livelihoods, you can't compare work to making money." (p. 57)

The student is a radical, a revolutionary, in Russia in 1904. He marries Hodl - I'm skipping a funny scene where they announce their engagement to Tevye - but then disappears, into a prison, it turns out. The story only has five pages left. Hodl tells her father that she will join her husband in Siberia; Tevye argues with her is his usual indirect way; they sit on the porch all night and talk; Tevye takes her to the train station.

Those last few pages are funny, sad, warm, psychologically insightful. What more do I want? "Hodl" is one of the best short stories I have ever come across. I had not been expecting that.

I have been enjoying the Hillel Halkin translation, Tevye the Dairyman and the Railroad Stories, but am delighted to see that Penguin Classics, just a couple of weeks ago, published a new version by Aliza Shevrin, an expert translator of Sholem Aleichem. This one is called Tevye the Dairyman and Motl the Cantor's Son. The latter contains the monologues of a nine-year-old who migrates to America. The Railroad Stories or Motl the Cantor's Son, which should you choose? I haven't read either, but will, soon, God willing. Politely request that your library own both.

* Just to be clear, the "wedding" is merely Tevye's joke, although a joke that backfires.

** Exodus 23:5 "If thou see the ass of him that hateth thee lying under his burden... thou shalt surely help him." Close enough for Tevye.


  1. Pssh, translations are for whimps! You should've read it in the original Yidddish! ;)

    I'm glad you're blogging these set of stories. I'm vaguely familar with them from the Fiddler on the Roof musical, but I always wanted to read the original source.

    Nice blog, by the way. I might add you to my blogroll.

  2. If translations are for wimps, then I'm the one of the biggest wimps in litblogland, except for these guys.

    I feel like I have only barely suggested how pleasurable Tevye is. I would recommend it to almost anyone.

    Thanks for stopping by.

  3. Heh. I was kidding. I always use translations.Though, at some point I would like to learn a second language or three.

    My grandparents used to speak Yiddish, and I learned briefly the Yiddish alphabet when I was younger in a "Sunday" school, but don't really remember much.

    It makes more sense to learn Hebrew at this point than Yiddish.

    Have you checked out this list of titles yet?

  4. Been meaning to tell you how wonderful these sound...and it sounds like your Yiddish Literature project has been a great success. I've added Aleichem to my reading list and will see if I can get a copy of the Shevrin translation.

  5. Oh, that Yiddish Book Center list. I had such high hopes when I discovered it. I'll save my complaints - I'll just say that it was exactly what I was not looking for. Someone should annotate the list, and organize it by time or language or something besides the alphabet.

    verbivore, I had really planned to spread this out over the year a little more. But one book keeps leading to another.

  6. It was the librarian in me that couldn't help throwing out resources.

    I agree with the limitations of the list that you mentioned. Have you explored some of those other titles on the list and disliked them? Or simply got annoyed that the list lacks annotations and adequate chronologies for you to make such immediate judgements?

  7. Right, my annoyance is with the lack of detail. I did find the list useful, but I had already done a lot of groundwork, so I could use the list to fill gaps. I think a beginner might throw up his hands. A sentence attached to each entry would make the list much more useful.

    A good project for a book blogger! Read and annotate the Yiddish Book Center list.

    A concrete example of something that annoyed me - the ninth entry is:

    Pioneers (Pionem, 1904-5), by S. Ansky.

    I've come to the conclusion that this book does not actually exist. Pionem exists, but not Pioneers. As far as I can tell, the novel has never been translated. Someone coulda mentioned that!