Wednesday, April 15, 2009

The musical-dramatic-national-patriotic tragic-comedy Wandering Stars by Sholem Aleichem

Sholem Aleichem's Wandering Stars, originally published in 1909 and newly re-Englished by the expert Aliza Shevrin, is a Yiddish theater novel. Some luck that the same "star" metaphor is used in Yiddish and English. Two shtetl kids, a fourteen year old boy and a fifteen year old girl, fall in love and run off with a theater troupe. They wander around Europe and America - Budapest, Vienna, London, New York - and become stars, one an actor and the other a singer.

The novel begins with the discovery that the youngsters have disappeared, on the same night that the theater troupe skipped town. Could there be a connection? Then Sholem Aleichem takes us back to the arrival of the theater company, to give us the details of what happened, to let us get to know Leibel and Rosa. On the one hand, there's not a lot of tension here, since we know what's going to happen. On the other hand, we actually don't, since there's a pretty good twist that finishes the episode and pushes the story forward, that keeps the stars wandering. A couple more twists follow. This isn't a thriller, but the story is more than an afterthought.

Wandering Stars is not short - it's a little over 400 pages - and is padded. It takes Sholem Aleichem about a quarter of the novel, for example, to get Leibel and Rosa out of town. He's in no hurry. The novel was serialized in a newspaper* on a daily basis. Yes, daily. So each chapter is two or three pages long. Many are separate skits or essays or character sketches. All to the good, since these are among the best, the funniest, things in the book.

The main story, in general, is not the most interesting part of the book. But as the novel progresses, a huge case of actors, moneymen, and other hangers-on accumulates. The momentum increases, and the gags get funnier. Like this newspaper review:

"'Among all the pieces in all the Jewish theaters, this holiday Menorah shines so brightly that it has cast into the shadows every other piece,' modestly wrote another manager of his own production. The Menorah, he added with rare reserve, 'stands out among the others like a giant among dwarfs. At no other production will you witness so many tears shed on the stage over the plight of desolate widows and miserable orphans, over lost children and butchered babies, over Jewish daughters murdered and Jewish wives dishonored in bestial pogroms. And the rib-tickling humor, laughter, and Jewish wit heard on our stage cannot be beat. At no other production will you hear such sweet melodies sung by famous leading ladies and see such exciting dances by the loveliest dancers in the world." (p. 280)

Wow, The Menorah has everything. And then there's The Alrightniks; Four Sticks Make a Canopy; Dora, the Rich Beggar, by Shakespeare, Improved and Staged by the only Albert Schupak; and of course the musical-dramatic-national-patriotic tragic-comedy Moishe, featuring the smash hit song "Moishe."

How I long to see The Alrightniks.

Adam Kirsch seems sort of irritated that Wandering Stars is - what? Not crisp and efficient? Not as good as Tevye the Dairyman? He's right, it isn't. I have read enough Sholem Aleichem now that I am beginning to think of him as a literary giant, comparable to Mark Twain, say. His writing covers a lot of ground, and his inventiveness seems unbounded. But Tevye the Dairyman is a world-class masterpiece, hugely likable, and also complex, deep. I'm not disappointed that Sholem Aleichem didn't produce too many of those. Wandering Stars is, as is, a treat.

I still don't think I'm really writing book reviews. For a more review-like review, see the enthusiatic Reb Jew Wishes.

* What newspaper, published where? No idea. No one wants to tell me. Certainly not Tony Kushner, in his gushy, useless introduction. It's all just so wonderful! Thanks, Tony. I only know (or have guessed) that the original publication was in 1909 because of references to the novel's centennial.


  1. What a wonderful review!

    Thank you for the link.


  2. I'm starting to think nonreviews make me want to read books a lot, lot more.

  3. Nicole, me too, me too. I read that one sentence or that one detail, and think, oh wait, that's what that book's like? I want to read more of that.