Tuesday, January 6, 2009

A 19th century Yiddish reading list, pt. 2 - Mendele Mocher Sforim, Sholom Aleichem, and I. L. Peretz

Three authors are at the core of early Yiddish literature: S. Y. Abramovitsh aka Mendele Mocher Sforim (1836-1917), Sholom Aleichem (1859-1916), and I. L. Peretz (1852-1915).

Mendele Mocher Sforim* / S. Y. Abramovitsh is the inventor of modern Yiddish literature. He wanted to write for ordinary Jews in their own language. Abramovitsh published his first Yiddish novel, The Little Man serially in late 1864 to 1865. It is narrated by Mendele Mocher Sforim, Mendele the Book Peddler. I don't think he meant it as a pen name, but Abramovitsh brought Mendele back again and again, and the name stuck.

A number of Sforim novels have made it into English at one time or another. The Travels and Adventures of Benjamin the Third (1869) is a must, as well as Fishke the Lame. Other titles: The Wishing-Ring, The Nag aka The Mare, and The Parasite. My library has an anthology, Selected Works of Mendele Moykher-Sfarim, so I'll see what's in that.

Sholom Aleichem's Yiddish collected works fills 28 volumes, mostly short stories, mostly monologues, mostly about rural Jews in the Russian Pale of Settlement. Aleichem is a sort of Yiddish culture hero, and is almost famous because of The Fiddler on the Roof. Tevye the Dairyman (1894-1914) is the source for Fiddler, eight stories in which Tevye tells us about his troubles with his daughters. "Maybe you can tell me, though, why it is that whenever something goes wrong in this world, it's Tevye it goes wrong with?" That's the tone, always comical, or tragicomic, or comitragic.

The Railroad Stories (1902-1910) are also high on my list. This time, it's railroad passengers telling us their stories. After that, what? I have a little Dover collection, Happy New Year! and Other Stories, selected from the 1959 Stories and Satires. I've counted up at least ten other story collections in English, with who knows how much overlap. There's a lot out there.

Aleichem wrote a fake travel guide for the town he used in many stories, Inside Kasrilevke. Chapters include "Hotels", "Theaters", "Fires", "and "Bandits." I can't pass that up. There are at least a couple of novels to try, as well: The Nightingale, Or the Saga of Yosele Solovey the Cantor (1886), and Mottel the Cantor's Son (1916), which takes us to America, along with the author himself, who left Europe for New York City in 1914. Aleichem's funeral was attended by 150,000 mourners, and was covered on the front page of the New York Times.

Aleichem's contemporary I. L. Peretz is a little easier to deal with because of The I. L. Peretz Reader, ed. Ruth Wisse. Peretz mostly wrote short stories, as well, but this volume also includes some poetry, travel writing, and a memoir. I've come across at least six other collections as well. My understanding is that Peretz is more of a modernist than Aleichem or Sforim.

The anthology Classic Yiddish Stories of S. Y. Abramovitsh, Sholem Aleichem, and I. L. Peretz, edited by Ken Frieden, is just what it says, and is meant as an accompaniment to Frieden's study Classic Yiddish Fiction, which would be a logical place to continue my research.

Tomorrow, I'll continue my list with everyone who is not named Sforim, Aleichem, or Peretz. I encourage readers to leave any suggestions they might have.

* Or Seforim, or Sefarim.

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