Monday, May 4, 2009

Lucky me - I'm an orphan! - Sholem Aleichem's cheeriest creation

"I've never been so important. How is that? Because my father, Peysi the cantor, died on the first day of Shavuos. That make me an orphan." (p. 116)

This sounds like it might be another sad story, but it's not. Sad for some of the characters, but not for Motl, the cantor's son.

"Lucky me!" says Motl, the cantor's son, "I'm an orphan!" And it turns out that he's right, sort of. Motl is - well, it's not quite clear - eight years old to start, let's say. His mother is still alive, and always weeping. He has an older brother, a worrier, and an entrepreneur. So when Motl loses his father at the beginning of Motl, the Cantor's Son (1907-8, 1916), he enters a world of surprising freedom. "I've stopped going to school and am no longer in Hirsh-Ber's choir. Orphans are excused. Lucky me!"

I wonder if Motl will pay for this in the long run. But try telling that to an eight year old. They are so irresponsible.

The novel really gets going when Motl's family decides to emigrate. They wander through Europe, and end up in New York. For Motl, it's all a great lark. A third-class train car, a third-class ocean liner cabin, Ellis Island, Antwerp, Vienna - it's all so much fun. It's the grown-ups who have the worries, not Motl.

Motl, the Cantor's Son does not seem especially sophisticated to me. It's the voice of the boy, and his way of seeing, that are the heart of the novel. Sholem Aleichem's version is wonderful, but hardly unique. But there's something about Motl's spirit, his irrepressibility, that I find very appealing:

"The ride through New York was pretty awful. The worst part was changing from the stritkah to the eleveydeh. That's a stritkah that runs on a long, narrow bridge above the ground. It flies like a bullet. You're sure you're going to die.

You think that's all? Wait, I'm not through. You crawl out of the eleveydeh and walk down some stairs to a cellar an get into another stritkah called a tsobvey. The tsbobvey rushes through the cellar until you feel faint... Brokheh swears she's never taking either again. She'd rather walk than ride through the clouds or the earth like a lunatic. 'Spare me your ups and you can have your downs,' she says.

She's a weird one, my sister-in-law. If I had my druthers, I'd ride the eleveydeh and the tsobvey all day long." (p. 264)

One can see the Yinglish intruding. Noospeypehz, eiskrim, haht dawgz at the Hibru Neshnel Delikatesn. Sholem Aleichem seems to have felt ambivalently about America, but he lets Motl love it.

Tevye the Dairyman is cheerful, too, always cheerful. His cheerfulness, though, is a weapon in his ongoing argument with God. Motl is just a kid. That's what I mean when I say Motl, the Cantor's Son is less sophisticated. The meaning of the Motl stories is less internal to the central character, more about what happens around him.

Still, there's a lot more to this charming book that I'm omitting. But I wanted to write about something sunny before devoting the rest of the week to:

The Golem!

Quotations are from the Hillel Halkin translation, packaged with The Letters of Menakhem-Mendl & Sheyne-Sheyndl. Penguin Classics also has a new translation from Aliza Shevrin, packaged with Tevye the Dairyman.

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