Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Oh, you want some socks? - The Rough Guide to Sholem Aleichem

Lamed Shapiro was probably a pretty darkly hued fellow to begin with, but he was also rejecting some of what he saw as the sentimentality or lack of seriousness of older writers like Sholem Aleichem.

For example, the odd little volume of Sholem Aleichem published in 1948 as Inside Kasrilevke, which contains two longish stories, "The Poor and the Rich" and "A Guide to Kasrilevke."* Both are comic tales of life in Sholem Aleichem's fictional representative shtetl. They're comic, light-hearted, but with, just barely, touches of seriousness.

The "Guide to Kasrilevke" is mostly shtick. Each chapter has a travel guide title ("Hotels," "Restaurants," "Theater," "Bandits"), but it's really the story of Sholem Aleichem's own visit to Kasrilevke, the town where nothing functions. He just works through some good comic pieces - the tram that won't move; the restaurant that says you can have anything you want, but then doesn't seem to have any specific dish; the thieves who are disgusted by their victim's poverty. The scene that made me laugh the most was where the author, having barely set foot in his hotel room, is assailed by a string of sock vendors:

"Another individual stepped in; this one had a cap on.

'Buy my socks, mister, good and cheap!'

'I don't need any socks,' I told him. 'Thank you.'

'What do you mean, you don't need any?' he protested. 'Didn't you just buy half a dozen socks from the other fellow?'"

That's what we call logic. After a few more sock sellers:

"'Who's 'me'?' I asked. I was afraid to open the door for fear someone might be offering me more socks.

'Dovid,' came the reply.

'Dovid who?'

'Dovid Shpan.'

'Who's Dovid Shpan?'

'Dovid Shpan the agent.'

'What have you got?' I asked. 'Maybe more socks?'

'Oh, you want some socks?' he replied. 'Just wait a minute. I'll run out to the stores and bring you some!'"

Simple Chico Marx stuff, I guess, but I liked it. The other story is a little different - a delegation of Kasrilevke elders travel to the big city to raise money to fix up their burned out town - but the shtick isn't that different. A good running gag, for example: the dignified rabbi always replies to questions with a parable, a very wise and beautiful one, which the narrator always somehow avoids relating: "But since I am telling you a story, I'd rather not interrupt it with another one."

Minor Sholem Aleichem, I suppose. But after the horrors of Lamed Shapiro, a great relief.

* First published when? She don't say. "This book contains the stories Dos Naye Kasrilevke, Kasrilevke Nisrofim, Kasrilevke Moshav Z'kenim, translated from the Yiddish by Isidore Goldstick." That's it. I know; looks like three stories, not two. The third is attached to the second as an epilogue. Both stories mention airplanes, so publication must be after 1908. From their tiny chapters, I would guess that both were originally serialized in Yiddish newspapers.


  1. You know, I am dying to know. What got you interested in Yiddish literature anyway?

  2. Well, as Terence wrote, I am human, and all things human interest me.

    Ha ha ha! That was plenty pretentious. And, in fact, my mind is not quite so expansive as, say. Montaigne's, so it's not even true. Most things, maybe.

    But, really, the Yiddish project, which wraps up soon, is a product of genuine curiosity about literature. Isaac Bashevis Singer got my attention long ago; brief encounters with Sholem Aleichem gave me a glimpse of earlier Yiddish literature; a review, by Stephen Greenblatt, of Jacob Gordin's The Jewish King Lear, somehow led me to think in terms of a reading project.