Commentary Magazine


Inside Kasrilevke, by Sholom Aleichem

Sholom Aleichem and the Emancipated
Inside Kasrilevke.
by Sholom Aleichem.
Translated by Isidore Goldstick. New York, Schocken Books, 1948. 127 pp. $1.50. (Schocken Library, Number 11.)

 

The reviewer must state that he came to Sholom Aleichem feeling himself to be an entirely emancipated Jew (the word “emancipated” is useds advisedly) and that it was with a severe sense of shock modified by some sorrow, an outraged fastidiousness only slightly alleviated by guilt, that he began to read Inside Kasrilevke. Slowly, however, his disgust and despair gave way to a grudging admiration which, in the end, approached the enthusiasm—unreserved, uncritical—of the convert. Still, upon further reflection, this feeling was cruelly dissipated and almost, if not quite, disappeared. For the Jew familiar with—and to—the world that followed the world of Dickens and Balzac cannot bring himself to accept as part of his heritage (however much, when caught, he will prate about his heritage), this world of Sholom Aleichem, which seems to him to be always on the verge of tears.

Following this first rude reaction, the reviewer tried to discipline himself. But it seems that his effort to be impersonal was not altogether sufficient, for he now became quite critical, not of the work in hand but of those “emancipated” Jews who fail to hear the laughter in Sholom Aleichem, who fail to see the beauty in him, and the bravery, who can only hear the incessant geese-like gabbling and ask, “Is this what I came from?” and go on to feel something not far removed from rage and revulsion (even when aware of the reasons for the year-round Yiddish Donnybrook) over what is to them the sickening spectacle of the Eastern Jew who, when he leaves, or is driven from, the East, brings to the West the ragged remnants of his sorrows and causes, so much “trouble” for the big and little Rothschilds (“Wasn’t it the Polish Jew who caused all this?” they whispered to one another along the Kurfuerstendam in 933, until, by 939, a kind of political consciousness had been driven in upon them).

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Finally, though, the reviewer took up Inside Kasrilevke and looked at it for what it is, a well-bound little volume with an attractive yellow dustcover, a book, the first half of which, according to the author, is “a guide to strangers” and, as such, in every sense successful, for in seven short sections Sholom Aleichem manages to enlighten the unenlightened traveller, taking him from the railroad station (“it was autumn, early in the morning, before prayer time”) to every conceivable station of life in the town. Of course, when you come right down to it, it was all one station in life—that of the oppressed minority anywhere. Yet within this constricted orbit there was a life as variegated as the life of Paris or Prague or Petersburg; and as Sholom Aleichem says, “We imitate other peoples in everything . . . they have ‘A Guide to Moscow’ . . . why shouldn’t we get out ‘A Guide to Kasrilevke’?”

In one respect, however, the citizens of Karsilevke did not imitate the citizens of other communities, for (“it was autumn, early in the morning, before prayer time”) the life of every Kasrilevken—from old Rabbi Yozifl to the swarthy bandit who, as he robs Sholom Aleichem, says, “We’re giving you . . . one minute to say your prayers”—was ruled by the religion of his forefathers, who lived for him as they live for us on every page. There is a biblical connotation to almost everything, a biblical flavor to the speech of almost everyone. You feel that the lowliest fishwife is on close terms with the prophets of Israel, with the chroniclers, the kings, and with God himself, who, here, is the Mayor of the Town and, like other mayors, the object of praise and of abuse.

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Sholom Aleichem is renowned for his humor, a humor which, one is told, leans largely on language, on the idiosyncrasies of Yiddish. Therefore it is testimony to the vigor of this humor that so much of it comes through in translation; no further fatalistic flavor, nor more ironic note could, it seems, have been extracted from an infinite variety of situations, from a world in which “love of life” is allied so closely to “survival.” This famous Jewish humor. . . . So much of it is a kind of slapstick in reverse, a throwing of pies-not at others, but at oneself. And one is reminded of Shakespeare more than once, as when a troupe of theater folk (in this world it is all a case of “folk”) come to town and one of the actors says to another, “M’nashke, put that hump on your back; it’ll make you look more like a Jew.” At first the “emancipated” Jew fails to see (the non-Jew would probably catch on more quickly) anything funny in this. He can only say to himself, This is how they think of one another and, thus, the world of them.” Then, however, one catches oneself up and recalls these words of Bottom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream: “I am such a tender ass, if my hair do but tickle me, I must scratch.”

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Inside Kasrilevke gives the reader but a glimpse of this world-within-a-world which Sholom Aleichem created. Joy mutated by sadness, sadness by joy, and this humor which, in its passionately dispassionate acceptance and fatalistic appraisal of adversity, approaches the heroic, is so effectively, tenderly, ingratiatingly, brought home to one that, disarmed, one tends to excuse a frequent structural clumsiness that cannot be attributed to inept translation. A magnificent Dostoevskyan dreariness, a universal desolation brightened by highly colored strokes of wit, is at times so wholly attained that one also tends to forgive an overworked capacity to observe. There is no lack here—there is almost too much—of what is currently called “authenticity”—and there can be too much, when too much wrecks a style not infrequently distinguished, as is Sholom Aleichem’s, for precision, for vivid yet spare beauty. At one point in this book the busy bustling sweating author says, “It’s impossible to put it all down on paper.” Nevertheless one has the feeling that it was possible and that it was put down. All of it. Which, to understate the case, would be commendable were it not for the fact that, in Sholom Aleichem, one’s feeling of fullness is too often tinged with the discomfort that accompanies any kind of excess.

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