Commentary Magazine


Tevye the Dairyman and the Railroad Stories, by Sholem Aleichem

A Classic

Tevye the Dairyman and the Railroad Stories
by Sholem Aleichem.
Translated and with an Introduction by Hillel Halkin. Library of Yiddish Classics/ Schocken. 309 pp. $19.95.

Sholem Aleichem (pen-name for Sholem Rabinovich, born in Russia, 1859, died in New York, 1916) remains the central figure of modern Yiddish fiction—not with regard to technique or style, which have since followed other paths, but in his profound identification through his characters and his vivid narrators with the collective spirit of Yiddish-speaking Jewry. In his own lifetime he rapidly achieved the status, with the attendant simplifications, not of writer but of beloved folk hero. His funeral in New York, attended by scores of thousands, was a rite of national mourning.

Sholem Aleichem’s relation both to his fictional materials and to his audience was essentially episodic and conversational. The two works drawn together in this new volume were both composed over a span of years by fits and starts. Tevye the Dairyman, probably Sholem Aleichem’s most famous work, began as a story published separately in 1894. Further tales of the struggling Tevye’s tribulations with his daughters were produced in 1899, 1904, 1905, 1907; and even after the first publication as a book in 1911, the writer continued to fiddle with the material, adding an episode as late as 1914.

Tevye, though not strictly speaking a novel, benefits from the unifying presence of its narrator-protagonist, who in his shrewd humor, his flamboyant absurdities, his capacity for deep affection, and his sheer energy of persistence, is one of the great characters of modern fiction. By contrast, The Railroad Stories, a total of twenty short pieces written in two series, 1902-03 and 1909-10, is patently an assemblage of miscellaneous tales. In this case, the frame that holds the episodes together is purely formal: a traveling salesman who goes back and forth on trains through the Pale of Settlement, listening to the sundry stories of the Jews packed into the third-class carriages and reporting their words to the reader.

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The enormous difficulty in translating Sholem Aleichem is that his fiction is more talk than story or novelistic evocation, its deep interest flowing from the charm, the wit, the terrific energy of the talk. In fact, there is in Sholem Aleichem a good deal of talk about the attractions of talk, and when, in one of The Railroad Stories (“Elul”), an actual Russian novel rears its Gentile head, the narrator wants to make sense of it in his own anecdotal terms: “Just tell me how it ends, what’s the punch line?” But in Sholem Aleichem’s own writing, even anecdotal plot and point are often secondary to sheer talking performance. This is true in the catalogue of mounting disasters with daughters that is the narrative frame of Tevye, and it is even more evident in The Railroad Stories, many of which are really shaggy-dog stories broken off before they come to any resolution. As the narrator says at the beginning of the last piece in the collection, “This is not so much a story as a little chat.”

What is all the talk for? As Hillel Halkin aptly puts it in his introduction, the spoken word in Sholem Aleichem is “many things: a club, a cloud, a twitch, a labyrinth, a smokescreen, a magic wand, a madly waved paper fan, a perpetual motion machine, a breastwork against chaos, the very voice of chaos itself.” Let me underline the double function of defending against chaos and giving it a voice. Although Sholem Aleichem abundantly deserves his reputation as a compassionate comic writer, his stories record the most dismal accumulation of catastrophes: daughters disappear, commit suicide, or, what is worse, apostasy; people are bamboozled out of their life savings; children are smitten with incurable diseases; dear ones suddenly perish; and, on the historical scale, the whole fabric of family, shtetl community, and traditional life is torn apart. The mechanism of brilliant, wild garrulity, wittily playing with biblical verses, clowning with proverbial expressions, flaunting absurdities, is thus a nervous dance with the forces of dissolution, at once a recognition of their inexorability and a paradoxically buoyant expression of superiority to them.

Tevye knows his own powerlessness as surely as any protagonist of Kafka’s, but he knows the consolation of language as well, is pleased to pretend (and pleases his readers through the pretense) that language is an ultimate source of power. Thus, he mutters to himself about the most arrogant and infuriating of his sons-in-law: “Just you wait, you Putzhoddur, you, I’ll let you have such a verse from the Bible that you’ll see fireworks before your eyes.”

This whole comic conjunction of language and anguish is badly explained by the old soppy formula of laughter through tears. The hilarity is a mode of mental survival, even an expression of resilience, but it is often used at the same time by Sholem Aleichem’s sundry speakers to hone the tooth of suffering that gnaws at them inwardly.

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The translator’s quandary is how to convey this power of oral performance in a language that lacks Yiddish’s interplay of Germanic, Hebraic, and Slavic elements, its easy use of scriptural and rabbinic citation, its reservoir of distinctive folk sayings, its panoply of habitual little phrases for the invocation of blessing and the averting of misfortune. Hillel Halkin, who over the past fifteen years has firmly established himself as the leading English translator of Hebrew fiction, undertakes a Yiddish work here for the first time. Although he confesses that his Yiddish is not nearly as solid as his Hebrew, and that for matters of accuracy he has had to depend on the expertise of his editor, Ruth R. Wisse, he has produced a brilliant English version of Sholem Aleichem, easily eclipsing all previous translations.

Let me illustrate by quoting the opening lines of Halkin’s Tevye and then the same passage in the 1946 translation by Julius and Frances Butwin.

Halkin: If you’re meant to strike it rich, Pani Sholem Aleichem, you may as well stay at home with your slippers on, because good luck will find you there too. The more it blows the better it goes, as King David says in his Psalms—and believe me, neither brains nor brawn has anything to do with it. And vice versa: if it’s not in the cards you can run back and forth till you’re blue in the face, it will do as much good as last winter’s snow. How does the saying go? Flogging a dead horse won’t make it run any faster. A man slaves, works himself to the bone, is ready to lie down and die—it shouldn’t happen to the worst enemies of the Jews. Suddenly, don’t ask me how or why, it rains gold on him from all sides. In a word, revakh vehatsoloh ya’amoyd layehudim, just like it says in the Bible! That’s too long a verse to translate, but the general gist of it is that as long as a Jew lives and breathes in this world and hasn’t more than one leg in the grave, he mustn’t lose faith.

Butwin: If you are destined to draw the winning ticket in the lottery, Mr. Sholom Aleichem, it will come right into your house without your asking for it. As King David says, “It never rains but it pours.” You don’t need wisdom or skill. And, on the contrary, if you are not inscribed as a winner in the Book of Angels, you can talk yourself blue in the face—it won’t help you. The Talmud is right: “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink.” A person slaves, wears himself to the bone, and gets nowhere. He might as well lie down and give up his ghost. Suddenly, no one knows how or for what reason, money rolls in from all sides. As the passage has it, “Relief and deliverance will come to the Jews.” I don’t have to explain that to you. It should be clear to both of us that so long as a Jew can still draw breath and feel the blood beating in his veins, he must never lose hope.

The obvious stiffness and literary formality of the Butwin version (“the winning ticket in the lottery,” “give up his ghost,” “as the passage has it”) scarcely need COMMENTARY. Halkin’s English, by contrast, here and throughout the book, has a kind of Runyonesque colloquial snappiness which is partly a matter of diction, partly a consequence of the bouncy rhythms, the alliterations, and the improvised rhymes that give the prose the liveliness of oral performance. To achieve this general effect, he allows himself—with good warrant, I think—a certain degree of freedom. Thus, the slippers of the opening sentence are a little embellishment absent from the Yiddish but one which helps set the needed note of colloquial vividness; the little joke at the end about four Hebrew words (from Esther) being “too long a verse to translate” is not in the original, which says more or less what the Butwin version says at this point, but it is perfectly in keeping with the jocular use of citation, and Tevye’s statement in the Yiddish that the verse needs no translation is a good deal less appropriate for English readers than what he says in Halkin’s version.

This problem of how to convey in English Sholem Aleichem’s zany play with traditional Jewish texts and practices is crucial for any translator. The Butwins’ strategy in general is to make Tevye sound pious—here, for example, by introducing the Book of Angels and the Talmud, neither of which is mentioned in the Yiddish. Halkin, by contrast, either finds a way to get across the gist of the joke or, when that is impossible, tries to create an equivalent joke.

Thus the horse, refusing to drink in the Butwins and dead in Halkin, is part of a wonderfully absurd non-sequitur quotation in the Yiddish: Eyn khokhmoh ve’eyn eytsoh neged a shlekht ferd. The first five words are Hebrew, from Proverbs 21:30: “There is neither wisdom nor counsel against . . . a bad horse.” Since the bilingual clowning cannot pass the barrier of translation, Halkin settles for the colloquial tartness in English of flogging a dead horse, a considerable improvement over the more anodyne proverb that the Butwins attribute to the Talmud.

One of the boldest moves Halkin makes in rendering Sholem Aleichem’s use of Jewish sources is frequently to introduce, as at the end of the passage I have quoted, biblical verses or rabbinic sayings in the Hebrew, without translation, just as they appear in the Yiddish. He prudently provides at the end of the volume a glossary of all such citations, in the order of their appearance, with translations and sources. But the effect of transliterating rather than translating the Hebrew is to reproduce something of the textural richness of the Yiddish, to suggest how the narrator is indulging in learned play with sacred texts that actually would not (as Halkin notes) have been immediately comprehensible to everyone in the Yiddish audience.

Even with regard to citations, however, Halkin does not bind himself to a single strategy. His translation in all respects exhibits the virtues of flexibility, inventiveness, zest, and energy. One feels these qualities on every page, almost in every phrase. Menachem Mendl, Tevye’s luftmensh cousin, is, in close correspondence to the Yiddish rhythms at this point, “a wheeler, a dealer, a schemer, a dreamer, a bag of hot air; no place on earth is bad enough to deserve him!” Tevye renouncing his dreams of riches sounds like this: “Who needs the rat race, the hullabaloo, the night life, the rubbing elbows with millionaires, the whole lehoyshivi im nedivim, when all I want is to enjoy a peaceful old age in which I can study a bit of Mishnah now and then and recite a few chapters of Psalms?”

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This volume, which at last gives us in English a Sholem Aleichem that is fully alive, inaugurates the Library of Yiddish Classics. One can only hope that its editors will find translators capable of following the splendid precedent set by Hillel Halkin.

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