Sholom Aleichem Against “Edelkeyt”: A Conversation with Curt Leviant

October 8, 2021   •   By Avital Chizhik-Goldschmidt

WHENEVER I WAS ASKED about my family lineage, I would joke, “My ancestor left religion with Sholom Aleichem.” 


Indeed, the great Yiddish writer had grown up in the town of Pereiaslav, where my great-great-grandfather Itzhok Vigdor had a nice home with a white porch and many clocks, a luxury at the time; his son Moishe was a “yellow-haired chap in an alpaca gaberdine” who “was so conceited it was beneath his dignity even to talk to himself,” according to Sholom Aleichem’s 1916 memoir From the Fair. My great-grandmother was horrified by this description, and would tell us to keep this unflattering portrait secret.


For me, then, reading Sholom Aleichem has always felt like gaining a window into the vanished world, the very shtetl, of my forebears — a stroke of sheer literary luck.


Sholom Aleichem (the pen name of Solomon Naumovich Rabinovich) wrote his novella Moshkeleh the Thief in 1903, and it was serialized in a Warsaw paper. In a 1903 letter, he wrote: “I now feel as if I’ve been born anew, with new — brand new — strength. I can almost say that now I’ve really begun to write. Until now I’ve only been fooling around.”


Yiddish literature, still young at the time, had until then largely avoided the topics of violence and crime, but in this slim novella Sholom Aleichem focused squarely on Jews from the underclass, the lives of petty criminals who challenged the mores of both Jewish and general society.


For all the realism of its themes, Moshkeleh has the feel of a simple folktale. It is the story of Moshkeleh, a Samson-like thief who is rejected by his community yet is needed occasionally to provide physical protection, a young man who seeks communal acceptance, and perhaps above all, true love. Moshkeleh is secretly in love with Tsirl, the daughter of the Jewish innkeeper; when Tsirl runs away with Maxim Tchubinski, a Gentile, to a monastery, her family begrudgingly enlists Moshkeleh in trying to bring their daughter home.


The work was translated for the first time into English by Curt Leviant, veteran translator of Sholom Aleichem, Isaac Bashevis Singer, and Chaim Grade, among many others, and is now available from the University of Nebraska Press. Recently Leviant and I discussed this work and what it tells us about the father of modern Yiddish literature. The conversation is edited for clarity.


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AVITAL CHIZHIK-GOLDSCHMIDT: Curt, in your introduction, you mention this notion, this “edelkeyt” of Yiddish literature, its gentleness and genteelness. At the time, Yiddish literature was rather sanitized, and by breaking boundaries with this novel Sholom Aleichem may have paved a path for future Yiddish writers to write more bluntly, telling a story that is, in your words, “more inclusive, more realistic, and less sentimental” about the Jews in Eastern Europe. Can you tell me about the history of the eydel Yiddish fiction writers? What were their subject matters?


CURT LEVIANT: Suffice to say, that up till the 1903 serialization of Moshkeleh in a Warsaw newspaper, we did not see in Yiddish literature such a focus into the life of a thief and his milieu. The major Yiddish writers, Mendele Mokher Seforim and I. L. Peretz, did not write about the underworld; nor did they explore sex; nor did they depict violence, even though they all had familiarity with it, especially during pogroms.


The closest Sholom Aleichem comes to the latter is having a character mention in a letter to the United States that a friend of his heard that there had been a pogrom in X. (Notice, this already thirdhand.) Lamed Shapiro was the first, I believe, who portrayed a pogrom in Yiddish literature. And in Hebrew literature this edelkeyt lasted well into the mid-20th century with Shmuel Yosef Agnon, who died in 1970, and was still writing and revising his work.


I loved the way that the author juggles both the jargon of thieves and the biblical and spiritual descriptions. In one passage, he describes Moshkeleh’s father, Yoineh, as a “prophet,” criminal Yiddish jargon for a thief who knows all; elsewhere, he explains that while Yoineh may be a criminal, he still wants his son to have a traditional Jewish education! I thought that was such a real description. 


Since Yoineh the Prophet is a Jew, he does what other Jews do. He wants to fit in. On the other hand, by having Yoineh hire a tutor for his son, this gives Sholom Aleichem an opportunity to create the scene where the tutor tells Yoineh that he will die before Moshkeleh ever learns the Kaddish.


How do you understand the Jewish-Christian relations in this book? Do you sense tension between neighboring groups? Antisemitism?


If the area were ripe for antisemitism, the gangs would have rushed into town murderously after Moshkeleh beat up Ivan Kurka. And, moreover, that chap comes back, finds Moshkeleh, gives him his present, and they become bosom pals.


More: The tavern is a place where Gentiles and Jews mingle freely, sans problems.


And even more, had there been an atmosphere of antisemitism, Tchubinski’s mama would not be so delighted with her sonny-boy’s choice. The only antisemitic atmosphere that we see — and it’s not as much antisemitic as it is pro-Christian — is where Tsirl’s mother can’t get anywhere with any of the civil or Christian authorities to get her daughter out of the monastery. And that protective church attitude exists whether there is or isn’t any antisemitism. I don’t sense that the Jews in town are fearful of their neighbors.


Was this unique for Yiddish literature of that time, to portray such casual relations between Jews and Gentiles?


It seems to me that Gentiles were not generally included as individuals, except as a mass or crowd, when pogroms are mentioned. Sholom Aleichem was likely the first to give a somewhat rounded portrait of a Gentile in his depiction of Maxim Tchubinski, with a mini-portrait of his mother who, in her letter, gives her son the go-ahead for his romance with the Jewish girl.


Can you tell me something about the social strata among the Mazepevke Jews?


It’s a bit hard to negotiate through the strata from Sholom Aleichem’s words (because, as I will show you, they occasionally mislead us), but the societal levels are there anyway. At one point, near the end of Chapter Four, Sholom Aleichem tells us that Moshkeleh even gets a girl who “came from a genteel and well-to-do family. And what a family it was.”


This is totally misleading. Either Sholom Aleichem is blind to this, or he is so involved with the story he forgets the real societal level of his heroes. Or he wants very badly for Moshkeleh to have the success he feels Moshkeleh deserves.


The wife of the tavernkeeper and his daughters are not people of “yikhes,” of fine familial lineage. They serve beer and other kinds of spirits in the wine cellar to both Christians and Jews. (After all, it’s there that Tsirl meets Tchubinksi.) Mother and daughters likely flirt with the men, and Sholom Aleichem hints that they let themselves be touched. No doubt as they serve, the Christians give a loving pinch to wherever their hands can reach. Sholom Aleichem tells us that the tavernkeeper’s wife and daughters’ “hands and cheeks” were pinched and hints at other places as well. Not only is the tavernkeeper not from a genteel, “balebatish” family — he is almost on the same level as Moshkeleh Ganev.


I assure you that even the poorest tailor would not have his son marry “down” and get one of the tavernkeeper’s daughters as his bride. In town, that family would be considered “prost” — low, common, crude, vulgar, crass. Tsirl’s low-classness is evident in her love affair with Tchubinski; and when she does finally run away from town and marry Moshkeleh, when the time comes and she bears a child, she doesn’t even have the decency to tell her parents that they have become grandparents. Some yikhes, some genteelity. And look at the sons-in-law. One is considered a scholar, but we never see one ounce of his expertise; he is supposedly “well spoken,” but Moshkeleh correctly pokes fun at his inability to clearly articulate his thoughts. The family’s prost-ness is manifest at the Seder (the only time we ever see any ritual in Chaim’s household), when they get drunk.


So why does Sholom Aleichem describe them as genteel — was it simply inaccurate on his part?


In my view, in the ladder of yikhes, it’s basically inaccurate. Or maybe in contrast to Moshkeleh that family was, in his view, on a higher level. Another possibility, again pure speculation, is that Sholom Aleichem himself, as a secular Jew, didn’t consider this important and did not give it much thought.


This is the first time this novel is being published in English — previously, it had only appeared in Yiddish. In the introduction, you suggest that it was perhaps omitted from Sholom Aleichems Collected Works (in Yiddish) because it was deemed by his family to be out of line with his reputation as a humorist.


But I actually find that the plot here aligns with traditional values, in a way. A young Jewish girl from a respectable family is seduced by a Christian lad, they find refuge in a monastery, and she must be saved — the story line is a bit of an old trope, no? The evil Gentile, the innocent Jewish maiden (and surely, their Russian neighbors had the exact reversal of this trope in their own folklore). What do you think about that? Why was it deemed radical for Polish and, later, Soviet Jews to read? 


For the 1913 Warsaw edition, Sholom Aleichem may have been consulted. After all, he was still in Europe (he returned to the United States in 1914) and Warsaw was the city where Moshkeleh was first serialized 10 years earlier. As for the 1927 Kyiv edition and the 1941 Moscow edition, this was already the Soviet Union and quite a number of years after Sholom Aleichem’s death in New York in 1914, and the communist regime made its own decisions regarding suitability. I’m sure the Soviet regime did not consult the Sholom Aleichem family or pay them any royalties. Given the height of Stalin’s murderous power in 1941 — after killing Isaac Babel in 1940 — it’s almost incredible that Moshkeleh was published in the Soviet Union and in Moscow, no less, right under Stalin’s nose.


By the way, that Moshkeleh was not included in Sholom Aleichem’s Collected Works because the editors or the family did not consider it representative of Sholom Aleichem’s humor is only speculation on my part. We really don’t know why the novel was omitted.


Do you think the serialization of Moshkeleh had any effect on the narrative? 


When a writer serializes a novel, he has to have the end of each chapter tease the reader and make him run out the next week to buy a copy of the paper so that he can find out what’s going to happen. Also, with serialization an author can fall into the pit of forgetfulness. (Although Cervantes did not serialize Don Quixote, because of its vast length there were instances of inner contradiction: in one chapter of Part II, Sancho Panza writes a letter to his wife; many chapters later, he can’t sign his name because he can’t write.) In Moshkeleh, Sholom Aleichem tells us Tsirl has sisters but never states how many she has. When she tells Tchubinski that she will abandon her parents, sisters, and brothers, we discover for the first time she has brothers, but they are never mentioned again. Sholom Aleichem tells us that the tavernkeeper’s sons-in-law are “eydim af kest” — a Yiddish term that refers to a Jewishly scholarly son-in-law whom the father-in-law supports with room and board so that he can continue his yeshiva studies and/or immersion in sacred texts. But there is no hint of this in their behavior. They are rather, frankly, boors.


Why do you think Sholom Aleichem decided that he was beginning to write only now, with this work? It’s rather surprising, given his other works — Tevye and Menahem-Mendl are more fleshed out characters; Buzi and Shimek (in his Song of Songs) have a more compelling romance. The other works are either deeper and more emotional, or are longer and thus give more breadth for a character to develop, while with Moshkeleh, we get a sort of fairy tale rendered in quick, Impressionistic brush strokes, rather than the deep shades of a Renaissance painter. What is it about this story, do you think, that made Sholom Aleichem feel he had achieved something?


It’s a good puzzle, why Sholom Aleichem thought so highly of this short novel. Perhaps because he broke through the edelkeyt barrier. He wrote about a brawny Jewish hero, who is Samson-like.


But why is that so notable?


The newness, in Sholom Aleichem’s eyes, is having an underclass “ganev,” a thief, as the central character in a Yiddish work. Trying to put myself into Sholom Aleichem’s place, I guess he felt a sense of discovery that the sort of person that people knew in their everyday lives would be depicted in literature by a major author, as Sholom Aleichem already was in 1903 when Moshkeleh was serialized in a Warsaw paper. Perhaps this breakthrough made him feel that he had written an important work.


Curt, you’re both a translator and a fiction writer in your own right; your novel Me, Mo, Mu, Ma, & Mod is coming out this year as well. Could you tell us about how your translation work and your fiction writing connect? Do they work in harmony with one another?


We choose our words carefully for both. For translation, the text is before you. For fiction, the text runs like a stream of letters across your mind’s eye and then you write it down. But nuances of phrasing, originality, the joy of words, images, and sentences is what links them. I don’t think a person can be a good translator without writing well; and vice versa, if he knows another language. Some of our best writers of fiction have also been translators. With Saul Bellow translating I. B. Singer, we have the one instance in American literature where one future Nobel Laureate translated the other. Sholom Aleichem, when he compiled an anthology the proceeds of which would benefit the victims of the Kishinev pogrom, wrote to both Gorky and Tolstoy and asked them to contribute a story; he guaranteed them that he personally would translate their Russian into Yiddish. They gladly acquiesced.


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Avital Chizhik-Goldschmidt is a writer in New York. Her work has appeared in The Atlantic, The New York Times, Foreign Policy, VogueVox, and Haaretzand elsewhere.