The shtetl takes center stage

Shalem Aleichem's 'Wandering Stars' overlooks the politics that casts a shadow over 'Fiddler on the Roof.'

sholem aleichem 88 (photo credit: )
sholem aleichem 88
(photo credit: )
Wandering Stars By Sholem Aleichem Translated by Aliza Shevrin Viking 415 pages; $29.95 Readers who have seen Fiddler on the Roof will recognize the background of Wandering Stars: a Jewish community in a Russian village of a century ago, practicing its faith, traditions and language - the shtetl that was home to ancestors of many American Jews. The same author originated both stories. Shalom Rabinovitch was born in the shtetl atmosphere 150 years ago and took the pen name Sholem Aleichem. These two Hebrew words make a comic pseudonym with a touch of irony. Novel and musical have little resemblance. Fiddler on the Roof deals with exile, pogroms, religious conflict and the difficulties of a poor tradesman with daughters to marry off. It's heavily adapted from a series of stories called "Tevye the Dairyman" and carries reflections on religion and morals, serious ideas advanced with the author's own humor. Translator Aliza Shevrin has also done eight other Sholem Aleichem novels. She said in an interview that hers is the first complete English version of Wandering Stars - a different translator in 1952 abridged the text and gave it a happy ending completely different from the Yiddish original. Wandering Stars largely overlooks the hardship and tragedy in the czarist oppression of the Jewish minority. Ignoring politics, it deals with an entirely different aspect of Jewish life: the fascination of European and American Jews with their own theater at the start of the 1900s. It tells of failed love, corrupted by fame and intrigue in the entertainment world. Two teenagers from the shtetl, Raisel and Leibel, fall in love with one another and with a company of traveling players. They run off with the players but are soon separated, as business problems split the company. They develop brilliant careers, Leibel as an actor and Raisel as a singer. They remain obsessed with their love but their letters are intercepted and they only meet again years later in New York. Both are lovelessly engaged to others and Leibel is an unwed father. The engagements are broken after Raisel goes to one of his performances and writes Leibel a love letter that he feverishly welcomes. They meet for one long conversation, at the Bronx Zoo. Wandering Stars leaves vague what happens afterward. It's unclear if they ever meet again, or how long they stay in the United States. Sholem Aleichem was disillusioned with America, though he became the favorite writer of American Jews. Thousands followed his funeral when he died in New York in 1916. "In that turbulent land of 'hurry up,'" he writes in the novel, "no one had any time and everyone was busy from early morning to late night. Whoever wanted to make a living in this land and avoid dying quietly of hunger had to avail himself of the newspapers. Whether he wanted to or not, he had to advertise himself, praise his wares, ring all the bells and blow his own horn." Reisel has her own disillusion. "There is no love, just an image of it, an ideal that we ourselves create in our fantasies," she writes her mother back in the shtetl. "Love is no more than a dream."