Sholem Aleichem was the nom de plume of Solomon Rabinovich, who wrote the classic short stories about “Tevye the Dairyman” that became the foundation for “Fiddler on the Roof.”
True to his comedic roots, Aleichem also wrote “Wandering Stars,” a boisterous and highly entertaining novel based on the glory days of Yiddish theater.
At the center of the story, set in the years before World War I, are two star-crossed lovers, Leibel, the son of the village’s richest man, and Reizel, the cantor’s sheltered daughter. A traveling Yiddish theater troupe comes through their Bessarabian shtetl of Holeneshti, drawing the entire town to nightly performances.
Leibel and Reizel meet each night at the theater and are transfixed. Slowly, a love interest develops between the two young teenagers. When the scoundrel theater owners discover that Leibel can act and Reizel can sing like the angels, the two escape from their homes to travel with the company. Somehow, the two end up in different directions, losing contact for years.
Leibel becomes Leo Rafalesco, and Reizel transforms into Rosa Spivak. Each is pining for the other as they separately become international sensations, ultimately ending up in America.
A lively and colorful cast of characters imbues the pages with humor. There are the nefarious promoters who are continually trying to stab each other in the back by stealing the others’ talent, a scheming, lovelorn performer named Breyndele Kozak who is bent on revenge and, of course, long-suffering Jewish mothers. At the center of it all are the lovelorn Leo and Rosa, who never stop searching for each other. Leo and Rosa are the wandering stars in the book, also representing the Jewish diaspora, as they stray further and further from their Jewish upbringings and deeper into theater life.
Emotions and loyalties can turn on a dime, especially in the ego- and temper-tantrum-filled world of the theater.
“Died is an ugly word that has enormous power. Murovchik was so stricken, he forgot that the one who had died had actually been his mortal enemy. Remarkably, he felt as if he had lost a good friend, a very close friend, one could even say a relative.”
The author often addresses the reader directly as he tells the story, sometimes telling them secrets not to be revealed, adding to the fun. The book is surprisingly edgy for its time. Between the lines, the characters are doing their best to survive their miserable lives. Aleichem was once quoted as saying, “No matter how bad things get, you got to go on living, even if it kills you.”
The book did not originate as a novel but rather was serialized in the Warsaw newspapers between 1909 and 1911, accounting for the short chapters but quite extended storyline.
Even though the book has been translated into English, in this version by Aliza Shevrin, published in 2009 to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the author’s birth, so much of the Yiddish vernacular was kept intact. Virtually everyone ends a sentence with an insult or curse, wishing boils or plagues upon each other, which likely would sound even funnier in Yiddish.
“After both sides signed the contract for the first three performances, they went to a restaurant for a bite to eat, and Holtzman asked Getzel ben Getzel, in all seriousness, “Tell me, my dear Yuckel ben Fleckel, has it ever happened in Lemberg that the cholera should find its way here?”
“Till now God has spared us. Why do you ask?”
“Too bad. There would still be a ray of hope that we might get rid of you.”
Sometimes called the Jewish Mark Twain, Aleichem is considered to be a pioneer of modern Yiddish literature. Born in Ukraine in 1859, he was a humorist, journalist, literary critic and was elected the crown rabbi of Lubny. Over the course of his lifetime, he penned a vast collection of stories, not all of which reached American audiences.
Sholem Aleichem died from tuberculosis in 1916 at the age of 57. Although he will forever be hailed as the creator of Tevye, “Wandering Stars” is a gem of a novel that should not be overlooked.
Hilary Daninhirsch can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.