Nov 11, 2022
Sholem Aleichem, Moshkele the Thief, trans. Curt Leviant. (Nebraska University Press, 2021). 88 pp. $19.95
I instinctively hesitate when I encounter terms like “rediscovered,” “long-forgotten,” or “never-before-translated” on the cover of a book. Curt Leviant’s translation of Sholem Aleichem’s Moshkeleh the Thief, conspicuously labeled A Rediscovered Novel, was no exception, and my hesitance was only confirmed by the fact that the novel’s “rediscovery” was the centerpiece of all its glowing endorsements. It’s possible I’m too pessimistic: though it certainly grants it a kind of value, the fact that something was once lost is not an accurate indicator (in either direction) of literary quality or importance. Rather, the descriptor “rediscovered” seems to me to imply that a given text is being published more because it is historically significant than because it possesses literary merit or is enjoyable or interesting to read. But this questionable marketing raises an important question for me that might not otherwise have come to mind. Namely: Why was it lost? And, why should we read it now?
Why was it lost? This question is particularly fascinating in the case of this novel, because it is so very unclear. It’s tempting to look first to history. After all, between us and the initial serialized publication of Moshkele ganev (as it is in transliterated Yiddish) lie major pogroms, the Russian Revolution, two world wars, the rise and decline of the Soviet Union, and the Holocaust. Yet, Moshkele ganev was published in book form no less than three times during those years, twice after the death of its author. It was a work that Sholem Aleichem himself was immensely proud of (xv). And, more importantly, Sholem Aleichem is among the most renowned Yiddish writers; as translator Curt Leviant reminds us, his work has been translated into some two dozen languages, and he is the subject of “more than six thousand articles and books” (xiii). In the end, we can only speculate on the factors that led to Moshkele’s exclusion from the pages of Sholem Aleichem’s Collected Works. Leviant, who has translated half a dozen of Sholem Aleichem’s works, including the “autobiographical” Funem yarid (From the Fair: the Autobiography of Sholom Aleichem, Viking Press, 1985), suggests that this omission may have been because “conservative editors or even members of the author’s own family—disregarding Sholom Aleichem’s own high regard for the novel he himself considered transformative for his creativity—thought this book too radical in nature and not representative of the spirit of Sholom Aleichem the humorist” (xvii).
Although informed by Leviant’s detailed knowledge of the history and reception of the Yiddish writer’s work, ultimately this can only be speculation. As a result, it tells us more about Leviant’s relationship to the work than it does about the work’s history. In Leviant’s estimation, Moshkeleh the Thief marks a turning point not only in the career of Sholem Aleichem and his changing depiction of shtetl life, but also in Yiddish literature itself. Sholem Aleichem breaks with a tradition of “edelkeyt, refinement” that Leviant claims led Hebrew and Yiddish authors to avoid depictions of or stories that involved violence, or the fringes and underbelly of society. In doing so, this novel lays the groundwork for the morally gray and complex characters that populate the works of later writers like Sholem Asch and Isaac Bashevis Singer (xviii). Leviant places a lot of weight on the notion that the world of Mazepevke is utterly realistic, and far from the romanticized shtetl that occupies such pride of place in the US literary-cultural mindset. “Sholom Aleichem, then, is not a chronicler of a romanticized shtetl, but a thoroughgoing realist with an almost all-encompassing vision of Jewish life in Russian surroundings, a writer who portrays the uneasy relationship between the minority and the majority cultures” (xii, my emphasis). I wouldn’t go quite that far, but we can return to that in a moment. First, the novel itself:
Moshkeleh the Thief grants us a brief glimpse into the life of a small-town horse thief—begrudgingly respected but certainly not liked by the people of Mazepevke—and his confusing, sudden, and dramatic courtship of Tsireleh, beloved daughter of the town’s respected purveyor of suspicious alcohol. Episodic, full of exactly the highs, lows, and near-constant cliffhangers that characterize serial romance, the story invites us into the mysterious underworld of Jewish thieves, promising a world as new to its Yiddish-language readers as is to us. Anyone familiar with Sholem Aleichem’s better-known Tevye stories will feel well at home with the direct and conversational narrative of this short romance. The style of near-constant switching between narrating the story and expounding on the cultural and language of Mazepevke and its criminal underbelly is uncommon in contemporary English-language fiction and serves to grant the story both the orality and feel of a folktale, and to constantly remind us of the geographical, cultural, and temporal distance between us and the tale itself. Leviant does an exceptional job in translating the ebbs and flows of Sholem Aleichem’s Yiddish narration for an English-language readership and takes advantage of the staccato nature of its narration to offer brief explanations of cultural references that may otherwise leave readers confused. Instead, Leviant’s careful framing of cultural references and idioms let us drift dreamily into the strange little town that is Mazepevke.
In some ways the novel is a translator’s dream, since it introduces and thus needs to explain so much new jargon of its own that any explanations added by the translator feel right at home. The opening lines are a whirlwind tour of the unseemly world of thieves and criminals that lurk on the fringes of Jewish life. Moshkeleh himself belongs to a secret world-within-a-world, one that the upright Jews of Mezepevke, like Chaim Chosid and his daughters, know as little about as we do: the quick and dirty glossary of Yiddish thieves’ cant sets the stage not only for the subject-matter of the book — a part of Jewish society never before depicted in Yiddish literature — but also for its joyous play in language, something the translation seems to revel in as well.
A pickpocket was called “nimble fingers.” One who worked in the dark was “a fly by night.” A thief who stole from folks fast asleep at home was “an undercover man.” A ganev of garments—“a coat collector.” And a plain, run-of-the-mill robber was “a snatcher.” (1)
Apart our two lovers, we are given only the briefest time with each of the other characters; we’re rarely given more information or insight than is needed to understand how and why they move the plot forward, or how they impacted Moshkeleh’s life. One bright and surprising exception is the main non-Jewish character, Maxim Tchubinski, a liquor tax collector who falls in love with Tsireleh, leading to her leaving home for a local monastery. In Tchubinski we see a rare instance both for Sholem Aleichem and in Yiddish literature of the time of a non-Jewish character (and government official, no less) being portrayed not only sympathetically, but also as genuinely loving and caring for Tsireleh. Although he incidentally causes pain to Tsireleh’s family, it was as much her choice as his, and in doing so he creates the conditions by which the romance between Tsireleh and Moshkeleh can flourish. Indeed, one of the most interesting features of Moshkeleh the Thief is that there are no real antagonists, no real villains. 1 1 The closest we come to a villain is Ivan Kurka, “the Goliath of Zlodyevke,” who is genuinely a terrible person, but apparently turns his whole life around after one swift punch from our plucky hero, Moshkeleh. Rather, in the novel’s short pages it manages to create a vibrant world motivated mostly by conflicting but genuine desires, rather than the prejudices that are so central to much of Sholem Aleichem’s later, and better-known, works.
If there is a space where the commitment to realism can be seen most clearly it is in the novel’s closing chapters, which take a sudden and dark turn.
We are now into the doleful, plaintive days of the month of Elul, just before Rosh Hashana, when Jewish children are free from school, grown-up men learn how to blow a shofar, cantors go around looking for High Holiday positions, and teachers search for jobs starting in fall.
Meanwhile, the sky is bedecked with heavy, leaden clouds, bemoaning and shedding cold tears over the bygone summer.
The novel turns to the point-of-view of Henekh the Cantor, who is traveling the country searching for work. Henekh spies Moshkeleh and Tsireleh, carrying a child in her arms, among a convoy of prisoners being sent to Siberia. Presenting these chapters through Henekh’s eyes means that his emotional response to seeing them — surprise, confusion — give him, and us, little time to reflect on the terrible fate that awaits the couple at the end of their journey. Rather, in an echo of the Shakespearean, it’s only through the scenery and the weather that the full weight of these scenes are communicated to us. Leviant’s translation is at its best during these emotion-laden, descriptive moments in which careful balance between different tones and different address is crucial to capturing the atmosphere of the story and the complexities of the narrator’s own relationship to the tale.
The final lines of the novel are deeply arresting, and speak, ultimately, to the care and skill that shapes Leviant’s translation. Henekh, unable even to speak about the amazing sight he has just witnessed, sits frozen, carried away from the couple by his coach and their convoy. Even half a dozen readings later, I found myself slowing down, hovering over each word, and feeling the full weight of the novel’s close. We are left alongside Henekh, contemplating and imagining the fate that lies beyond the pages of the novel and beyond the “legendary Hills of Darkness,” a fate made more troubling because it remains unnamed. More than that, with this “newly rediscovered” translation in hand, we are left to sit with Henekh imagining everything else that lies lost in the foggy unknown of the century between the novel’s initial publication and us.
I mentioned above that the appellation “rediscovered” always raises two questions in my mind: first, why was it lost and, second, why should we read it now? A more generous phrasing of the second question might be: What can this work offer to us beyond the fact that it is rediscovered?
For Leviant, this story represents a transformative moment in Sholem Aleichem’s career, an attempt by the author to break from tradition and portray the full social and moral spectrum of Jewish life in Eastern Europe. In that way, it sets the stage for an entirely new kind of literature in Yiddish (xvii). It grants us, for perhaps the first time, a “re-creation of Jewish civilization in the late nineteenth- to early twentieth-century Russia [that] depicts a complete human comedy whose members represent various segments of the moral spectrum,” a commitment to “realism” in his depiction of the complexities of Jewish life and of this story (xii). Ultimately, Leviant holds up Moshkeleh the Thief as a counterpoint to the sentimental and nostalgic image of the shtetl that has come to be so enshrined in the cultural memory of the United States—ironically, largely as a result of Fiddler on the Roof. 2 2 For an extended discussion of the shtetl-imagery and its relationship to history, see Jeffrey Veidlinger’s In the Shadow of the Shtetl (Indiana University Press, 2013).
For many readers, however, especially those who only have access to Sholem Aleichem’s literature in translation—and who are less cynical than I am—the novelty of an unearthed, rediscovered piece of literary history, and the insight it brings into Jewish shtetl life in pre-Soviet Russia, may be the decisive factor that brings the novel to their attention. And yet, it’s hard not to see this as a sentimental mythologizing of Jewish life in Eastern Europe. Moshkeleh himself is a kind of perfect antihero: a prodigious thief from a young age and incredibly apt at handling horses, he is known “not only in Mazepevke but in all the surrounding villages” for his “feats of strength” (5). Moshkeleh not only brings down Ivan Kurke, “the Goliath of Zlodeyevke,” in a single blow, but in that same punch is able to entirely transform the man’s behavior, to the point that the two become “bosom pals” (8). The romance between Moshekeleh and Tsireleh emerges “without any exchange of words,” and yet, we are told: “If among the Mazepevke Jews, one could find someone truly in love, with a love that was pure, holy, and sincere, one without any hidden motives, and without any hope—it was Moshkeleh Ganev” (20). And the couple’s final almost magical leap from the walls of the monastery and into love and freedom feels like something straight out of a medieval romance. Moshkeleh Ganev is the thief with a heart of gold, who will do anything to assist the Jews of Mazepevke even as they detest and shun him. Moshkeleh the Thief portrays a different cross-section of society, true, but in these ways, the story itself echoes the structures and movements of folktales so clearly that I’m left unsure whether “realism” is an appropriate term.
Maybe this is why Sholem Aleichem dedicates an entire chapter to really insisting that the story is true, hand to heart, you can go check for yourselves if you don’t believe him, true.
Although the final chapters move into a darker space, indicative of the kinds of innovations, of moral ambiguity, that Leviant highlights in his introduction, the story is more fascinating, and more complex, than a focus on those moments of darkness would indicate. Even Tsireleh, in her final words to Henekh, remains full of hope and possibility. For me, then, the great pleasure of this novel is not that it does away with the sentimentality of the mythologized shtetl, but that it builds upon and expands that world; it creates a space full of daring deeds and heroic acts, of thievery and bravado, in which criminals, thieves, and outcasts can find respect, friendship, family, and love even as they are marched to Siberia. Really, everything you’d want in a folktale.
Moshkeleh the Thief is a gripping story, full of colorful and surprising characters, told and translated in a beautifully direct and conversational tone that both echoes and enhances the distinctive narrative voice of the Yiddish original. And, despite the marketing copy, it offers far more to its readers in translation than simply the fact that it has never before been published in English.