Sholem Aleichem’s Stempenyu: Speaking through Song

Avraham Novershtern

Translation by Avi Steinhart


This arti­cle exam­ines the rep­re­sen­ta­tion of gen­dered approach­es to emo­tive expres­sion and love in Sholem Aleichem’s 1888 nov­el Stem­penyu. In the nov­el, Sholem Ale­ichem demon­strates a sen­si­tiv­i­ty to the dif­fer­ent ways in which men and women could express them­selves. The nov­el also shows Sholem Ale­ichem’s artis­tic and ide­o­log­i­cal con­ser­vatism. Despite offer­ing for­ays into the pos­si­bil­i­ties of roman­tic love, the nov­el ulti­mate­ly ques­tions the pos­si­bil­i­ty of a Jew­ish woman escap­ing the arranged mar­riage. The male pro­tag­o­nist seem­ing­ly has access to a broad­er range of expres­sion and expe­ri­ence, but he is still restrict­ed with­in the con­fines of Yid­dish. Even so, he can tran­scend these lim­i­ta­tions through pre-lin­guis­tic or extra-lin­guis­tic forms of expres­sion, such as music. In tra­di­tion­al Jew­ish soci­ety, both men and women had to strug­gle to express their inner world to its full extent, but the com­mu­nica­tive pos­si­bil­i­ties open to a man were infi­nite­ly more var­ie­gat­ed than those avail­able to a woman.

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1888 was a crucial year for Sholem Aleichem and for nineteenth-century Yiddish literature in general. The writer was extremely productive in that year, producing work in a variety of genres: short stories, feuilletons, literary reviews, and even poetry. 1 1 For a short, but comprehensive breakdown of the life and works of Sholem Aleichem year by year, see the chronological list at the end of: Yitzhak Dov Berkowitz, ed., Dos Sholem-Aleykhem bukh (New York: aroysgegebn fun dem Sholem-Aleykhem bukh komitet, 1926; reprint New York: Ikuf, 1958), 362. Within this remarkable output, he considered one work the highlight of his contribution to Yiddish literature: his novel Stempenyu. The young writer was fascinated by the myriad possibilities of a novel set in a typical Jewish shtetl, focused on a love affair that blossoms at lightning speed between two married people: Rokhele, the daughter of a respectable family who had wed only recently, and Stempenyu, a klezmer musician who radiates unbridled erotic charm. Their love flares up at once, and immediately leads to very different outcomes for the two partners. Rokhele breaks off the brief relationship before anyone can know anything about it; she regrets it deeply and returns body and soul to her husband. Stempenyu, by contrast, held captive to an unhappy marriage, cannot forget his beloved.

This plot presented the author with a series of challenges. How does one write about romance in Yiddish? Did the contemporary Yiddish literary language have the appropriate means at its disposal to describe it? And if not, how can one fashion these tools? Furthermore, what was the proper place of romance and love in the world of the shtetl Jew? 2 2 Regarding these issues, see Naomi Seidman, The Marriage Plot: How Jews Fell in Love with Love, and with Literature (Stanford: Stanford University Press). This article was submitted before Seidman’s book came out, and some parallels between my article and her book seem to be unavoidable. These were, indeed, complex challenges, and for that very reason Sholem Aleichem had high hopes for this novel, to which he devoted several months of intensive work in the second half of 1888. He viewed Stempenyu as a turning point in his career, and he wanted the book to be a watershed in the development of Yiddish literature as well. He mentioned the novel in many letters to contemporaries, and sought to convey its uniqueness both in the introduction to the book and in an article he wrote immediately after its publication. 3 3 Sholem Aleichem,“A briv tsu a gutn fraynd”, Di yudishe folks-biblyotek 2 (Kiev, 1890), 304-309. There is probably no other text in the extensive oeuvre of Sholem Aleichem whose emergence was accompanied by such a plethora of comments on the part of the author himself. This is one of the main reasons why Stempenyu’s significance in Yiddish culture goes far beyond its artistic value. 4 4 Dorothy Bilik, “Love in Sholem Aleichem’s Early Novels,” Working Papers in Yiddish and East European Jewish Studies 10 (New York: YIVO, 1975); Anita Norich, “Portraits of the Artist in Three Novels by Sholem Aleichem,” Prooftexts 4 (1984): 237-251. The novel was eventually the impetus for a comprehensive article in 1928 by the talented Soviet critic Nokhem Oyslender. The piece that should be considered a focal point for research on modern Yiddish literature. Twenty years after Oyslender’s article,a critical edition of Stempenyu appeared, part of an overarching project launched in Moscow to publish all the works of Sholem Aleichem.This laid the proper foundation for an analysis of this novel, a text that remains one of the focuses of Yiddish literary research. Nokhem Oyslender, “Der yunger Sholem Aleichem un zayn roman ‘Stempenyu,’” Shriftn 1 (Kiev, 1928), 5-72.


In Sholem Aleichem’s view, there was no better way to mark the special status of his novel than by opening it with a detailed introduction dedicated to Mendele Moykher Sforim (Sholem Yankev Abramovitsh), who is granted the honorary title of the “zeyde” (grandfather) of Yiddish literature. This is a revealing, well-articulated literary document, but careful readers would probably have found it somewhat puzzling. The novel is called Stempenyu, but Stempenyu is not the first character the introduction considers. First, Sholem Aleichem offers a lengthy analysis of what he believes should be the unique nature of the “Jewish novel,” and here he refers to a different character: “Un dos hob ikh gevolt aroyszogn durkh der yidisher tokhter, Rokhele di sheyne, vos shpilt di greste role inem dozikn roman” (“and I tried to express it through the Jewish daughter, Rokhele the lovely, who plays the largest role in this novel”). 5 5 The Yiddish text follows the second version of the novel, edited by the author himself (Warsaw, 1903). However, the page numbers refer to the most available edition of his works, the “Folksfond-oysgabe,” published in New York, 1917-1923 and reprinted many times since. See, for example, Sholem Aleichem, Ale Verk fun Sholem-Aleykhem, (New York: Sholem Aleykhem folksfond-oysgabe, 1919), 121-254. The English translation is by Joachim Neugroschel, The Shtetl: A Creative Anthology of Jewish Life in Eastern Europe (New York: Richard Marek, 1979). This version does not include the introduction to the novel. My thanks to Anita Norich, who provided me with an English translation of the introduction. The emphases are in the original. Only in the subsequent paragraph is the eponymous hero of the novel mentioned for the first time, and the introduction later presents a third character, Stempenyu’s wife. It is worth noting that the phrasing differs slightly with regard to each of the characters that will play central roles in the novel. The reader is introduced to:

דעם ייִדישן קינסטלער סטעמפּעניו מיט זײַן פֿידעלע, די ייִדישע טאָכטער ראָכעלע די שײנע מיט איר ייִדישער ערלעכקײט און דאָס ייִדישע װײַבל פֿרײדל מיט איר סוחרישן גײַסט און מיט איר ציטערן איבערן קערבל - יעדער מיט זײַן באַזונדער װעלטל.

The Jewish artist Stempenyu with his fiddle, the Jewish daughter Rokhele the lovely with her Jewish virtue, and the Jewish wife Freydl with her commercial spirit, trembling over her purse – each one with his own separate world. (124)

From the outset there is an apparent division here between two “positive” figures and a third individual with thoroughly negative characteristics. Furthermore, whereas Stempenyu is depicted mainly through his profession and the musical instrument he plays, the portrayal of Rokhele is more detailed; it includes the twin components of external beauty and character, but even before that, the typological cultural label that was already stated earlier is repeated—she is truly a yidishe tokhter. It should be considered a more specific concept than the one attached to Freydl.

As stated earlier, Rokhele came from an established shtetl family, and her life was normative in all aspects. Stempenyu, by contrast, is a klezmer, and as such had a marginal position in Jewish society. At the start of the novel, Stempenyu is enjoying a bohemian lifestyle in the full sense of the term: brief erotic encounters, careless handling of expenses, and a life of partying together with the members of his band, during which they would talk among themselves in the peculiar Yiddish slang of klezmers. The literary status of these two heroes, then, could not be more different:Rokhele is a typical yidishe tokhter, whereas Stempenyu is an unusual hero, whose most notable feature is his artistic talent. Adorned with a romantic halo, he is an enigma for many of the shtetl residents.

Which of these should be the main protagonist of the work: the man or the woman, the stock character or the unusual hero? Both the introduction to the novel and the later essay imply that Sholem Aleichem sought to have the best of both worlds: On the one hand he felt that the society of the klezmer and their jargon offered a unique literary opportunity to depict a possibly unparalleled social group in the Jewish world. Rokhele, on the other hand, would inevitably remind the reader of characters who already had received significant attention in contemporary Hebrew and Yiddish literature, mainly because its writers frequently sought to bring attention to the particular status and fate of women in traditional Jewish society.

The shaping of Rokhele’s character throughout the novel indeed followed an expected pattern. Her background is highly conventional. It includes a standard upbringing; a life path that leads her straight to the obvious matrimonial match; the traditional books that are central to her spiritual world; and her loyalty to her family and her husband. Yet Rokhele possesses a special sensitivity that distinguishes her from the emotional dullness of her close surroundings and her husband, even though her options for expressing this quality are rather limited.

In traditional Jewish society, both men and women had to struggle to express their inner world to its full extent, but, even so, the communicative possibilities open to a man were infinitely more variegated than those available to a woman. Stempenyu’s language is music, a nonverbal form of expression. As a klezmer, he is also a public figure in the shtetl as he plays at weddings and other celebrations. On those occasions he can express his rich inner world without resorting to words. In this respect the very limitations of the klezmer are also his source of strength. The kind of personal expression that was unavailable to an average Jew in a shtetl was open to Stempenyu:

ער פֿלעגט אַ כאַפּ טאָן דאָס פֿידעלע און אַ פֿיר טאָן מיטן סמיק, אײן פֿיר טאָן, נישט מער, פֿלעגט דאָס שױן אָנהײבן בײַ אים צו רעדן; אָבער װי אַזױ מײנט איר רעדן? טאַקע מיט װערטער, מיט אַ צונג, װי, להבדיל, אַ לעבעדיקער מענטש; רעדן, טענהן, זינגען מיט אַ געװײן, אױפֿן ייִדישן שטײגער, מיט אַ גװאַלדערניש, מיט אַן אױסגעשרײַ פֿונעם טיפֿן האַרצן, פֿון דער נשמה (129).

He would grab the violin and apply the bow, just one stroke, nothing more, and the violin had already begun to speak. And how do you think it spoke? Why, with words, with a tongue, like a living human being – if you’ll forgive the comparison. It spoke, pleaded, crooned tearfully, in a Jewish mode, with a force, a scream from the depths of the heart, from the soul. (288)

Stempenyu’s music speaks “afn yidishn shteyger” (“in a Jewish mode”) for which the violin is the appropriate medium. It is an emotionally charged “speech,” a mixture of song and tears that swells into a primal cry bursting out from the heart. Music is depicted as the language of the romantic hero, and there is no doubting its pristine sincerity and its strength. Later, the novel describes the almost religious state of ecstasy that takes hold of Stempenyu when he plays, bringing him to a sublime level of self-effacement. It should be noted that although his rich language was a remarkable feature of Sholem Aleichem’s style, throughout his “first Jewish novel” he appeals to the covert language of music in order to shape a scene of lofty ecstasy.

Already in the first chapter, which describes Stempenyu’s “pedigree,” his art is presented in a threefold context: the “zingen” (singing) of the cantor; the “zogn” (speaking) of the badkhn (jester); and the klezmer’s “shpiln” (playing) (128/288, in the English). With these categories in mind, the special status of music stands out in the detailed description of the wedding ceremony in the shtetl, an event that plays a crucial role in the plot of the novel because it basically serves as its starting point. It is at this wedding that Rokhele first meets Stempenyu. A Jewish wedding of this kind would invariably feature a badkhn whose rhymes blend sadness with humor.

But in this case such a figure is barely mentioned. Stempenyu’s captivating music takes over everything, and the purity of his melody contrasts starkly with the earlier bland cries and talk of the crowd. Time and again Sholem Aleichem repeats the word shrayen,” (to screech, 153/306), in reference to the cacophony of the bustle at the wedding and the meal that followed, during which no one could hear his companion. The remarkable silence that accompanies Stempenyu’s playing stands in stark contrast to those harsh sounds.

As noted above, the avenue for expressing one’s inner worldavailable to a klezmer was barred to women. Although Sholem Aleichem does not refer explicitly to the famous rabbinical statement that “a woman’s voice is licentious,” it is certainly true that the public singing of women was not a feature of shtetl society. Furthermore, the possibility of a woman knowing how to play any sort of musical instrument and earning money from it, in the manner of a klezmer, was almost inconceivable in those days. Thus Sholem Aleichem could bring the woman’s inner world to the fore only indirectly, and he did so mainly through Yiddish folk songs. Rokhele chants such ditties both for herself and her female friends, and in one exceptionally emotional episode, after she regrets the outcome of her meeting with Stempenyu, she sings to her husband a song designed to express the turbulence of her emotional state at that unique juncture.

A comparison between these sections—the one referring to Stempenyu’s playing and the other to Rokhele’s folk songs—is indicative of Sholem Aleichem’s sensitivity to the essential difference in the ways in which men and women could express themselves. The man’s language, instrumental music, is far more varied than the verbal possibilities open to the woman, and Stempenyu achieves an ecstasy completely out of Rokhele’s reach. Their audience’s reaction also differs: the girls who listen to Rokehele respond with worry, sighs and tears, whereas the mixed crowd that hears Stempenyu’s music experience a far more nuanced emotional reaction.

Stempenyu’s presence throughout the novel is doubly marked, both by his erotic attraction, with its magical, even slightly demonic element, as well as by his playing, which uplifts his audience to a state of elation that has religious undertones. He embodies the magic of lofty art together with the dangerous and somewhat dark charm of the erotic. The love affair between him and Rokhele unfolds under the sign of this duality, starting with their initial acquaintance at the wedding celebration and their instantaneous mutual fascination. It continues with courtship efforts on the part of Stempenyu, including a love letter written in a naive style and rough language. It is indeed unlikely that a klezmer in a shtetl would know how to express his feelings with appropriate refinement, and especially not in correct Yiddish. Stempenyu’s language of love is quite limited in its rhetoric; it is unpolished and even childish. The charm radiating from his musical performances does not translate into the verbal realm.

Nevertheless, the clumsily written note that Stempenyu sends to Rokhele has immediate consequences. It leads to a snatched meeting between the two in the alley of the monastery, a spot whose symbolism is perhaps too transparent and obvious, serving to underline the existence of the foreign and threatening non-Jewish world in the midst of shtetl life. This one and only erotic encounter between the lovers includes a highly charged verbal exchange that ends with a quick kiss. Yet for Rokhele that was more than enough. Her aversion to starting an extramarital affair is both an instinctive reaction of disgust and fear, and an expression of the values of a married woman, for whom the rules of normative religious life are supposed to serve as a guiding light.

The extreme compression of the lovers’ encounter is designed to convey Rokhele’s innermost character as a yidishe tokhter. Tempted by forbidden love for a mere moment, she promptly restores her loyalty to her husband without him or anyone near them sensing the depths of her turmoil. Undoubtedly, the description of the meeting between Stempenyu and Rokhele should be understood in the literary context in which the novel was composed. Stempenyu was written to serve as a counterweight to the sensationalist novels of Shomer and the whole cluster of writers who followed him and flooded the small book market of Yiddish novels. Indeed, after the description of the short romantic meeting, the narrator explicitly states that his restraint is a reaction to the expansiveness of contemporary Yiddish trashy novels. Two married people in a shtetl might perhaps be tempted for a moment into a forbidden love, but such a relationship is doomed from the outset, and thus cannot serve as the backbone of a realistic Yiddish novel.

Sholem Aleichem’s explicit stance on this matter, articulated both in the introduction and in various comments sprinkled throughout the text, also leaves its clear imprint in the shaping of time in the novel. A mere few weeks, perhaps even less, elapse between the first meeting between Stempenyu and Rokhele in the midst of a large crowd at the shtetl wedding and their secret encounter in the monastery alley, which is also their last real encounter.

The twin stories of Stempenyu and Rokhele vividly illustrate the “dangers” lying in wait for those who fall in love, and even more so for those who let their impulses run wild. As befitting her family background, Rokhele was wed by an arranged marriage, after which she left her place of residence to live in the home of her husband’s parents. She accepts her fate and her place in society, which the novel considers an appropriate outcome for a woman. This is indicative of Sholem Aleichem’s artistic and ideological conservatism.

Yet at the same time Sholem Aleichem realizes that it is fit and even pertinent to bring about, at the end of the story, a significant change in the living conditions of the young married couple. After the brief encounter with Stempenyu, Rokhele actually takes the initiative in this respect. She urges her husband to free himself from his parents and leave the shtetl in order for them to start a new life as an independent couple in a bigger city. A letter the couple sends to his parents, who read it aloud at home, shows that this move was a complete success, and the transformation undergone by Rokhele and her family is depicted as an ideal matrix for the continuity of Jewish life beyond the shtetl. Hers is thus an opposite fate to Stempenyu’s tragic end, as he cannot accept his loss and the unrequited love. The very different paths of the novel’s two protagonists provide an implicit ethical statement: forbidden love is a destructive force, and only those who resist its temptation can prosper in life. Stempenyu remains a prisoner of his past, whereas Rokhele turns toward the future. She was not meant to be a Jewish version of Madame Bovary.


The literary and cultural implications of the plot of Stempenyu are significant for an evaluation of the novel in its contemporary context. In that same year, 1888, three major works of Yiddish literature were published, all of which center on a love affair and its ensuing complex ramifications. The first volume of Di yudishe folks-biblyothek offered the full text of Stempenyu as its supplement, and it also included Peretz’s debut work in Yiddish, the narrative poem “Monish.” The chief protagonist of this poem, a youth growing up in a Jewish shtetl in the pre-modern period, falls victim to demonic erotic temptation. In addition, this is the year in which Mendele published the second and greatly extended version of Fishke der krumer (Fishke the Lame), a story about love, jealousy and violence, revealed in all their intensity amongst a bunch of wandering Jewish beggars. Peretz’s Monish falls into perdition after he is ensnared in the web of temptations spread out before him; Fishke effectively abandons the woman he had legally married, however reluctantly, in favor of a new and pure love. Unlike these figures, Sholem Aleichem’s Rokhele faces temptation, but withstands the test.

Just as Rokhele was able to express her feelings through folk songs, while the vibrant inner world of Stempenyu shone from the music he played, so too music and song fulfil a key role when Monish wishes to express his awakening emotions. He, too, cannot express his love in words, and relies on a pre-linguistic form of expression. Yet in this respect, Peretz the poet was far bolder than Sholem Aleichem the novelist. The underlying conflict in Stempenyu is shaped in “Monish” as an open confrontation between two voices—the voice of the seductive girl and that of the tempted man. In both cases, songs without words come to the fore.

Furthermore, Peretz’s poem fashions an extensive matrix of associations around the various meanings of the verb zingen (to sing). One of its key expressions is a lengthy digression in which the poet lays out the difficulties in articulating a love story in Yiddish. It is often quoted in Yiddish literary criticism and research as proof of the challenges that faced modern Yiddish poetry in its early period.Over the years Peretz introduced some minor changes in this text, and in one instance excised it entirely. The following is taken from the first printed version of 1888:

מײַן ליד װאָלט אַנדערש גאָר געקלונגען,
איך זאָל פֿאַר גױם גױש זינגען,
נאָר נישט פֿאַר ייִדן, נישט זשאַרגאָן.
קײן רעכטן קלאַנג, קײן רעכטן טאָן,
קײן אײנציק װאָרט ניט און קײן שטיל
האָב איך פֿאַר „ליבע“, פֿאַר „געפֿיל“!

My poem would have sounded completely different
if I were to sing for non-Jews in a non-Jewish language,
not for Jews, not in jargon.
No proper sound, no proper tone,
Not one single word and no style
Have I for ‘love’, for ‘feeling’!

For Peretz, the absence of Yiddish words for expressing “love” and “emotion” is the most suitable illustration of the ultimate limitations of the language when it tries to achieve the level of serious modern literature. 6 6 For an analysis of Peretz’s poem in the context of the changing images of the language shaped by Yiddish poets, see my article: Avraham Novershtern, “’Thou Shalt Make Thee an Image:’ Yiddish Writers Representing Their Language,” in Languages of Modern Jewish Cultures: Comparative Perspectives, eds. Joshua L. Miller and Anita Norich (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2016), 74-79. Both Peretz and Sholem Aleichem grappled with the same issue, but whereas the modern poet articulated the problem overtly, the novelist referred to it implicitly. Yet the basic similarity in their approaches is striking. When Peretz refers negatively to the inadequate resources of Yiddish, he uses terms that are taken from the world of music, such as sound and tone.

These two very different works—Sholem Aleichem’s novel and Peretz’s poem—were published concurrently in the same literary anthology. They reflect the way in which Yiddish writers deployed similar means when they tried to fashion the language of love in Yiddish: words, sounds, language, and music. In both cases, gender plays a central role. Peretz explicitly cites the aforementioned saying regarding “a woman’s voice,” and he uses the term zingen again and again, in diverse contexts. Sholem Aleichem addresses this issue indirectly but in an equally significant manner, as he combines in his novel excerpts of Yiddish folk songs chanted by a woman. Like the author himself, she mines the trove of these songs to give indirect expression to the idiom of love. 7 7 Fishke der krumer, Stempenyu, and “Monish” were published at the same time and have plots that are woven around very different love affairs. All achieved a degree of canonization in the Yiddish literary tradition. Yet their recognized status should not allow us to forget the fact that in those years many novels were published that focused on romantic affairs,including the books of Shomer and the writers who emulated him, romances which were the daily fare of the average Yiddish reader.This literary corpus is indeed extremely diverse, as it includes the writings of Sholem Aleichem, Mordkhe Spektor (his contemporary and friend), as well as Mendele, Peretz, and perhaps also Shomer and his imitators. It begs for a comparative analysis. In his aforementioned groundbreaking 1928 article on Stempenyu, Nokhem Oyslender opened the way for an understanding of Sholem Aleichem’s novel in its wider cultural context. My article will be published some ninety years after Oyslender’s work, but the challenge he set before us has yet to be met. For a challenging beginning in this direction see Naomi Seidman’s book (note 2 above). It is unfortunate thatNaomi Seidman seems to be unaware of Oyslender’s seminal article.

Novershtern, Avraham. “Sholem Aleichem's Stempenyu: Speaking through Song.” In geveb, June 2020: Trans. Avi Steinhart.
Novershtern, Avraham. “Sholem Aleichem's Stempenyu: Speaking through Song.” Translated by Avi Steinhart. In geveb (June 2020): Accessed Feb 24, 2024.


Avraham Novershtern

Avraham Novershtern is professor emeritus of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, where he served as the Joseph and Ida Berman Professor of Yiddish.


Avi Steinhart