Sholem Aleichem (Sholem Rabinovitch, 1859-1916), is best known as the man behind “Fiddler on the Roof,” the 1964 Broadway musical that – even after 50 years – keeps on keepin’ on.
Because of the worldwide success of “Fiddler,” Sholem Aleichem has been embraced as the Yiddish writer who almost single-handedly created a warmly nostalgic vision – I should say “version” – of the “Old Country” as embodied in the fictional shtetl of Anatevka in 1905 Tsarist Russia.
In “Motl, the Cantor’s Son,” the author presents an equally compelling vision of Jewish immigrant life on Manhattan’s Lower East Side and in the Bronx. Part I, influenced by Sholem Aleichem’s first stay in America in 1906 and serialized in 1907-1908, concerns the efforts of the young Motl’s family and friends to overcome obstacle after bureaucratic obstacle on the way to finally booking passage on a ship to America. Part II, serialized in 1916, when the author was back in New York, begins on Ella’s (Ellis) Island. However, the book was not finished when Sholem Aleichem died on May 13 of that year.
Motl, whose father Peysi the Cantor dies in the “Old Country” between the first and second chapters of the novel, is just under the age of 9 when he begins to tell his story; and he is a little more than 11 by the final page. Throughout the narrative, Motl remains a clear-sighted, light-hearted, unsentimental observer of the human condition; he tells the reader what he sees with a minimum of emotional overlay. Motl’s almost obsessive curiosity makes him an excellent “objective” reporter: When his brother Elye is given a silver watch for a wedding present, Motl comments, “I’d give anything to own a watch like that. What would I do with it? I’d take it apart to see what makes it tick.”
It is in Part II of “Motl” that Sholem Aleichem displays the full flowering of his exuberant celebration of what I am calling “Yinglish,” that rich amalgam of Yiddish and mangled English spoken by the huddled masses of Eastern European Jews struggling to find their way in America during the first two decades of the 20th century.
With the help of Hillel Halkin’s brilliant translation, the reader is treated to such marvelous linguistic inventions as tsobvey (subway), kerredshiz (carriages), moofink pikshez (moving pictures) and shooinkahm (chewing gum)
We learn that “a rahlehskeyt is a shoe on four wheels. You put it on and roll away.” We also learn the correct pronunciation of furniture: “It turns out that the word is neither feinitsheh nor foinitsheh. It’s firnitsheh. Go figure.”
Motl describes in considerable detail the struggles of his family and friends in their hard-scrabble efforts to make a living: “A dzhahb (job) in a shahp (shop) is no treat. It starts at seven-thirty every morning, and you have to allow an hour for travel plus time for morning prayers and a bite to eat. You can figure out for yourself when that means getting up – and you want to be on time, because you’re docked a half day’s pay for each five minutes you’re late.”
Given the preoccupation of most Jewish immigrants with putting bread on the table, it is not surprising that Sholem Aleichem invents numerous work-related Yinglish terms like pahnshink deh klahk (punching the [time] clock); he creates such union-related Yinglish terms as dzhenril streik (general strike), awknahzayshn (organization), hiyeh vedzhehz (higher wages).
Nor is it surprising that Jews without money are frequently talking about Christians with money: Rahknfelleh, Kahnegi, Mawgn, Vendehbilt.
Beneath the surface humor of “Motl, the Cantor’s Son,” lies the profound sadness and frustration of millions of immigrant Jews who carry big dreams but are weighed down by their personal shortcomings and are shortchanged by the social and economic conditions they find in America. The world of their fathers is no more, and the world of their thoroughly Americanized sons and daughters is yet to come.
As Hillel Halkin states in his introduction, “The rapid encroachment of English on Yiddish is a central theme in Part II of ‘Motl.’ Put to comic effect there, it is nevertheless a reliable gauge of the speed with which Americanization is taking place.”
Halkin goes on to say that Sholem Aleichem “understood that America was something radically new: a truly gebentsht (blessed) land for its Jews, who in return for its blessings would gladly relinquish the rich ethnic particularity that all his writing was about.”
JAMES B. ROSENBERG, rabbi emeritus of Temple Habonim in Barrington, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.