At no other production will you witness so many tears shed on the stage over the plight of desolate widows and miserable orphans, over lost children and butchered babies, over Jewish daughters murdered and Jewish wives dishonored in bestial pogroms. And the rib-tickling humor, laughter, and Jewish wit heard on our stage cannot be beat.
- An ad for a fictitious Yiddish-American play in Sholem Aleichem’s Wandering Stars, page 280.
The writing of Sholem Aleichem is a lot like klezmer music
. Not just because both are exceedingly
Ashkenazi Jewish, (although that's a very obvious connection) but because of the emotional content. In Aleichem's writing there are, for the most part, two tonal poles: deep sadness and wry silliness, and you never really get to have one without a taste of the other. Similarly, I've often said that sad klezmer songs have a touch of goofiness that seems to say, "But try
to be happy anyway," and joyous ones always have an undercurrent reminding us, "Be happy now, because you'll be sad again soon." (This is mostly due to the clarinet
so often being the lead instrument.)
In Wandering Stars
Aleichem writes about many injustices, both personal and systemic, but, unlike Dickens, there's no rage about it all in his narrative voice. Just sadness and humor.
That voice is, itself, a very strong character in the book, which often feels less like traditional literature and more like an old uncle telling you a very long story, and peppering it with anecdotes, opinions, and advice: "You don't need brains, dear reader, you don't need learning--you only need luck." (p. 233) Aleichem also throws in some experimentation that I didn't quite expect, with long epistolary sections, a few parts written as a play, and even some variations in punctuation that I'll get to later.
But first, Wandering Stars
is a story of the Yiddish theater, in the Old Country and America. It's about two teenagers in a town in Bessarabia who meet when the theater comes to town (for the first time!) and fall in love with each other, and also with the stage, naturally. Both kids end up running away with the theater (sorta) but end up going in different directions, each becoming famous and hoping to meet again. It sounds hokey, and sometimes is, but Aleichem undercuts the romantic story constantly and viciously (albeit a sort of good-natured viciousness).[The rest of my reivew is here...]