The Letters Of Menakhem-Mendl And Sheyne-Sheyndl And Motl, The Cantor's Son

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Overview

This volume presents an outstanding new translation of two favorite comic novels by the preeminent Yiddish writer Sholem Aleichem (1859-1916). The Letters of Menakhem-Mendl and Sheyne-Sheyndl portrays a tumultuous marriage through letters exchanged between the title character, an itinerant bumbler seeking his fortune in the cities of Russia before departing alone for the New World, and his scolding wife, who becomes increasingly fearful, jealous, and mystified. Motl, Peysi the Cantor's Son is the first-person narrative of a mischievous and keenly observant boy who emigrates with his family from Russia to America. The final third of the story takes place in New York, making this Sholem Aleichem's only major work to be set in the United States.

Motl and Menakhem-Mendl are in one sense opposites--the one a clear-eyed child and the other a pathetically deluded adult. Yet both are ideal conveyors of the comic disparity of perception on which humor depends. If Motl sees more than do others around him, Menakhem-Mendl has an almost infinite capacity for seeing less. Sholem Aleichem endows each character with an individual comic voice to tell in his own way the story of the collapse of traditional Jewish life in modern industrial society as well as the journey to America, where a new chapter of Jewish history begins. This volume includes a biographical and critical introduction as well as a useful glossary for English-language readers.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780300172485
  • Publisher: Yale University Press
  • Publication date: 10/31/2010
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 358
  • Sales rank: 997,876
  • Product dimensions: 5.50 (w) x 8.50 (h) x 0.80 (d)

Read an Excerpt

The Letters of Menakhem-Mendl and Sheyne-Sheyndl


By Sholem Aleichem Hillel Halkin

Yale University Press

ISBN: 0-300-09246-6


Chapter One

Londons: The Odessa Exchange

FROM MENAKHEM-MENDL IN ODESSATO HIS WIFE SHEYNE-SHEYNDL IN KASRILEVKE

To my wise, esteemed, & virtuous wife Sheyne-Sheyndl, may you have a long life!

Firstly, rest assured that I am, praise God, in the best of health. God grant that we hear from each other only good and pleasing news, amen!

Secondly, words fail me in describing the grandeur and beauty of the city of Odessa, the fine character of its inhabitants, and the wonderful opportunities that exist here. Just imagine: I take my walking stick and venture out on Greek Street, as the place where Jews do business is called, and there are twenty thousand different things to deal in. If I want wheat, there's wheat. If I feel like wool, there's wool. If I'm in the mood for bran, there's bran. Flour, salt, feathers, raisins, jute, herring -name it and you have it in Odessa. I sounded out several possibilities, none of which were my cup of tea, and shopped along Greek Street until I hit on just the right thing. In a word, I'm dealing in Londons and not doing badly! You can clear 25 or 50 rubles at a go, and sometimes, with a bit of luck, 100. On Londons you can make your fortune in a day. There was a fellow not long ago, a synagogue sexton, mind you, who walked away with 30,000 faster than you can say your bedtime prayers and now he cocks hissnoot at the world. I tell you, my dearest, the streets of Odessa are paved with gold! I don't regret for a moment having come here. But what am I doing in Odessa, you ask, when I was on my way to Kishinev? It seems God wanted to deal me in. Listen to what He does for a man.

I arrived at Uncle Menashe's in Kishinev and asked for the dowry money. "How come you need it?" he asks. "I need it," I say, "because I wouldn't be here if I didn't." Well, he says, he can't give me cash but he can give me a letter of credit to Brodsky in Yehupetz. "Let it be Yehupetz," I say. "As long as it's cash." That's just it, he says. He's not sure there is cash in Yehupetz. He can give me a letter of credit to Bachrach in Warsaw. "Warsaw's fine, too," I say. "As long as it's cash." "But why go all the way to Warsaw?" he asks. "Suppose I give you a letter of credit to Barabash in Odessa?" "Make it Odessa," I say. "As long as it's cash." "So how come you need so much cash?" he asks. "If I didn't," I say, "I wouldn't be here."

To make a long story short, he went round and round-it helped like cupping helps a corpse. When I say cash, I mean cash. In the end he gave me two promissory notes for 500 rubles, due in five months, a letter of credit to Barabash for 300, and the rest in banknotes to help cover my expenses.

Because I'm in a hurry, I'll be brief. God willing, I'll write more in my next letter. Be well and give my fond greetings to your parents and the children, each and every one of them.

Your husband, Menakhem-Mendl.

P.S. When I brought the letter of credit to Barabash, I was told it was nothing of the sort. What was it? A letter to the tooth-fairy! First, I was told, let Uncle Menashe's wagon of wheat arrive in Odessa and find a buyer-then I can see my money. Short, sweet, and to the point! Right away I sent a post card to Kishinev threatening to take action and send a telegram if the wheat wasn't shipped at once. In short, a post card here, a telegram there-I didn't have an easy time of it. But yesterday I received another 100 rubles from Kishinev and a promissory note for 200. Do you understand now why I've been out of touch? I had written off the 300 for lost. It just goes to show that a man should never give up! There's a God in heaven looking after things. I've put all the cash into Londons, a nice batch of them. Sometimes they're up and sometimes they're down, but so far, thank God, I'm ahead.

Yours, etc.

FROM SHEYNE-SHEYNDL IN KASRILEVKE TO HER HUSBAND MENAKHEM-MENDL IN ODESSA

To my dear, learned, & illustrious husband Menakhem-Mendl, may your light shine!

First, we're all well, thank God. I hope to hear no worse from you.

Second, I'm suffering from my old cramps again. I'd like to give them to your Uncle Menashe. You've made short shrift of the eighteen hundred rubles he owed us. Wouldn't that be just our luck! My mother would say you've sent the cat to the dairy with the cream. Why I'd sooner get the pox from Menashe than one of his promise notes! Five months of fever I'd give him! May I be proved a liar but you'll no more see those rubles than you'll see the back of the head your shoulders carried to Odessa. Be thankful my mother knows nothing about it, because she'd tan your hide if she did. And as for what you write, Mendl, about all the money you're making, you can be sure we're pleased. See here, though: the devil take it if the next time you don't write like a human being! Why can't you tell a body in plain words what you're dealing in? Does it sell by the yard or by the pound? For the life of me, I don't know if you eat, wear, or smoke it. And what are these quick profits you talk about? What merchandise shoots up just like that? Even mushrooms, my mother says, need a rain to sprout. But if it's gained so much value, you should sell. You're not hoping to corner the market, are you? And why don't you write where you're staying and eating? A person might think I was a stranger and not your wife of twenty years, some kind of parrymoor, God help us. "When the cow goes to pasture," says my mother, "it forgets to say good-bye." If you'll listen to me, you'll wind up your affairs and come home with a bit of money. You'll find better businesses here than those Lumdums of yours or whatever the deuce they're called. I am, from the bottom of my heart,

Your truly faithful wife, Sheyne-Sheyndl

FROM MENAKHEM-MENDL IN ODESSA TO HIS WIFE SHEYNE-SHEYNDL IN KASRILEVKE

To my wise, esteemed, & virtuous wife Sheyne-Sheyndl, may you have a long life!

Firstly, rest assured that I am, praise God, in the best of health. God grant that we hear from each other only good and pleasing news, amen.

Secondly, I'm not surprised that you fail to grasp how Londons work. There are businessmen, serious Jews, who can't make head or tails of them either, let alone a woman like you. Allow me to explain. Londons, you should know, are highly perishable. You buy and sell them on a pledge without seeing them. Every minute you have to check if they're up or down-that is, if the ruble has risen or fallen in Berlin. It all depends on Berlin, you see; it's Berlin that has the last word. The rates soar and tumble like crazy, the telegrams fly back and forth, the Jews run around as though at a country fair, and so do I. There's such a racket you can't hear yourself think. Yesterday, for example, I played the market for 50 rubles and by noon today I'd lost them all. But I haven't told you what playing the market is. You can buy futures for 50 R's, or double that, or hedge until closing time. (That's the time between the afternoon and evening prayers in Kasrilevke.) Well, I bought short, the market was up, and there went my 50 smackeroos. That's how you play it-but don't you worry, my dear! Fifty smackers are nothing in Odessa. With God's help my lucky number will come up. And as for Uncle Menashe's promissory notes, you're mistaken. They're as good as gold, a solid investment. I could turn a nice profit on them even now, but I'd rather not. I can always make money from hedging. But I don't want to do that either. I prefer futures. There's nothing like a night spent sleeping on them. And because I'm in a hurry, I'll be brief. God willing, I'll write more in my next letter. Meanwhile, may He grant you health and success.

Your husband, Menakhem-Mendl

P.S. As for where I'm lodging and eating, I can't rightly tell you myself. Odessa is a monstrous big city and everything is very dear. The buildings are sky-high and you climb half-an-hour's worth of iron stairs to get to your room at the top of them. And the window is as tiny as a dungeon's! It's a relief to get out and head for Greek Street, where I take my meals-that is, where I grab what I can. Who has time to sit and eat when you have to keep your eyes on Berlin? But fruit costs next to nothing here. People eat grapes in the street, not just once a year for Rosh Hashanah like Kasrilevkans. They're not at all embarrassed to do it.

Yours, etc.

FROM SHEYNE-SHEYNDL IN KASRILEVKE TO HER HUSBAND MENAKHEM-MENDL IN ODESSA

To my dear, learned, & illustrious husband Menakhem-Mendl, may your light shine!

First, we're all well thank God. I hope to hear no worse from you.

Second, you write like a madman. Forgive me for saying so, but I hope to hear no more of your Odessa than I understand about your blasted shorts and hedgerows! You're throwing rubles away like last week's noodles. Money-shmoney, eh? I suppose it grows on trees over there. I'll be blamed, though, if one thing doesn't stump me: what kind of cat in a bag can you trade in but not see? Listen here, Mendl, I don't like it one bit! I wasn't raised in a home where we bought and sold air and God keep me from doing it now. From air you catch cold, my mother says. Who ever heard of a grown man playing in a market? You'd make more sense if you wrote in Turkish. And as for the profit you can turn on Menashe's notes, I hate to be a wet blanket, but the proof of the pudding, my mother says, is in the eating. You know what, Mendl? Listen to your wife, tell Odessa where it can go, and come home to Kasrilevke. We have a place to live in at my father's, you have five hundred rubles, opening a store is no problem-what more could you want? Why must I hear the world telling lies about your throwing me over for Odessa? Don't think you'll live to see the day! You can take your monster houses with their iron steps you climb like a lunatic and give me Kasrilevke any time. Because grapes are cheap there I should have a stomach ache here? Kasrilevke plums aren't sweet enough? There's such a glut this year that they're a kopeck a bucket. But a lot we matter to you! You don't even ask about the children. I suppose you've forgotten you have three of them, God bless them! Out of sight, out of mind, my mother says. I'll be blamed if she isn't right. I wish you all the best from the bottom of my heart.

Your truly faithful wife Sheyne-Sheyndl.

FROM MENAKHEM-MENDL IN ODESSA TO HIS WIFE SHEYNE-SHEYNDL IN KASRILEVKE

To my wise, esteemed, & virtuous wife Sheyne-Sheyndl, may you have a long life!

Firstly, rest assured that I am, praise God, in the best of health. God grant that we hear from each other only good and pleasing news, amen.

Secondly, the market has been hitting fearsome lows. I've bought another batch of Londons and covered myself with 8 orders for 17 shorts. If I can shave a few points, I'll buy more. If only you understood, my dearest, how business is done on a man's word alone, you would know all there is to know about Odessa. A nod is as good as a signature. I walk down Greek Street, drop into a cafe, sit at a table, order tea or coffee, and wait for the brokers to come by. There's no need for a contract or written agreement. Each broker carries a pad in which he writes, say, that I've bought two shorts. I hand over the cash and that's it-it's a pleasure how easy it is! A few hours go by, the Berlin closings arrive, and back comes the broker with 25 smackers. The next morning the openings arrive and he has 50 more-and don't think God can't make it 100. 300 is no big deal either. Why should it be? We're talking about the market! It's a game, like roulette.... And as for your not believing in Uncle Menashe's promissory notes, I have news: I've made a tidy sum from them already. Where else would I get the money to buy so many futures on spot? The market is not, as you seem to think, a place that sells fruit and vegetables. You're only called on futures when they're due. That means, you're a free agent. If you want to buy, you buy, and if you want to sell, you sell. Now do you understand what playing the market is? If God is out to boost Londons, he starts a war scare in the papers, the ruble drops, and Londons shoot up faster than bean stalks. Just this week there were rumors that the Queen of England was ailing: the ruble plunged again, and whoever bought short made a killing. Now the papers say she's better, so the ruble has rallied and it's time to buy long. In short, my dearest, never fear! Everything will be "tip-top," as they say in Odessa. And because I'm in a hurry, I'll be brief. God willing, I'll write more in my next letter. Meanwhile, may He grant you health and success. Give my greetings to the children and my fondest wishes to everyone.

Your husband, Menakhem-Mendl

P.S. We're all burning up from the heat. At night we go around like melting wax. The streets are deserted. All Odessa goes to the public fountains or the seashore. You can find anything you want there. You can even bathe in the sea or listen to free music-it doesn't cost a blessed kopeck.

Yours etc.

FROM SHEYNE-SHEYNDL IN KASRILEVKE TO HER HUSBAND MENAKHEM-MENDL IN ODESSA

To my dear, learned, & illustrious husband Menakhem-Mendl, may your light shine!

First, we're all well, thank God. I hope to hear no worse from you.

Second, I'm having trouble with my teeth. I wish Odessa and its market had my toothache! It's killing me. So are the children-and his lordship couldn't care less. He lives in Odessa like God, buys seventeen pairs of shorts, and bathes in the sea to music! What more could a body want? Well, you may go around in short pants and half-shaven, but my mother would say you've outgrown your britches. For heaven's sake, if you're dealing in Lumdums, keep your mind on them and not on the Queen of England! Better yet, think of your wife. She'll be around for a while, God willing. And you have three children, bless them. "Remember your own and you'll forget the next man's," my mother says. All your winnings make my head spin. Blow me down if I can believe that a man just sticks out his hand and watches the rubles fly into it.

Continues...


Excerpted from The Letters of Menakhem-Mendl and Sheyne-Sheyndl by Sholem Aleichem Hillel Halkin Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Introduction
The Letters of Menakhem-Mendl and Sheyne-Sheyndl
Londons: The Odessa Exchange 3
Stocks & Bonds: The Yehupetz Exchange 19
Millions: Traders, Agents, and Speculators 38
An Honorable Profession: Menakhem-Mendl Becomes a Writer 72
It's No Go: Menakhem-Mendl the Matchmaker 83
Always a Loser: Menakhem-Mendl the Insurance Agent 96
Motl, the Cantor's Son
Part One 105
Part Two 237
Notes 319
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  • Posted November 18, 2013

    There┬┐s something magical about exchanging letters. Having had p

    There’s something magical about exchanging letters. Having had penpals for the last ten years, I’m always captivated by this intimate method of communication- which is why I picked up The Letters of Menakhem-Mendl and Sheyne-Sheyndl and Motl, the Cantor’s Son during my visit to NetGalley. Boy, was I startled when I found out that this book was published in 2002.




    Personally, I have an ambivalence feeling with this book. The bad news is that there’s hardly any action in this book. I was basically yawning through the letters exchanged between the title characters. The good news? It gets riveting during the first-person narrative of Motl, Peysi the Cantor’s Son. There are holes in the plot, but I find The Letters of Menakhem-Mendl and Sheyne-Sheyndl and Motl, the Cantor’s Son to be intellectually invigorating.




    I received a complimentary copy of this book in exchange of my honest review through NetGalley.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
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