Wandering Stars

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Wandering Stars

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Overview

"Spanning ten years and two continents, and set in the colorful world of the Yiddish theater, Wandering Stars is an epic love story by the great Yiddish humorist Sholem Aleichem, creator of Tevye of Fiddler on the Roof fame. It is translated here in full for the first time, one hundred years after its original publication, and for the one hundred fiftieth anniversary of its author's birth." "In the waning days of the nineteenth century, a travelling Yiddish acting company arrives in the small Russian shtetl of Holenshti. The townspeople react in unision: "What is this? Actor types - comedians - who needs them?" But for Reizel, daughter of a poor cantor, and Leibal, son of a rich man, the theater is magic, and they immediately fall under its spell." "Fleeing Holeneshti to join the acting company, Reizel and Leibel soon become separated. Reizel goes on to become Rosa Spivak, concert star, and Leibel becomes Leo Rafalesco, theatrical sensation. Kept apart by their own successes and by a motley cast of managers who exploit their talent, they are wandering stars, going from stage to stage, from city to city, touring all the major European capitals and eventually reaching New York, where they experience firsthand the city of dreams shattered and fulfilled, of love thwarted and consummated." Suffused wih the humor, whimsy, and wistfulness that are Sholem Aleichem's hallmarks, Wandering Stars is an engrossing romance, an anthem for the theater, and a great New York story, rediscovered here in a vibrant new translation.
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Editorial Reviews

Library Journal

Aleichem, the great Yiddish humorist whose Tevye and His Daughters became Fiddler on the Roof, is honored on the 150th anniversary of his birth with a complete translation of this sprawling novel, a panoramic view of the Yiddish theater in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Masterfully translated by Shevrin and including a foreword by Tony Kushner, the novel follows an antic troupe of Yiddish actors traveling from a small town in Bessarabia (present-day Moldova) across Europe to London and finally New York. As the novel opens, Leibel Rafalovitch, the rich man's son, and Reizel Spivak, the poor cantor's daughter, are entranced by a troupe performing in their small town. Enticed away by the promise of stage careers, they are soon separated, with Reizel becoming the concert star Rosa Spivak and Leibel, Leo Rafalesko, a serious stage actor. The colorful lives of the theater performers and the difficulties they face-including anti-Semitism, a lack of money, and matters of love-are even more captivating than what happens on the stage itself. As Leibel says to Reizel while they gaze at the sky above their village, stars don't fall but wander, as do these stalwart theater people. Highly recommended.
—Molly Abramowitz

From the Publisher
"An uproarious, sprawling masterpiece by a grand Yiddish storyteller. . . . This mischievous, compassionate, and chaotic story . . . is big, broad, and a little bawdy, a rough-and-tumble group of stars, starmakers, and wannabes. . . . If Jane Austen had been a Russian-Jewish wiseguy born in the 19th century, instead of an English Protestant smarty pants born in the 18th, she might have been Sholem Aleichem-and she might have written Wandering Stars. . . . This is the Big Apple Circus of novels, and Sholem Aleichem is a ringmaster with chutzpah."
-Amy Bloom, O: The Oprah Magazine

"Blisteringly funny, extraordinarily moving, revelatory . . . Wandering Stars is a great novel about theater, an invaluable account of the Jewish theater of the diaspora, but it's equally a brilliant exploration of liberation's outrageous, tumultuous motion through human society and the human soul."
-Tony Kushner, from the Foreword

"Fascinating . . . Fun and funny . . . Wandering Stars, brought skillfully into a gentile tongue by Aliza Shevrin . . . allows Sholem Aleichem to set up all kinds of dramatic near misses and gives him room to indulge in his comic talent for sketching quick portraits of all kinds of Jewish stock characters, from the sainted mother to the scavenging pimp."
-Harper's Magazine

"Freshly and lucidly translated . . . Wandering Stars is clearly the invention of a gifted storyteller [and] is a wistful reminder of why Sholem Aleichem achieved celebrity in his own day. . . . A century-and-a-half after the birth of its author, the publication of Wandering Stars is both an act of homage to the author and a source of rare pleasure for a new generation of readers."
-Los Angeles Times

"This romantic epic captures, with whimsy and pathos, the experience of the Jewish diaspora at the beginning of the twentieth century."
-The New Yorker

"A story full of joy and the kind of provocative, rich theater that Kushner calls 'emancipatory magic.' "
-Chicago Tribune

"This book is special. . . . Well worth reading, even savoring and re-reading . . . The supporting cast of characters is masterfully drawn. . . . They are brimming with life. . . . Sholem Aleichem has us convinced that life without laughter is no life. . . . A delightful book."
-Theodore Bikel, Moment Magazine

"If you liked Fiddler on the Roof, you're bound to love the first full translation of Wandering Stars."
-The Boston Phoenix

"Engaging . . . Sholem Aleichem's genius was to turn the very humility of Yiddish into a literary strength, [and] Wandering Stars is a significant part of Sholem Aleichem's oeuvre. . . . [Its] satirical glimpses of the world of Yiddish theater . . . are one of the novel's chief pleasures."
-Nextbook

"In Sholem Aleichem's hands, the Yiddish theater becomes the stage for a story of the quintessential Jewish experience."
-Jewish News

"Masterfully translated . . . Highly recommended."
-Library Journal, starred review

"Aliza Shevrin's translation of Wandering Stars belongs to the rarest of all literary forms: it's a real mechaye!"
-Michael Wex, author of Born to Kvetch and Just Say Nu

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780670020522
  • Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 2/5/2009
  • Pages: 448
  • Product dimensions: 6.40 (w) x 9.30 (h) x 1.70 (d)

Meet the Author

Sholem Aleichem is the pen name of Sholem Rabinovitch (1859-1916), the most beloved writer in Yiddish literature. Born in Russia, he fled the pogroms and immigrated to New York in 1905.
Aliza Shevrin is the foremost translator of Sholem Aleichem, having translated eight other volumes of his fiction. She lives in Ann Arbor.

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Read an Excerpt

Chapter 1

The Bird Has Flown

One bright Sunday morning toward the end of summer, Leah the cantor's wife awoke with a start. She suddenly remembered it was Sunday, market day. Glancing out the window, she saw broad daylight. "What's the matter with me! It's late!" she exclaimed. She dressed hurriedly, splashed water over her fingertips, ran through her morning prayers, grabbed her basket, and sped off to the market, afraid she would miss all the bargains.

It was a beautiful morning. A warm sun bathed Holeneshti in its golden rays. Once she reached the market, Leah was like a fish in water—she was in her element. The sheer size of the Holeneshti market was something to behold. The Moldavian peasants had brought in sheep's milk and cheese, and great quantities of vegetables from their gardens—corn, greens, and cucumbers, all selling for a song, as well as onions, garlic, and bitter herbs. With all these plentiful choices before her, Leah quickly negotiated a basketful. And the fish! A heaven-sent bargain! She had not planned to buy fish, but suddenly there they were. But please imagine what fish—tiny, skinny, scrawny little things, all bone, barely a mouthful, but so cheap it would be a shame to turn them down. No one would believe it! Yes, Leah, was having a lucky day at the market. Of the one ruble she had brought, quite a bit was still left. With so much still unspent, she thought she would surprise the cantor with a gift—ten fresh eggs. Yisroyeli will appreciate that, she thought. It would be enough to make ten throat-soothing honey gogl-mogls. The High Holidays would be here soon—He'll need them to keep his throat in good shape. And how about candies for my Reizel? She loves sweets, confections, snacksbless her, what a delight that girl is. I only wish I could buy her new shoes. The old ones are worn through and throughuseless.

With these thoughts spurring her on the cantor's wife hurried from booth to booth until the rest of the ruble had melted away like snow. Only then could she finally relax and go home.

As she neared her house, she could hear the cantor practicing his prayers: "Mee-ee-ee ba-a-esh u'mee-ee-ee bamayim!" That sweet familiar voice had given her pleasure for so long, but she never tired of it. Yisroyeli the cantor was practicing a brand new U'netaneh tokef to chant for Rosh Hashanah. He was not one of your great cantors with a worldwide reputation, but in his own Holeneshti he was famous enough. You can be sure the town would never have exchanged him for the greatest cantor, not even one with his own choir, nor let him go for a million rubles! But that's neither here nor there. Yisroyeli the cantor also taught on the side—without it the family would never have been able to manage. Luckily he was a fine biblical scholar with a talent for teaching Hebrew. In addition, God had blessed him with a fine hand to pen letters for those who could not write. He had ten students, the richest children in town. One of his prize pupils was the son of Benny Rafalovitch, the richest man in town. Two incomes are nothing to sneeze at. Nonetheless, despite his chanting and his teaching, he and Leah often did not have enough to eat for Shabbes. Still, they would not die of hunger—somehow they would find a way.

Arriving home, carrying a full basket from the market, perspiring, Leah was surprised to find that her daughter did not show her face. Usually Reizel, was already dressed and washed, her hair combed, running to greet her. She'd poke around in her basket: "Mama, what did you bring me?" "Wait a minute," Leah would say, "what's the hurry? First let me get your father his glass of chicory."

That was what the cantor's wife was expecting today. But the house was quiet, strangely quiet. Reizel was nowhere to be seen or heard though the door was open. Was it possible she was still asleep? The cantor continued to warble, reaching the highest notes with a sob, "Ach, mee-ee-ee ba-eysh umee-ee-ee bamayim!" And again, "Mee-ee-ee ba-a-esh umee-ee-ee bamayim."

Quietly, Leah tiptoed into the house and set the basket down in a corner. So as not to disturb her husband in his work, she busied herself at the stove, all the while muttering: "God in heaven! Is she still asleep? These young girls! The students are coming to class any minute now, and she'll be walking around half-naked right in front of them. She thinks she's still a child.

"Yisroyeli! Yisroyeli? No, he can't hear me. He's too wrapped up in his ba-eyshes and bamayims prayers this morning. God help us! Someone might think they're stuffing his pockets with gold for his chanting. And here Reizel walks around in worn-out shoes, may I suffer her pains. How long is she going to sleep! I have to wake the child up!"

With these words, Leah hurried to the curtain that divided the room and listening quietly for a moment. Then she slowly lifted the curtain with two fingers. She peered in the bed, looked toward the open window—and froze, unable to speak. Feeling as if someone had struck her heart with a stone, she turned to her husband:

"Yisroyeli!"

The intensity of her voice immediately stopped Yisroyeli's singing. "What is it, Leah?"

"Where is Reizel?"

"What do you mean, where is Reizel? Isn't she asleep?"

***

Within half an hour the news had spread through the town about the cantor's misfortune. People streamed into the house to find out what had happened. "Is she really gone? How is this possible? How could this have happened?"

For the rest of the morning the town seethed like a kettle: "Have you heard? The cantor's daughter is gone!" "What do you mean? Where has she gone? "Gone—as if she had sunk into the earth."

And the cantor? How to describe him? He neither cried nor spoke. He stood in the middle of the room like a statue, staring at the empty bed mutely, as if words and even reason itself had failed him. His wife, however, was tearing around the town like a mad woman, wringing her hands, and beating herself in the head, crying out to the heavens, "My daughter! My child! My precious!" Trooping after her, the townspeople helped her search. They hunted everywhere, in every corner—across the bridge, in the cemetery, in all the Wallachian gardens, and even in the lake. Gone!

Half dead, the cantor's wife was carried home to a house full of people, all talking about the tragedy that had befallen the cantor in his own home. Some pulled back the curtain to gaze at the empty bed and the open window. "So it was from here the bird flew away?" they wondered. Leave it to the people of Holeneshti to come up with a clever way of putting it.

Chapter 2

She Faints Away

Every Jewish town, no matter how poor, must have its own Rothschild. The Rothschild of Holeneshti was Benny Rafalovitch. To tell you all about his wealth and position would be too much. It will suffice simply to describe how many sat at his table. Each and every day at Benny's table you would find no fewer than twenty people: sons, daughters, sons-in-law, daughters-in-law. All were handsome, healthy, well-fed souls with full round faces. Among them was also an old grandmother whose head shook from side to side, as if saying, "No no!"; a nursemaid, pale as an underdone roll but with a flush high on her cheeks; and a young man, a distant relative, who oversaw the household accounts. This young man's name was Simcha but everyone called him Sison v'Simcha, which means "joy and gladness." Not that he was such a happy creature—on the contrary, he was by nature a cheerless, melancholy sort with a sleepy demeanor. He had black, shiny hair, puffy eyes, and a constantly stuffed nose that made it difficult for him to properly pronounce his m's and n's, and his full and thickly mustached upper lip didn't help.

We will have the opportunity to become acquainted with this family in due time, but in general we can say that theirs was a wealthy, happy, lively household that was most fond of eating. When it came time for them to eat, one could have gone deaf from the uproar, the din, the clatter of spoons and forks.

At the head of the table, like a king, sat the master of the house himself, Benny, a Bessarabian Jew with a substantial belly and beard that grew horizontally. Yes, it parted to the left and to the right, not like an ordinary beard, and it refused to lie flat as it should. But he could do nothing about it, try as he might!

When Benny ate, he threw himself into it—nothing could distract him. He hated doing two things at once anyway, but when eating he refused to be bothered about anything else. He spoke very little but didn't mind when others spoke. When a clamor erupted at the table, he would shout, "Quiet down, you scamps! Better look into your prayer books and pay attention to what you are reciting!" By this he meant they should look into their plates and pay attention to what they were eating. It was his way to speak elliptically. For instance, he called a horse a "fellow," money was "shards," a wife was a "disaster," a son was a "kaddish," a daughter a "blister," bread a "thread," a house an "attic," an alcove a "hole,"—an so on. One could have created a whole new dictionary from Benny Rafalovitch's vocabulary.

At the opposite head of the table sat, Benny's wife, Beylke, a tiny, frail, quiet woman, unheard and unseen. Looking at her, you would ask yourself: Was this the woman who brought into the world all these children? But don't be fooled— this tiny woman bore on her shoulders the weight of the entire household. Always busy, she took on everyone's pain as her own. She asked nothing for herself but instead devoted her life to her children. In this respect she was following in the footsteps of her aged mother-in-law, whose head shook in a constant "no no." This old mother had apparently been created to remind people of the death.

Having lost almost all her sense, the grandmother still had one—a sharp eye. She saw everything before anyone else did. So no one besides her had noticed that the youngest boy, Leibel, was missing. Scanning the long table with her sharp eye, the old lady had noticed immediately. Her head shaking, she exclaimed, "Where in the world is Leibel?"

They all looked around and saw that Leibel was missing. They began searching for him everywhere. "Where is Leibel?" they all wondered.

As long as Benny's household had existed, it had never happened that a child was missing from the dinner table. The father became angry and commanded: "Let them bring the youngest lamb from the flock!" Benny meant that they were to bring the youngest one from the cheder. They sent a messenger to Yisroyeli the cantor's cheder to bring Leibel home for supper.

The Rafalovitches were already eating the last course, the fresh corn, when the messenger returned with the news that Leibel had not gone to the cantor's house that day and that a tragedy, may it not happen here, had befallen the cantor and his wife: their daughter, their only daughter, had vanished during the night without a trace.

This news hit the family like a bombshell. They sat staring at one another. What each of them was thinking at that moment was hard to know—they kept their thoughts to themselves. Only the old lady, who was used to speaking her mind, said loudly and clearly, as her head wobbled: "Have a look in the desk drawer. I could swear that in the middle of the night I heard someone stirring in the dark while the young man"—she indicated Sison v'Simcha—"was snoring so loudly he could have woke the dead."

Old people have such odd ideas! What did she mean, Sison v'Simcha was snoring? If a fly were to alight in the room, he would have heard it, so light was his sleep! Still and all, the sleepy bookkeeper stood up with effort, took his time wiping off his hairy upper lip with his greasy hand, and fished out a ring of keys from his trouser pocket. Slowly, unhurriedly, he unlocked the middle drawer of the oaken desk, peered inside—and stood paralyzed. His sleepy, puffy eyes seemed to glaze over, and he could not speak so much as a word.

Benny came to his aid: "For God's sake, speak!" he thundered, so loudly that Sison v'Simcha began to shake.

Though tongue-tied and snuffling through his stuffed nose, the bookkeeper found words: "Believe me, these keys were with me all night, in my pants pocket. Believe me, I didn't sleep a wink, heard not the slightest noise. Come see for yourself—the drawer is now empty, not a trace!"

At these words someone at the table uttered a stifled scream, keeled over, and fell into a faint.

It was tiny, frail, quiet little Beylke.

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Reading Group Guide

INTRODUCTION

At the turn of the century in the Russian shtetl of Holeneshti, Reizel and Leibel, two young lovers, long to leave their confining life behind. They are seduced by a visiting theater troupe and its promise of fame, fortune, and freedom; and, in the middle of the night, they run away to chase their dreams. So begins Sholem Aleichem’s acclaimed novel Wandering Stars, a story that spans small-town Russia and the big city bustle of New York, the passions of young love and the compromises necessary for success.

The idealistic pair is soon separated by the greedy machinations of the troupe’s competing managers, who see the artistic promise and lucrative potential of the talented young lovers. While traveling farther and farther away from each other, Reizel and Leibel are transformed into Rosa Spivak, famed singer, and Leo Rafalesco, celebrated actor. They become sensations of the Yiddish theater, charming fans from Vienna to New York City. Their successes do not dim the love Rosa and Leo feel for each other, and as their journeys take them around the globe, thoughts of their childhood romance remain strong.

But Wandering Stars is more than a love story—it is also a wry and affectionate look at the world of Yiddish theater and the Jewish immigrant experience. Written in a colloquial and confidential voice, the novel exposes the ambition, creativity, hard work, and hard luck of a group of people whose greatest love is life on the stage. Sholem Aleichem reveals the intimate thoughts and correspondence of a colorful cast of characters, all the while deflating their pretensions and following their escapades with amusement. The members of the various theater companies are like family—fractious and jealous, yet loving and loyal.

As the troupes move further away from their humble beginnings and toward the great goal of New York City, the members of the company blend old traditions and new-world ways, transforming themselves both on and off the stage. And New York itself, with its bustling subway, busy streets, and lively Lower East Side Jewish community, is as much a character as any of the performers.

Rosa and Leo wander the globe in search of fame (and each other) and when they do finally reunite, their meeting is a joy tempered by reality as success and setbacks are intertwined. Wandering Stars is a compelling example of the artistic breadth and emotional weight of Sholem Aleichem’s writing, and ample evidence as to why his fans have loved him and his work for over a century.

ABOUT SHOLEM ALEICHEM

Born Sholem Rabinovich in 1859 in Pereyaslav, Ukraine, Sholem Aleichem rose from humble beginnings to become one of the most celebrated writers of Jewish fiction. Sholem Aleichem is known for his love for the common people and his concern for their struggles, and the Hebrew translation of his pen name, “peace be with you,” is a reflection of those sentiments. While his writing focuses on the travails common to the Jewish masses at the turn of the century, his style, wit, and eye for the foibles of human nature cross cultural boundaries. He once wrote, “Life is a dream for the wise, a game for the fool, a comedy for the rich, a tragedy for the poor;” and his sympathies are forever with the poor and the downtrodden, those who suffer the indignities of life without losing their determination, warmth, or ambition.

An intelligent and scholarly young man, Sholem Aleichem excelled in school and began his career as a tutor before turning to writing and eventually producing over forty works of fiction, drama, and children’s literature. After first writing in Hebrew and Russian, in 1883 he began to write in Yiddish, which was at the time considered a low and unsophisticated language. However, he was convinced that Yiddish deserved respect equal to other European languages and he became its passionate proponent, founding a journal, Di Yidishe Folksbibliotek, to promote and support other Yiddish writers. Due to financial constraints, however, he was only able to produce two editions.

Financial as well as health difficulties plagued Sholem Aleichem throughout his life. In the early 1900s, he left Europe, forced out by pogroms in Russia, and moved to New York City while his family moved to Switzerland. While Sholem Aleichem’s writing resonated with a wide range of Jewish readers, the popularity of his work did not always translate into financial success. Forced to support his family through a series of grueling reading tours, in 1908 he suffered a severe relapse of the tuberculosis he had contracted in the early 1890s. He moved back to Europe and spent the next few years as an invalid.

Sholem Aleichem ultimately enjoyed immense popular (if not financial) success. In 1909 his fiftieth birthday was celebrated around the world, and upon his return to New York in 1914 he was welcomed at Carnegie Hall. He died in 1916 while hard at work on a novel. He was buried in the Mount Carmel Cemetery in Queens, New York. Thousands of people attended his funeral and his will was printed in The New York Times. Thanks to works such as Wandering Stars, Motl the Cantor’s Son, and the many stories about Tevye the Milkman—later adapted into the Broadway and film hit Fiddler on the Roof—Sholem Aleichem’s status as one of the luminaries of Jewish literature has never waned. Every year, his fans commemorate the anniversary of his death with readings of his collected works.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS

  • In the forward, Tony Kushner writes that the citizens of Holeneshti are “Nnce free, free to wander; once wandering, longing for home.” How is this true for Rosa and Leo? How is this true for the other members of their theater troupes?
     
  • What do Rosa and Leo hope to accomplish by leaving their shtetl and joining the theater world? Do they ultimately accomplish what they hoped for? And do they remain true to themselves in the process?
     
  • How do the various performers and producers of the theater companies illustrate the reinvention, ambition, and hard work that are at the core of the immigrant experience? Are they happy? Is the world of Yiddish theater appealing?
     
  • Sholem Aleichem writes: “America was a great ocean into which flowed all rivers. It was a wonderful dream that, to be sure, did not always come true; it was the farthest point, beyond which one could go no further; the ultimate remedy that, if it could not help you, no doctor on earth could” (p. 240). Discuss how this quote represents the experiences or attitudes of many immigrants to the United States at the turn of the century. Is there anyone in your family history that would have identified with this statement?
     
  • Compare the Jewish communities in New York and Holeneshti. What common threads connect them? How are the inhabitants different? What traditions are preserved and why?
     
  • On p. 410, the narrator describes the New York City subway system and sees it as the embodiment of the city itself. Is his description accurate today? Does it describe your idea of New York?
     
  • Although the plot of Wandering Stars is set into motion by the actions of Rosa and Leo, they are only two in a wide cast of characters. Which of the other characters most captured your attention? Why?
     
  • Are there any entirely good or bad characters in the novel? What kind of a moral picture does the narrator paint of the world of Yiddish theater?
     
  • Rosa, Madame Cherniak, Henrietta, and Zlatke are very different characters, but one thing that unites them is a relationship with Leo. What does each woman want from him? Does she achieve her goal? How do their stories overlap?
     
  • Who is the narrator of this novel? What opinions does the narrator have about the characters and events in the novel? How would you describe the tone of voice? Does the narrator seem to have a preference between the old life in the shtetl and the new life in America?
     
  • For well over 100 years, Sholem Aleichem has been one of the most beloved writers of Jewish literature. Judging by Wandering Stars, what do you think it is that accounts for this popularity?
     
  • Although it is certainly a comic novel, do you think Wandering Stars has a happy ending? Why or why not?
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