The first work of Sholom Aleichem’s to be translated into English—this long out-of-print translation is the only one ever done under Aleichem’s personal supervision—Stempenyu is a prime example of the author’ s hallmark traits: his antic and often sardonic sense of humor, his whip-smart dialogue, his workaday mysticism, and his historic documentation of shtetl life.
Held recently by scholars to be the story that inspired Marc Chagall’s “Fiddler on the Roof” painting (which in turn inspired the play that was subsequently based on Aleichem’s Tevye stories, not this novella), Stempenyu is the hysterical story of a young village girl who falls for a wildly popular klezmer fiddler—a character based upon an actual Yiddish musician whose fame set off a kind of pop hysteria in the shtetl. Thus the story, in this contemporaneous “authorized” translation, is a wonderful introduction to Aleichem’s work as he wanted it read, not to mention to the unique palaver of a nineteenth-century Yiddish rock star.
About the Author
Sholom Aleichem was born Solomon Rabinowitz in 1859, the son of a merchant in the Ukrainian village of Pereyaslav. At 14, he wrote his first book: a dictionary of Yiddish curses overheard at home. Despite jobs teaching Russian and writing for Hebrew newspapers, it was his writings in Yiddish—humorous stories about village life—that brought him fame. Using the Yiddish greeting (“Peace unto you”) as his pseudonym, he published 40 volumes of stories and plays, single-handedly creating a literature for what had been primarily a spoken language. Pogroms forced Aleichem to flee Russia in 1905, eventually landing him in New York City, his fame undiminished—introduced to Mark Twain as “the Yiddish Mark Twain,” Twain interrupted to call himself the “American Sholom Aleichem.” Upon Aleichem’s death in 1916, 100,000 mourneres flooded the streets of Manhattan for his funeral. His will, however, asked friends to remember him by an annual reading of one of his funny stories. “Let my name be recalled in laughter,” Aleichem wrote, “or not at all.”
Hannah Berman (1883-1955) was an English novelist (Melutovna), and early translator of significant works in Yiddish.