Tevye the Dairyman and the Railroad Stories, Sholem Aleichem
Last year I read a book called Outwitting History, by Aaron Lansky, about rescuing Yiddish books and building a library, a special collection to ensure the preservation of Yiddish literature. That's where I first learned about Sholem Aleichem and his stories about Tevye, which of course became the basis for the musical Fiddler on the Roof. (Due in large part to lack of talent, I was always relegated to the chorus of my high school musicals, but I had my one and only line ever in Fiddler, so I always remember it.)
I've been wanting to read the stories, but I've had a hard time tracking them down. I kept checking Half-Price Books, and suddenly the other night there was a copy on the shelves. (It was a good book night, I also found a Trollope biography I had been wanting, and one of the women soldiers' diaries quoted in They Fought Like Demons, which I posted about a few days ago.) After several books on the Civil War, I was ready for something completely different.
The Tevye stories were indeed familiar from the musical, though of course changed in the adaptation - and as usual, the book is better! The stories are monologues, tales told to the fictional Reb Sholem Aleichem (the nom de plume of Sholem Rabinovich). I didn't discover until I was almost at the end of the stories that there was a glossary of Yiddish & Hebrew phrases in the back of the book, which probably would have made the points of the jokes funnier. Some of the stories are straight-out hilarious, like the first, "Tevye Strikes It Rich," but others are serious, even somber. I was completely unprepared for the story of one daughter, Shprintze, and also of the later stories, after his wife Golde's death. Though the film of course shows the anti-semitism of the Russian society, and the constant threat of violence against Jews, these stories show also the daily pressure and stress of living under laws that restricted and harassed Jews as much as the laws of Nazi Germany would forty years later.
I had never heard of the stories that make up the second part of the book, the "railroad" stories. I found them even more fascinating than the Tevye stories. They are all set on trains, in third class compartments filled with Jews. The narrator sometimes interacts with his fellow travelers, sometimes simply records their narratives (monologues like Tevye's). Like the Tevye stories, they move from high comedy to tragedy, and even in their lighter moments the shadow of anti-semitism hangs over them.
I loved this book.