Pain and Laughter

The Best of Sholom Aleichem

edited by Irving Howe, edited by Ruth Wisse
New Republic Books, 276 pp., $12.50

Scholem Alechem
Scholem Alechem; drawing by David Levine

Sholom Aleichem is one of the prolific masters of Yiddish comic storytelling, an art springing from the oral folk tradition of Eastern Europe and crossed by the pain and laughter of racial calamity. Like all comics he is serious, has one foot in the disorder and madness of the world and, as a Jew, the other foot in the now perplexing, now exalted adjuration of the Law and the Prophets. Did God really choose their fate for the Jewish people? If so, was He being irresponsible, or why doesn’t He make it clear? There is no answer. The oppressed stick to their rituals and are obliged to perfect the delights of cunning, the consolations of extravagant fantasy, the ironies and pedantries of the moralist who is privately turning his resignation into a weapon. With so many insoluble dilemmas on his hands, Aleichem developed that nimbleness of mind and fancy, those skills of masking and ventriloquism that made him the prolific “natural” in short tales drawn partly from the remaking of folk tradition, a juggler of puns, proverbs, and sudden revealing images caught from the bewildered tongues of his people.

There are certain distinctions to be noted when we speak of the general Jewish gift for anecdote. These are made clear in the exchange of letters between Irving Howe and Ruth Wisse which introduce their selection from a striking variety of Aleichem’s best work and discuss the growth of mind it reveals. Mr. Howe points out that Aleichem is not a “folksy tickler of Jewish vanities” and is not as cozy “as later generations of Jews have liked to suppose.” Under the laughter is fright and the old driving forces of anxiety and guilt: if Aleichem is close to folk sources he escapes the collective claustrophobia of a folk tradition that was broken by the pogroms and wars that drove the Eastern European Jews to flight or death; he has let in the light of “a complicated if individual vision of human existence. That means terror and joy, dark and bright, fear and play.”

Ruth Wisse points to Aleichem’s position in the period when the Jewish moral crisis came to a head in Eastern Europe. Writing of his contemporaries, the classical masters Mendele Mocher Sforim and I.L. Peretz, she says that they are embattled writers, “critical of their society,” strong in dialectical tendency, pitting old against new; whereas Aleichem, who also felt the break in the Jewish tradition and in his own life, “made it his artistic business to close the gap. In fact, wherever the danger of dissolution is greatest, the stories work their magic in simulating or creating a terra firma.” I do not know the work of these writers but it is certainly true of Aleichem’s work that it shows his balance and poise in tales like “A Yom Kippur Scandal,” “Station Baranovich,” the terrifying “Krushniker Delegation,” “Eternal Life,”…

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