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Learn From Their Mistakes? Not These Lusty Dreamers

The Letters of Menakhem-Mendl and Sheyne-Sheyndl and Motl, the Cantor’s Son

By Sholem Aleichem

Translated by Hillel Halkin

Yale, 325 pages, $29.95.

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The World According to Itzik: Selected Prose and Poetry

By Itzik Manger

Translated by Leonard Wolf

Yale, 249 pages, $29.95.

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In the past hundred years, two Yiddish writers of monumental talent rose to immense fame. When one died, his funeral was the largest ever held in his city’s history, attracting more than 100,000 mourners and several generations of future fans. But when the other died, his funeral, with construction machinery pounding in the background, attracted hundreds, not thousands — the tail end of his readership. The difference? One was buried at the height of Yiddish: New York in 1916. The other made the mistake of outliving his audience, dying in Israel in 1969. The first was Sholom Aleichem, of whom you’ve heard. The second was Itzik Manger, of whom you may not have — though you should. Both have been given another shot at life by remarkable new translations recently published by the New Yiddish Library (Yale University), that give English readers a priceless gift: unprecedented access to these Yiddish literary giants, as they were and as they might have been.

The two Sholom Aleichem novels in one volume “The Letters of Menakhem-Mendl and Sheyne-Sheyndl” and “Motl, the Cantor’s Son” — demonstrate what might have happened if Yiddish had entered the age of TV sitcoms. First published serially in the Yiddish press at the turn of the last century, both works are episodic comedies where the same setups endlessly repeat themselves and no one ever learns from his mistakes. “Menakhem-Mendl” is a correspondence between Menakhem-Mendl, a pathetic dreamer who sets out to seek his elusive fortune, and Sheyne-Sheyndl, his small-minded wife who never stops railing at him to return home. “Motl, the Cantor’s Son” stars a young boy who, after his father’s death, takes up the refrain “Lucky me, I’m an orphan!” — free to make trouble and to enjoy the absurd adventures of his family’s emigration from Ukraine to America.

Menakhem-Mendl, a favorite character of Sholom Aleichem’s who appears in “Tevye” and elsewhere, follows his dreams wherever they take him, so long as they are guaranteed to fail. He is the Charlie Brown of Yiddish literature, a perpetual loser always ready to flush his money down the toilet or to walk blindly into some elaborate scam. (Sholom Aleichem, who lost a fortune on the Kiev stock market, knew this character inside-out.) Yet instead of banging his head against a tree, Menakhem-Mendl radiates unwarranted optimism. When the market leaves him bankrupt yet again, he tries to become a journalist by sending the newspapers pointless descriptions of his landlady; when he happens upon a matchmaker’s client list, he sets up marriages with disastrous results; when that fails, he starts selling insurance; when he inevitably gets scammed out of town, it’s off to America to try again. “Motl,” too, brings us into a madcap world of false starts. Most of the book tracks Motl’s journey to America, an insane trip that sends his penniless family scheming their way across one border after another until they finally reach New York, where they again encounter endless setbacks. If Menakhem-Mendl is Charlie Brown, Motl is Bart Simpson, milking the adults for whatever they’re worth and giving us his anything-but-innocent understanding of a loony world. Yet unlike Bart’s, Motl’s is a world that is forever vanishing — along with its author, who died before completing it.

Both of these works deserve far more attention than their sitcom plots imply. Like the majority of Sholom Aleichem’s protagonists, Menakhem-Mendl and Motl are most memorable for their relentless optimism, which ultimately makes them heartbreaking. Menakhem-Mendl can try all he wants, but he is doomed to failure in czarist Russia, where no Jew’s living — or life — was ever guaranteed. Motl is in some ways even more tragic. Just as Motl is unfazed by the loss of his father’s life, the novel allows us to forget Motl’s old life as it rushes him through Europe to America. By the end, Motl’s narration is more English than Yiddish, and the not-so-lucky orphan becomes Yiddish itself.

Translator Hillel Halkin ingeniously lets the English reader experience these texts the way Yiddish readers did — as something immediate and alive. He achieves this through a liberal use of slang that perfectly captures Menakhem-Mendl’s bluster and Motl’s carefree boldness. Halkin’s most brilliant coup comes in “Motl,” where he takes on the original’s many Englishisms by casting them into nearly unreadable phonetic spellings: Motl gets a “dzhahb” selling “noospeypihz” while his brother sells “haht dawgz” for “Hibru Neshnel.” The effect is to make the English reader stumble over the weird new words, just as Yiddish readers stumbled over the English.

Such familiarity has a price. Yiddish is a language informed by religion in a way that modern English isn’t, and its humor often comes from the easy exchange of sacred and profane. When a character burns his own house down to collect insurance, the phrase “he lit the match himself” loses the subversive level of the original’s “he pulled a borey meyorey ha-eysh [he who created firelight],” one of several joking expressions that use ritual candle lighting to refer to insurance fires. Motl’s friend has a bump on his forehead and gets nicknamed “Vashti,” after the queen in the Book of Esther who declined to appear in her crown before the king; in this translation, his nickname is simply “Bumpy.” Landsman, or countryman, is translated as “homeboy” — an able Americanism, but from a very different sort of ghetto. One might as well refer to Sholom Aleichem — a pseudonym which in Yiddish means “how do you do” — as “Wassup?” But Halkin’s choice of the familiar over the foreign is a brave one whose gains far outnumber losses. With the balance of Halkin’s insightful introduction and notes, this volume is a treasure.

Jewish legend has it that the dent below one’s nose comes from the hands of angels, who press their fingers to the lips of children not yet born in order to make them forget the secrets of the other world. But in Itzik Manger’s novel “The Book of Paradise,” the angel on nose duty is a drunken lout whom the narrator, awaiting his own birth, manages to trick into leaving the narrator’s nose untouched — thus arriving on earth with full knowledge of the paradise he left behind.

Excerpts from this novel appear in “The World According to Itzik,” a selection of Manger’s best poetry and prose. Yet one could say that all of Manger’s work is precisely this sort of recollection of a pre-birth paradise, untouched by the ravages of reality that take away our childhood and that in Manger’s case also took away the audience that recognized his art. This volume offers English readers a first glimpse of that paradise.

At its center is “Itzik’s Midrash,” a collection of poems that revisit biblical stories by zooming in on the hidden loves, lusts and jealousies of our ancestors, with amusing anachronistic twists. When Abraham expels his concubine Hagar, for instance, he does so by taking her to the train station — and when Hagar and her son Ishmael later wander the desert, they are intercepted by a caravan of Turks, who bow before her as the “handmaiden of Ibrahim.” Jacob, searching for his uncle’s house, consults a Bible to find it. Manger’s “Songs of the Megillah,” also included here, rewrites the Book of Esther so that Esther has a secret affair with Fastrigosso, a poor Jewish tailor who is later executed for trying to assassinate the king after vainly hoping that Esther might elope with him to Vienna.

One might call this approach to the Bible “irreverent,” but these poems are actually closer to the religious tradition of real midrash, filling in the blanks in the biblical narrative with stories that make sense for one’s own time and place. Nor, for all their humor, are they really jokes at all. “Songs of the Megillah” ends not with biblical triumph, but with Fastrigosso’s mother lighting a yahrzeit candle for her son. The bereft mother’s breezy insults remind us that the Purim story of the Jews’ rescue from peril is the real farce — particularly when these poems were written, in 1936. In “The Sacrifice of Itzik,” which recasts the poet as the biblical Isaac, Itzik is told that even though he was saved from the knife last time, God has changed his mind again — so off to the sacrifice he goes. There is humor here, but there is also the weighty hand of a God who refuses to stop demanding the impossible — and who refuses to let the writer finish his story, even after his readers have disappeared.

Leonard Wolf is the first to translate many of these works into English. It’s an unenviable task, since Manger relies heavily on rhyme and wordplay. But Wolf conjures up many rhymes with élan, and occasionally tones down Manger’s Dr. Seuss-ishness by substituting not-quite rhymes (like “hand” and “mind”). Wolf’s solutions are often inspired, like the poem “The Patriarch Jacob Meets Rachel,” which transposes the snooty Germanized Yiddish of Manger’s characters into equally snooty French expressions like “bon soir” and “mademoiselle.” Others are wince-worthy, like a rhyme between “troth” and “Shavuoth.” But these losses are far outweighed by the gain of a reliable translation and the enormous treat that he and David G. Roskies (who wrote the sweeping introduction) have given English readers by introducing them to Manger’s radiance.

Since Manger’s death, Yiddish literature has been an orphan, but not a very lucky one. These new translations give this orphaned literature what it needs and deserves: a chance for English readers to adopt it and bring it home.

Dara Horn, a doctoral student in comparative literature at Harvard University and author of “In the Image” (W.W. Norton, 2002), last appeared in these pages October 25 reviewing Emanuel Goldsmith’s “Yiddish Literature in America, 1870-2000.”

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