By Jeremy Gillick
Sholom Aleichem, the revered 19th century writer whose earnest, incredulous and good-natured humor came to define a century of Jewish jokes, is back. Not resurrected–Aleichem was never much of a believer, though he undoubtedly would have welcomed the Messiah into the world like an old friend into his home–but reincarnated in the body and voice of Theodore Bikel. At 84, the man who made Fiddler on the Roof into an American story–Bikel has played Tevye the Dairyman upwards of 2000 times–has brought back to life the man whose writings shaped his long and illustrious career.
“Laughter Through Tears,” which recently premiered at the DCJCC’s Theater J and which, following it’s strong reception, was extended to run through January 18th, is a one-man tribute to Sholom Aleichem. Written, acted and sung by Bikel himself, the play offers a moving and funny depiction of Aleichem that is at once sincere and nostalgic. Not just nostalgic for Aleichem, or even for Bikel’s own distant youth, but for Yiddish, a language on behalf of which Aleichem fought an uphill battle for most of his life.
Forced from his home in Eastern Europe by pogroms, Aleichem found himself, alongside countless other immigrants, in a land where assimilation all but required abandoning his native language. But, as Bikel reminds us, Yiddish was the soul of the Jewish people; Aleichem could not have written in any other language for precisely that reason. Despite his best efforts, its use faded. The old country may have been full of dreams and longing, as Bikel explains, but so too is the new one, and the old country is their object.
Bikel’s performance won’t bring back Aleichem or the land and people of his tales, but it gives a glimpse, and that might be enough to forestall the demise of a lost language. In fact, its revival may already be under way.
By Jeremy Gillick
“Rise and go to the town of the killings,” Bialik wrote of Kishinev, the Moldovan city, formerly Russian, where a 1903 Easter Sunday blood libel famously escalated into a brutal three-day pogrom. A momentous event, the pogrom both expedited the Jewish exodus from Eastern Europe and helped usher Zionism into the 20th century. “Your feet will sink in feathers,” wrote Bialik forebodingly. “Half the buds will be feathers, and their smell the smell of blood.”
This image of blood and feathers in the heart of the Yiddish-speaking world is the backdrop of Peter Manseau’s new novel, Songs for the Butcher’s Daughter. As the Kishinev pogrom begins and feathers flutter from Jewish windows, Itsik Malpesh, destined to become the last great Yiddish writer, is born. Songs for the Butcher’s Daughter tells his story, from his days reading Dostoyevsky in the back of the cheder and sweeping up goose poop in his father’s down factory, to his search for the butcher’s daughter, Sasha, to his eventual emigration to New York, where he struggles to make a name for himself as a Yiddish poet. Throughout, Manseau interweaves Malpesh’s story with loosely autobiographical “translator’s notes” in which the narrator recounts how he stumbled upon Malpesh’s memoir.
Songs for the Butcher’s Daughter reads like a thriller. Gracefully written, Manseau offers an exhilarating exploration of violence and religion, a glimpse of a dying culture being remade, and a look at what Yiddish means. If the book is flawed in the sense that the pieces all fit together a little bit too well, it is nonetheless a remarkable accomplishment for a first time novelist, and the son of a priest and former nun to boot. As the Pulitzer Prize winning writer Junot Diaz put it, Songs for the Butcher’s Daughter is “an extraordinary novel, and Itsik Malpesh is one of literature’s most stunning creations.”
Manseau, co-author of Killing the Buddha with Jeff Sharlet and more recently Vows, studies religion and teaches writing at Georgetown University. He sat down with ITM to talk about his unique position as a non-Jewish, Jewish writer. Continue reading