(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Originally published as independent pieces, the Menachem-Mendl letters were gathered into a collection published in 1895, at which point Sholom Aleichem revised and expanded the stories to form a coherent whole. In this final form they constitute an epistolary novel of sorts—a novel in which all of the narration is done through letters.

In his first letter, Menachem-Mendl writes from the city of Odessa to tell his wife, Sheineh-Sheindl, who lives in the small town of Kasrilevke, how well he is doing as a currency speculator. He exaggerates so much that the reader is immediately skeptical, as is his wife, who wants him to provide more details. Throughout these letters Sheineh-Sheindl will continually ask for more details of her husband’s business ventures, while Menachem-Mendl will continually say he has no time to write.

Menachem-Mendl’s reluctance to say more is perhaps part of his struggle for independence from the shtetl life in Kasrilevke. In the opinion of literary critic Dan Miron, Menachem-Mendl is trying to break free of traditional life. He has escaped to the city and is never going home, despite his wife’s desire that he return. At the same time, he does keep writing her, suggesting that he cannot fully free himself; he wishes to maintain some contact with the traditional life he has left behind, even while seeking to throw himself into a more modern existence.

Part of the comedy, which is also tragic, derives from Menachem-Mendl’s inability to fully understand the modern life in which he is trying to participate. Sheineh-Sheindl understands it even less, and there is humor in her misunderstanding his references to coffee shops (she thinks they are the names of women) and her confusion over what her husband is doing. She keeps wanting to know the size and weight of the currency and stocks he is investing in, as if they were solid objects.

Part of Aleichem’s point is that these are not solid objects, but mere air, as Sheineh-Sheindl...

(The entire section is 817 words.)


(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

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Frieden, Ken. Classic Yiddish Fiction: Abramovitsh, Sholem Aleichem, and Peretz. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1995.

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Halkin, Hillel. “Introduction.” In The Letters of Menakhem-Mendl and Sheyne-Sheyndl and Motl, the Cantor’s Son, by Sholem Aleichem. Translated by Hillel Halkin. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2002.

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Miron, Dan. The Image of the Shtetl, and Other Studies of Modern Jewish Imagination. Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 2000.