The Best of Sholom Aleichem
These stories, set only fifty to one hundred years ago, seem to speak to the reader almost from another world. The persecutions which dispersed a fragile community of Jews also drove the author to Europe and New York. He continued his prolific writing career, using a disarmingly folksy narrative style to delight readers with his gentle humor and instruct them in the uncertainties and cruelties of daily life. Aleichem writes of the Jewish tradition of Eastern Europe just before it disintegrated and became the nurturing soil of modern Jewish life. His use of folklore and the oral tradition give his stories the impact of immediacy and the heartwarming intimacy of a personal conversation. The reader is there in the shtetl, and Aleichem is there with him as the friendly guide pointing out the sights.
Aleichem describes an insular and cohesive society. As the editors point out in the Introduction, the comic levity is a viewpoint imposed by the author on situations permeated by change, anxiety, and guilt. There is in this marvelously funny collection of tales a pervasive and cumulative experience of misery, guilt, and fear. The humor is possible especially because these characters are not daunted by their conditions; they face them with dignity, hope, and outrageously comic manipulations. The author’s sharp wit is constantly probing the foibles, pretensions, assumptions, and characteristics of the culture of this people. In his adaptation of the folktale “The Haunted Tailor,” he not only narrates the simple story but also elaborates on it, amplifying the personalities and gently ridiculing the follies of the tailor, his wife, and the townspeople with wit and charm. Aleichem’s insistence that he cannot state the moral of the story slyly puts the burden of doing so upon the reader.
These stories exude an abundance of humor in many guises, from the innocent merriment in the tales of “From Mottel, the Cantor’s Son,” to the folly of misguided outrage in “Dreyfus in Kasrilevke,” and to the bittersweet chuckle of compassion at Tevye’s...
(The entire section is 849 words.)