What an amazing novel, and what an incredible story! Wandering Stars, by Sholem Aleichem, and translated from the Yiddish by Aliza Shevirn, is a journey into Yiddish Theater unlike anything I have read on the subject. Jews are known as wanderers, and Aleichem’s novel not only evokes that theme, but also infuses the story with characters-turned actors straight from Holeneshti, a Russian shtetl, stars in their own right, shining brightly on stage. It is a sprawling love story spanning ten years and two continents, and set in the colorful world of the Yiddish theater.
Reisel is the daughter of a cantor, a cantor who is in dire straights, monetarily speaking. Leibel is from a wealthy family. Both Reisel and Leibel are intrigued and taken by the Yiddish Theater company, and its troupe of actors that come to their shtetl at the end of the nineteenth century. They sit next to each other during each performance. They plot to run off together and join the theater company, influenced and persuaded by the theater manager.
It is difficult to write a review of this 400+ page book without delving into the story too much, but I will give a brief synopsis.
Reisel and Leibel leave their homes, thinking they will eventually meet and run off together. Things don’t quite work out that way. They join the theater, but as it turns out, it is not together, because they become separated by greedy theater managers. They eventually make their own mark in the Yiddish Theater world, after being promoted and exploited by their managers and theater owners. Reisel becomes Rosa Spivak, promoted as a concert talent coming from Bucharest. Leibel becomes Leo Rafalesko, an acting genius. Their audiences adore them, and can’t get enough of them, wanting them to perform more often. Rosa and Leo wander through Eastern Europe with their theater company, through London, and eventually make their way to America. In America they become instant successes, each one not knowing the other is there, and practically under their noses.
Aleichem is strong in his ability to bring not only comedy, but rage to the forefront in Wandering Stars. He illuminates the characters with emotion that is illuminated so strongly, the reader understands that the humorous statements are actually superficially so, as they are in fact statements of anger, disguised as comedy. Comedy became a way of life, a form of survival, both physical survival and emotional survival. Sarcasm rules within the Yiddish acting troupes, as does greed, suffering, love and longing, deceit and desire.
Actors and actresses put on costumes, donned their stage outfits, and performed boldy, enticing the audience to crave more. They were audacious both on and off stage. They were bold individuals and were colorful, self-absorbed, comedic and tragic. The managers were just as daring in their feats to entice not only the audience, but the performers. They were bold, often reckless and ruthless. Aleichem demonstrates the backstage antics and manipulations with details that are brilliant. Yiddish theater, along with its dynamics is brought to the forefront, and all of the reader’s senses are filled. We are there, in the midst of it all, through all of the travel, performances, artistry, and through the changes of not only the theater, but also societal changes. Sholem_Aleichem brings Yiddish Theater to life!
The format might seem odd to some readers, as each chapter is approximately 2-3 pages long. There is a reason for that…the book was serialized in the newspaper, and each day, a different chapter was printed. Its length long enough to be published in the paper, and long enough to hold the reader’s interest, and make them want to come back for more.
Wandering Stars is a love story, but also much more than that. It is both a tour de force, and a tour de farce. From moochers to shnorrers, shlimazels, nudniks, gonefs, to the honorable mensch, the book is filled with characters of all types, colorful in personality and ideals. Nothing is left unsaid, and the Jews in the book are often pompous and pretentious. The novel is infused with Jewish life, not only theater life, but life outside the theater. It is a novel rich with vivid word imagery, and rich with Yiddish euphemisms. In fact there is a Yiddish glossary at the back of the book. There are also meanings and interpretations that allude to the Bible/Tanakh. Aleichem has filled the novel with a vivid and amazing life tapestry.
Aleichem was a masterful writer, and Wandering Stars is a masterpiece because of that. Wandering Stars is a tribute to Yiddish theater, and to a way of life that once was, and one that no longer exists, both onstage and off stage. It is also a tribute to Sholem Aleichem and his consummate writing skills.
I highly recommend Wandering Stars to everyone, not only for the story, but for its historical aspect as well. It belongs in every personal library, and every university, college, high school, and local library.
Sholam aleichem to Solomon Rabinowitz, wherever he is.
November 19, 2012 – 5 Kislev, 5773
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