The Letters of Menakhem-Mendl and Sheyne-
Sheyndl and Motl, the Cantor's Son
By Sholem Aleichem
Published by Open Road Integrated Media / Yale
University Press, October 2013
Sholem Aleichem was a Jewish author and playwright from the Ukraine and lived from 1859 - 1916; the most well-known of his works in English is undoubtedly the story of Tevye the Dairyman, which ultimately became immortalised as the musical "Fiddler on the Roof." This translation of his two works " The Letters of Menakhem-Mendl & Sheye-Sheyndl" and "Motl, the Cantor's Son" is by Hillel Halkin, who also wrote the introduction to the volume.
What can one say about Menakhem-Mendl and his wife, Sheyne-Sheyndl? He is utterly convinced that he has the ability to make a huge success of what he believes to be his financial acumen in speculative trading as he travels the cities of Russia in his attempts to make a fortune with which to support his family, but his business schemes regularly go awry, much to his wife's consternation and distress; she often berates and scolds him for his reckless gambles and is increasingly puzzled and disturbed by him, especially when he heads over to the New World to seek a fortune there too. The dialogue between them ranges from loving, sweet and actually very charming, to outright fury, often making me laugh out loud at their interchanges in this intimate glimpse into pre-Revolutionary Jewish life.
Motl, the son of Peysi the Cantor, who dies at the beginning of the story, is able to make the journey over to America and make a new life for himself, his mother and brother. Motl's talent and passion is for art, and he seems to be able to quickly assimilate into American culture and life; his learning to speak American English in a variety of accents is wonderfully described. Eventually the family launches into business with a newspaper and soda stand and things just keep on looking up for them after that.
Both stories were enjoyable and it has been a delight to have been able to finally read them in English.