Page 76 - Jewish Book Annual Volume 25

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nantly non-Jewish audience. There has always been a polite
titter; and after the lecture I have invariably been approached
by someone who would ask shyly: “That Jew meant to say ‘yes-
terday,’ didn’t he?” Now the absence of the right response is
not due to a lack of the sense of humor in the non-Jewish audi-
ences. It is simply that in the experience of non-Jews there is
nothing to provide the resonance for that type of story. For non-
Jews it is not, so to speak, a national joke, whereas even semi-
assimilated Jews have enough of the tradition to feel what
discrimination means, and to remember the devices and dodges
to which their ancestors were reduced in order to survive. The
Jewish humor of which Sholom Aleichem was the supreme mas-
ter was the humor founded on national experience. He was suf-
ficently the master to transmit some of that humor to those who
are unacquainted with the experience, hence his world-wide pop-
ularity. But the essence remains inaccessible to those who have
not the experience as it were in their bones. No doubt as more
skillful translators arise, more of him will be opened up to the
non-Jewish world, but the core of him will remain insoluble
in other languages.
A Typical Passage
Let me quote a passage from
Tevye der Milchiger
which sums
up the essence of the humor, the tragedy of the background of
Sholom Aleichem’s style. It also contains examples of his in-
genious maltreatment of Biblical and Mishnaic texts and texts
from the prayer book—disastrous misquotations or mistransla-
tions which strike home only if the reader knows the original—
as readers of Sholom Aleichem in Yiddish did. Toward the close
of his cycle of stories Tevye is preparing, in his old age, to settle
in Palestine. His wife is dead, his daughters are scattered to the
ends of the earth—one of them is dead by her own hand, another
has married out of the faith. Tevye is selling out his modest house-
hold, and every little object costs him a pang. One thing reminds
him of his wife, another of one daughter, another of a second
daughter—his life is woven into the pots and pans and brooms.
The pathos of his life rises before him, and he remembers with
vainlonging the time when they were all happily together. But
what hit him hardest was the parting with his wretched nag,
which has become a character, like Don Quixote’s Rosinante or
Alexander the Great’s Bucephalus.
“Kayn zach hot mir nish derlangt azoy tief vi dos ferdl
meins. Ankegn mein ferd hob ich mir gefilt epes chayev.
Staitch, opgehorevet mit im azoy fil yoren, inaynem gebide-
vet, inaynem farshwartzt gevoren, un plutzim genumen un