Tag Archives: Jews and Jewish life

Review: Wandering Stars

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 you 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.

Sholem_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 schnorrers, 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. 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.

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The Counterlife, by Philip Roth

Philip Roth has long been one of my favorite male authors, and in his novel, The Counterlife, I am reminded of his ability to blend the bizarre twists and turns that life throws us into a work of art that resounds with his full range and depth of literary intensity.

Nathan and Henry Zuckerman are estranged brothers, so very different, yet unaware how much alike they actually are. Nathan is an author, Henry is a dentist. For one of them, the reason for living borders on being able to be sexually active. In this respect, he decides to undergo surgery in order to counteract that problem. Even though the surgery could kill him, he elects to take that chance, all in the name of sexual identity. It is his counter life, to fit a desired outcome, a longing for what many of us want, a home, a family, marriage, and the “idealized” life.

Nathan, has long been estranged from Henry, and as an author, seems to live through his brother, writing novels whose characters include Henry. He has a counterlife through his stories, his fantasies and fiction, and his identity is one that is alive due to Henry. Although he is a prolific author in his own right, his works are derived from Henry’s life.

Therein lies the clue in this well written novel. The issue of identity, and what it means to us, is at the core of the story line. What one will do, in order to preserve identity, to create the life we long for, and what we view as our Self, our essence, is the soul of the book. The characters each invent a counter life, a life invented, a life created, in order to transfer their current life, into one they believe is better. The reader is exposed to the characters fears and how they choose to rewrite their own histories.

From travels to Israel, and connecting with one’s Jewish spirituality, to funeral attendance, and delivering a eulogy, from the streets of the U.S, to France, and England, we are confronted with issues of identity, including spirtiual, emotional, sexual, and all the levels and tiers in between. We are confronted with our own questions of identity, who we are, what we believe, and, finally the question of whether the end result is our own creation of ourselves?

Roth writes with humor, with seriousness, and with a profound and intense insight into the humanity, the insecurities, the deep fears, and the identity crises that exists within all of us. Roth’s strong words and strong theme, shows us how a counter life is not always productive, but could produce undesirable effects, in the end. We might not always receive what we wish for, but then again, we might receive it, but it could turn out that our counter life is actually counter-productive. Philip Roth’s The Counterlife is excellent, and his writing is masterful and brilliant, encapsulating the full range of emotions, and writing down to the bare bones, as only he knows how.

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