Where no Yiddish author had gone before

Where no Yiddish author had gone before

Curt Leviant rediscovers Sholom Aleichem’s “Moshkeleh the Thief”

Left, Sholom Aleichem, as captured in a postcard in the YIVO collection; center, a 1927 edition of “Moshkeleh the Thief,” published in Kiev; right, the new translation by Curt Leviant.
Left, Sholom Aleichem, as captured in a postcard in the YIVO collection; center, a 1927 edition of “Moshkeleh the Thief,” published in Kiev; right, the new translation by Curt Leviant.

In Warsaw in the old days, you wouldn’t binge “Moshkeleh the Thief,” the groundbreaking Sholom Aleichem story just published by the Jewish Publication Society in an English translation by Curt Leviant. In Warsaw in the old days — those days being 1903 — you would read each of the 20 chapters one week at a time, as they appeared in one of the city’s Yiddish daily papers.

And when you finished reading the week’s installment — it wasn’t long, it would fill about four pages in the English translation a century plus later — you would be, as they say, zitsn af shpilkes, be sitting on pins, waiting impatiently for the next chapter. 

“Every chapter has a rise and fall and you’re anxious to come back,” Dr. Leviant said. (Dr. Leviant, a contributor to this newspaper, lives in Edison. He earned a Ph.D. in Hebraic studies at Rutgers, where he taught for many years.) 

Eventually, the short work — it comes to 80 pages — was published in book form. Dr. Leviant worked from a 1913 edition; its most recent publication was in Moscow in 1941. That was when Stalin’s persecution of Jewish writers was already underway, Mr. Leviant noted; Isaac Babel, the great Russian writer who had translated Sholom Aleichem into Russian, was executed on Stalin’s orders in 1940.

But the greater mystery in “Moshkeleh the Thief’s” publication history is its omission from the official 28-volume collection of Sholom Aleichem’s works that his family published after the author’s death in 1916 at 57.

“Perhaps they felt this writing about a gonnif” – thief – “and horse thieves was not appropriate,” Dr. Leviant speculated. The omission allowed his translation to be given the evocative subtitle, “A Rediscovered Novel.”

“I never realized the existence of this novel,” Dr. Leviant said. That despite having translated Sholom Aleichem autobiography, “From the Fair,” as well as three collections of his stories. It was only while sitting in the Hebrew University library a couple years ago, reading back issues of Di Goldene Keyt, the Israeli Yiddish literary journal edited by the poet Avrom Sutzkever from 1949 to 1995, that he ran across a mention of the work.

“Hence we call it the first new work by Sholom Aleichem in more than a hundred years,” Dr. Leviant said.

While Sholom Aleichem’s heirs may not have appreciated the story of “Moshkeleh the Thief,” the author himself “stated that he was very proud of this work,” Dr. Leviant said. “He felt he had just regained his creative strength in writing this short novel.

“It was a groundbreaking topic. He’s writing about horse thieves, fences, the underworld, the Jewish underclass. It’s a totally new subject for Yiddish literature, which up to that point had been a bastion of gentility and eydlkayt,” a “sweetness of character.” “He broke the niceness barrier by bringing a horse gonnif into Yiddish literature.”

It is also “a wonderful love story, and an adventure that keeps the pages turning.”

Besides Sholom Aleichem, Dr. Leviant has translated a book by Isaac Bashevis Singer — a volume of memoir, “In My Father’s Court,” — and several novels by Chaim Grade, among other Yiddish works. He is also a novelist in his own right with his latest book, “Me, Mo, Ma, Mu & Mod; or, Which Will It Be, Me and Mazal or Gilah and Me?” coming out later this year from Livingston Press at the University of West Alabama.

“It’s set in the Jewish ghetto in Venice,” Dr. Leviant said. “It came about because I was offered a residency fellowship by the city of Venice’s department of cultural affairs a few years ago. Six weeks in Venice with your own apartment — the only caveat was that you write something about the city. When I got there, I was flooded with ideas. This was one of them.”

In the story, “the time zones are totally broken,” and the narrator — a contemporary visitor to Venice — crosses paths with a 17th century city chief rabbi and the 11th century Spanish poet Shlomo ibn Gabirol. “It’s typical of some of my later fiction,” Dr. Leviant says.

Mr. Leviant grew up in Brooklyn, the son of Russian-born, Yiddish-speaking parents. “My father gave me a copy of short stories by Sholom Aleichem,” he said. “One night I heard my father saying to my mother, ‘He reads all night long and he is laughing.’”

He was also, unconsciously, translating.

“I found as I was reading Sholom Aleichem little subtitles — the translations were running through my mind in an almost instinctual fashion.”

So he decided to take one of the stories and translate it.

“I guess I was in college. I sent it out to Commentary and Commentary liked it immediately and published it. And then I got a letter from an American publisher: Can you put out a collection of these stories? From then, on it went.”

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