‘What could be easier than to buy up the Land of Israel from the Turks?” writes Sholem Aleichem in a Yiddish-language short story entitled “Homesickness.” The story describes how the inhabitants of an imaginary Russian shtetl are introduced to Zionism.
“At first, of course, they’d have to bargain — but a ruble more or a ruble less — what’s the difference? What if the Turks don’t want to sell the land, you might ask. But why wouldn’t they? They need the money badly, and besides, we are their people, you could say we are relatives, brothers — Isaac and Ishmael.”
Sholem Aleichem wrote the story more than a century ago, when Palestine was still part of the Ottoman Empire, but the Russian public could read it only recently. That’s because in honor of the 100 year anniversary since the prolific author’s death, some of his stories that were censored in the Soviet Union were translated to Russian for the first time.
“This story expresses Zionist sentiments. It shows us the Sholem Aleichem that we didn’t know,” said Rabbi Boruch Gorin, editor of Knizhniki, the Moscow-based publishing house which translated the story from Yiddish. The story wasn’t included in the Soviet collections because “it didn’t fit with how Soviet authorities portrayed Sholem Aleichem,” he said.
Sholem Aleichem, best known for his “Tevye the Dairyman” story on which the film “Fiddler on the Roof” is based, was born in the Russian Empire in 1859 and died in 1916.
Yet while extensive collections of his work were published in the Soviet Union, some of his stories were never translated — sometimes for murky reasons.
Among those that were left out were the novel “The Bloody Joke,” a collection of stories called “The new letters of Menachem Mendel” — where Sholom Aleichem’s unlucky businessman becomes a journalist in a Warsaw newspaper — and some tales about the imaginary shtetl of Kasrilevka.
In the pieces that were actually published in the USSR, chunks related to religion were cut, as were Hebrew passages that Soviet translators (who spoke Yiddish but not Hebrew) didn’t understand, Gorin said. In one story, published in the 1930s when there was hunger in the Soviet Union, even the Shabbat meal was censored.
“In the Soviet translation, half the dishes weren’t included. I think they didn’t want people to read about how well people ate in a poor shtetl,” Gorin said.
In recent years, Knizhniki published “The New Letters of Menachem Mendel” (which had never been translated to English or Russian before), and “The Bloody Joke,” and also produced a new translation of the Kasrilevka stories. The most recently translated Kasrilevka story “Velvel Gambetta” was printed in in May for the centennial of the author’s death.
‘When you start reading Sholem Aleichem, when you see it in theater or in the cinema, you start to imagine that world’
“It’s interesting to translate Sholem Aleichem because he is a well-known writer,” Gorin said. “He is always popular.”
He added that Sholem Aleichem was so prolific, there remain many stories yet to be translated to Russian or English.
Despite Soviet shortcomings with Sholem Aleichem, the books of other Yiddish authors — many of whom lived and wrote about the Russian Empire — were even less likely to be translated to Russian.
For example, Isaac Bashevis Singer, who received the Nobel Prize in literature, was completely unknown in the Soviet Union. His books were not translated to Russian at all because of his anti-communist views, Gorin said.
The books of Isaac B. Singer and his older brother Israel J. Singer, who was also an acclaimed writer, were printed for the first time in Russian in recent years.
In the next six months, Knizhniki will publish Zalman Shneur’s historical novel about the arrest of the first head rabbi of the Chabad dynasty by the Russian tsar in the 18th century. The novel, entitled “The Rabbi and the Tsar” has never been printed in Russian.
“We want to introduce the public to a great European culture. It’s a forgotten culture that we need to return to the readers,” Gorin said. “Yiddish literature compares (in its sophistication) to English and Russian literature. Yet it appeared and died away within one generation. That’s a tragedy.”
One loyal purchaser of the translations is Kirill Sahmanov, a 23-year-old Hillel employee from Moscow who is so fascinated with Yiddish authors that he tries to read each title immediately upon publication in Russian. He says reading Yiddish literature is the only way to imagine what Jewish life was like back in the day.
“When you start reading Sholem Aleichem, when you see it in theater or in the cinema, you start to imagine that world. That’s how I learn about Jewish culture — I don’t see another way,” he said.
Translating Sholom Aleichem and other Yiddish authors to Russian became possible recently thanks to the creation of new programs at Russian universities that teach Yiddish and train translators.
“As a native language it almost died out, so people started studying it,” Gorin said.
Moscow State University, the Russian State University for the Humanities, and the Saint-Petersburg University all started teaching Yiddish in recent years — something that was not the case in the Soviet Union, said Valery Dymshits, a translator who learned the Yiddish in class. Even some of his teachers were not native speakers, he said.
“It’s only now that it became possible [to translate from Yiddish to Russian]. There were no specialists who could do it before,” Gorin said.
Despite some problems with Soviet publications, more of Sholem Aleichem’s work has been translated to Russian than to English, said Itzik Gottesman, the president of the Sholem Aleichem Cultural Center in New York.
In addition, Russian translations were usually of better quality than the English ones because they were done by professional writers rather than by academics, Gorin said. For example, renowned Russian author Isaac Babel translated and edited some of Sholem Aleichem’s work but the translations were lost after he was arrested by Stalin’s police.
As for English translations of Sholem Aleichem, many of them are currently out of print.