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This is a very short collection, of just 8 stories told in 171 pages. There were a couple of them that seemed to have at least parts of them incorporated into the film The Fiddler on the Roof.
Most were quite simple tales of life in the poor Jewish villages of Russia, a couple were quite touching and sad, the last one even deeply troubling. They left me thinking I should read some longer collection of Sholom Aleikhem’s work.
Below I just briefly comment on each story.
A terribly poor young man needs a job. From family connections he lands one to be a tutor to a young man from a “known” family. However, the “student” has no interest in learning and tells the tutor that he doesn’t have any attention to learn, but the tutor should play along and he will tell his parents he is learning so much. They don’t really care.
But, the “student” is actually set to be married and he begs the teacher to write some letters to his intended for him. Little by little the tutor, in writing the letters and getting more and more passionate letters back talking of a life-time of passionate love coming, falls deeply in love with his tutor’s intended.
However, when the wedding day comes in turns out the boy and his tutor were not the only ones playing games.
A delightful story!
The narrator of this story does not like to be interrupted. He tells his story of how he fell in love with Paya, a young widow. Her husband had been wealthy, and an acquaintance of the narrator, but not a close friend. The narrator is himself a bachelor. Her husband had died very suddenly, but shortly after his death Paya has a child, a girl, Rosa. The narrator becomes very close to Paya and while he doesn’t live with Paya, he is with her all the time and becomes very close, even father-like to Rosa. He calls Paya his “widow.”
After some years as Rosa grows up the narrator falls in love with her despite the serious age difference. This causes a nasty split with Paya, but Rosa herself isn’t interested in the narrator and marries a man her own age.
Unfortunately Rosa’s husband dies shortly after she has their daughter, Feigele. The narrator sort of adopts Rosa, now as his second “wife.”
After some years Feigele grows up and the narrator is madly in love with her, not as his “adopted granddaughter” but as a lover. He dreams of marrying her. However, she does marry a young radical in the political world of the growing communism, and just days after they marry; he is arrested and eventually taken away, presumably killed. Poor Feigele is now alone and without help, so he takes on his “third widow.”
This is an interesting tale. The narrator doesn’t at all seem to care that none of these three women love him in the normal lover situation, but yet he cares for each of them as though they were a wife, and when their own husbands die he seems himself as widowed from that woman!
This was the hardest tale in the volume for me to really understand. We are told of a good man, a tailor, in a small village. His wife desperately wants a goat so that they can have some milk for their children and for cooking and she has heard that a woman in a near-by village has two goats. She demands that he go and buy one of those goats.
The tailor is very reluctant to go but does and after a great deal of bargaining he purchases the goat, after having seen it produce a great deal of milk, and brings it home. However, his wife is furious since the goat doesn’t give any milk. She sends the husband back with the goat, but nothing happens.
Eventually it comes out that his goat has somehow been cursed and will only give milk to the woman who had owned it. Finally they come to realize this and when the tailor is set to go back to the village to demand his money back, the mysterious goat has run off, free of any human control.
A very poor man, frustrated that he can’t really give his wife a bit of money for the Sabbath begins to fantasize: if I were Rothschild. He would meet his wife’s need and then he begins to dream, what if he really were. And off he goes on a roll! First he’d take care of his wife, then a proper house and clothes for his children. But what about others? So, he is soon helping the poor, stopping poverty, wars, greed and on to his notion of utopia. All this he would do, if only he were Rothschild! Hilarious, cute and sad.
An old woman comes to see the rabbi with her troubles. Her trouble is that her husband died. The rabbi delves into this – when did he die, how did he die, and answering this pushes her away from the husband’s tale and on to how she shares her house with a relative, and then on to the borders she’s taken in, and the horrors of their ways to be, which soon morphs into the story of her son who is studying Talmud, but is very sickly and, and, and on and on goes the story of her many woes until the rabbi is just exhausted with the long story of her miseries.
It’s a story of a million woes in a poor woman’s life, but her constant going on, non-stop from one misery to another ends up being a very funny story despite the sadness and even tragedies built into it.
“Advice” is a very strange story which even seems to single out the author as being part of the story. A crazed young husband of a very rich daughter of the richest man in town comes to this esteemed author to ask for advice. The author is expecting him to produce some text and asks why every publisher isn’t falling all over himself to publish it. However, this turns out to be a very different sort of tale.
The young husband is convinced that his wife really likes their doctor and he she. On the other hand, he seems equally convinced that nothing has ever “happened” between the two nor is it likely to, but, he is also sure that she likes the doctor much more than him.
The author who is listening to the story can’t figure out what this husband wants from him. The man is convinced that the author can’t give him any decent advice at all.
It was never clear at all as to what the point of the story was. It was the only unsatisfying story in the volume for me.
This is a touching and very sad little story. A poor man’s son is very ill with some illness no one in his small village understands. However, he hears about a famous professor of medicine will be in his area to see a rich man’s sick daughter. The man hurries to this rich man’s village and pleads and begs for the professor to stop just between train stops in his village to see his sick son, and, despite the rich man’s disapproval, the professor agrees.
We don’t know that the professor/doctor helped the child, but the mere fact that he had agreed to see the child deeply satisfied the father.
I thought this was a lovely and very touching tale of a deep parental care for his child, and the act of a kind doctor.
If “The Luckiest Man in Kodno” was the most touching story in this small collection, then “Methuselah” is the saddest.
Methuselah is a very old horse, completely worn out. It had worked at many many demeaning and demanding jobs in its working life, but at the end he is sold to Kasrilouka, the water-carrier. The horse was simply used to brutal treatment at the hands of its owner, but this time it is different.
Kasrilouka and his wife treat the horse very well. Methuselah finds pulling the water cart is the easiest work it’s ever had and that Kasrilouka’s wife treats the horse so well, feeds it well and givse it special treats that horses like. The horse cannot believe its good fortune. However, his conviction of a happy life and death is ruined, not by Kasrilouka, his work or his wife, but by one of the couple’s children. Their one son, notorious for bad behavior, steals the horse one rest day and lets neighborhood kids ride it and taunt it and treat it poorly until the poor horse, mad with pain and fear bolts into the country side where a pack of dogs chase the horse down and kill it.
Kasrilouka and his wife are simply devastated, both because they loved the horse and because it took such a burden off Kasrilouka’s work. However, most of the rest of the little village thought the whole thing was a funny story.
It was just a deeply sad story and so very simple.Bob Corbett firstname.lastname@example.org
Bob Corbett email@example.com