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  • “Daytsh iz dokh Yidish:”Sholem Aleichem’s Motl the Cantor’s Son as Born-Translated Literature1
  • Michael Boyden

In early January 1914, about a year before his eventual move to America, Sholem Aleichem stopped in the Belgian port town of Antwerp on one of his European reading tours. The next day, the Zionist magazine Hatikwah reported enthusiastically that “(e)in tausendköpfiges Publikum” (a crowd of thousands) had gathered in the auditorium of the Cercle Artistique to applaud the famous Jewish humorist, who read from both his famous “Schlagers” (sketches) and unpublished manuscripts (“Shulem-Aleichem Abend” 11). This description is striking on several levels. To begin, while Antwerp was one of the central hubs for Jewish migrants traveling to America at the turn of the century, it was far removed from the main publishing centers of Eastern Europe as well as the growing community of Yiddish readers on the other side of the ocean. The reading stint in Antwerp is equally interesting on an ideological level. Sholem Aleichem has come to be remembered as the quintessential diaspora author whose folksy stories evoke the lost world of the shtetl (the Yiddish name for a small Jewish community in Eastern Europe), but when visiting Antwerp, he did so at the invitation of the Zionist youth organization Kadimah, and the event was reported on in the monthly of the Belgian Zionist federation.2 Finally, the fact that the piece in Hatikwah was written in the magazine’s chosen language, German, rather than Yiddish, Hebrew, or another language, is indicative of the linguistic heterogeneity characterizing Jewish communities on the eve of the First World War.3

The geographical, ideological, and linguistic displacements evoked by Sholem Aleichem’s visit to Antwerp pose interesting challenges for the student of world literature.4 Where should we locate Sholem Aleichem’s oeuvre on what Theo D’haen calls the “Gall-Peters map of world literature” (289), or a literary map that is not disproportionally skewed towards dominant European languages? If, as David Damrosch suggests, world literature refers to works that circulate beyond their “home base” (4), [End Page 393] how do we approach the oeuvre of authors who never had a real home to begin with, or whose home was wherever they laid their hats? I want to broach these questions by way of Sholem Aleichem’s final and unfinished story cycle Motl Peyse dem Khazns (Motl, the Cantor’s Son), which narrates the journey of a widow and her children from the fictional Ukrainian shtetl Kasrilevke to America. Along the way, the emigrants pass through Brody, Lemberg (the Yiddish name of present-day Lviv), Cracow, Vienna, and Antwerp, to finally end up in London, where they board a steamer to America. What makes Sholem Aleichem’s story so interesting, apart from the fact that it evokes eerie associations with the plight of migrants in the present age, is that it chronicles the tragic demise of Eastern European Jewish life through the eyes of the widow’s youngest son Motl, whose comic observations contrast sharply with the gravity of the events but also undermine the taken-for-granted conjunction between language, territory, and identity that is at the heart of debates about world literature today.5

American critics, who have been the most vocal perpetuators of Sholem Aleichem’s legacy after the Second World War, have shown most interest, perhaps naturally, in the second (unfinished) story cycle, which takes place in the United States. Thus, in an otherwise insightful analysis of the language play in the novel, Lawrence Rosenwald focuses exclusively on the American scenes, arguing that the sketches in the first part merely serve to “prepare the characters for the quasi-Platonic dialogues on language in the second” (103). Contrary to Rosenwald, I believe the first cycle to be no less interesting than the second, both linguistically and ideologically. Moreover, interpretations such as Rosenwald’s seem to hinge on an all-too-stark opposition between what is often called the “Old Country” as a place of persecution and misery on the one hand and America as the locus of renewal and regeneration on the other hand. In my view, it is precisely such simplistic oppositions that...


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pp. 393-405
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