Tevye, step aside? SFSU prof shepherds first English translation of Sholem Aleichem playby dan pine, j. staff
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Everyone knows Tevye the dairyman, Sholem Aleichem’s beloved character from “Fiddler on the Roof.” With a little mazel, perhaps Reb Alter the bookseller will become the next well-known character from the late great Yiddish author.
That’s the hope of San Francisco State University theater history professor and Yiddish theater expert Joel Schechter, who helped bring about a new English-language translation of Sholem Aleichem’s jewel of a one-act play, “Mazl Tov.”
“It’s hard to believe,” says Schechter, who collaborated with the Northern California branch of the Workmen’s Circle, a Yiddish culture preservation society, and the journal Jewish Currents to shepherd the project. “There are several plays that have not been translated.”
“Mazl Tov” is a comic “Upstairs/Downstairs” story, set in the kitchen of an upper-crust Eastern European Jewish household. The itinerant Reb Alter pops in to shoot the breeze with Beyle, the house cook and his secret flame. While they kibbitz, he knocks back a shot or two of schnapps. OK, maybe three or four.
Also showing up: Freydl and Khayim, two young servants who, too, have a thing for each other. Along the way, the characters talk love, socialism, Zionism, whether Jews get drunk, and they sing a song or two.
Harvey Fink, a one-time Bay Area resident who grew up in a Yiddish-speaking household and now lives in Spain, did the translation. He says Sholem Aleichem’s works are hard to translate because they are “very idiomatic and difficult to render in common English.
“In this play everyone is speaking colloquial Yiddish,” Fink adds. “Apart from the intricacies of generally translating Yiddish, there’s the added problem that each character is speaking colloquially. The young speak in their lingo and the old folks speak in their antiquated version. I had to find the language for each character.”
That meant using terms like the archaic “crackerjack” for one untranslatable word, all the while retaining the cadence and flavor of the original Yiddish.
Schechter notes that “Mazl Tov” was written in a time and place when Yiddish theater had been banned per czarist decree. But it did have multiple performances around the Jewish world, most notably a 1921 production by the Moscow State Yiddish Theater.
That production starred Solomon Mikhoels (known as the Charlie Chaplin of Yiddish theater) and featured sets by Marc Chagall. A brief silent film clip of Mikhoels performing as Reb Alter and a few extant photos of the Chagall sets still exist.
Though hardly a political play, the fact that the characters mention concepts such as socialism and Zionism suggest the intellectual tumult of the times.
“The theme that ‘everyone should have a right to happiness’ was a current idea held by masses of Jews at the time,” Fink says. “[Sholem Aleichem] was not a radical, but emphasized mainstream Jewish values: honesty, personal satisfaction in one’s own life.”
Schechter has staged English-language versions of several Yiddish plays at S.F. State over the years, and though he can’t say yet whether he will mount a production of “Mazl Tov,” he hopes it will catch on.
“I would like to see this done everywhere,” he says. “But the first thing is to get it read. Now that it’s in print, theater professionals and teachers, students, people with an interest in Jewish literature can realize Sholem Aleichem was a playwright as well as a short story writer.”
“Mazl Tov” by Sholem Aleichem, translated by Harvey Fink (30 pages, Jewish Currents, $9.95)
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