"Hearken, O ye nations! Heed, O ye peoples of the world, what my mouth will utter now. Waken from your slumbers, raise your eyes, look about you and see the darkening sky. Black clouds are gathering above, a mighty wind drives them with great speed and they cover the entire sky. Soon, soon, a storm will be breaking. Soon, soon, the thunderclouds will burst and a great storm will pelt down, not of water but of blood." 
But it's not all in such a high register and even Lippa can't sustain that. Immediately afterwards one of the other characters says, "Reb Lippa! Perhaps you would like something to eat?"
1905 is an important year in Russian history. Russia has just--shockingly--lost the Russo-Japanese War. The events of the Russian Bloody Sunday--where peaceful marchers in St. Petersburg are fired on by police--is an important moment in the novel. The Tsar feels compelled to offer the people, temporarily as it turns out, a constitution. "Constitutzia, constitutzia!"
(It's also the time of the movie Battleship Potemkin, though none of those events show up in the book.)
The novel starts in Kiev: "Three different Pesachs were being prepared at No. 13 Vasilchikover Street." These Passover preparations are in the apartments of Itzikl Shostepol, Solomon Safranovitch, and Nehemiah the shoemaker. (Lippa Bashevitch supplies the building with firewood.) Itzikl Shostepol is a well-to-do merchant and religious; Solomon Safranovitch is a middle-class pharmacist and secularizing; Nehemiah is poor and lives in the basement. But all three have children who are engaged with the ideological currents flowing through Russia at the time.
At the start of the novel Tamara Shostepol and Sasha Safranovitch are about to return to Kiev for the holiday from St. Petersburg where they have been studying. They arrive on the same train, and, while as far as their fathers are concerned, they're not supposed to know each other since they're from different economic classes, they do, having grown up in the same building.
The novel then flashes back to events in St. Petersburg and that Bloody Sunday in January. The second half of the novel returns to Kiev. The tsar revokes the constitution later that year and scapegoats the Jews for Russia's failures. A series of pogroms erupts including one in Kiev. Our characters have to make serious choices.
Sholom Aleichem himself lived through that Kiev pogrom, though he was well-enough off at the time to take his family and hole up anonymously in a hotel. But that was the event that led to Aleichem leaving Russia. "Palestine and America--what a choice!" 
Aleichem is often written off at the sentimentalizing chronicler of shtetl life, he of Kasrilevke and Tevye and Fiddler on the Roof. (Great as I find Fiddler on the Roof to be.) I already knew there was more to him than that, but still this novel was a surprise. It's a very urban setting. It also represents the division between a more politicized second generation and their more accommodationist parents, a novel of the sort you see in The Demons (Dostoevsky) and Fathers and Sons (Turgenev). It's also stylistically quite interesting, with various modes: a telegraphic biography of a police spy, e.g., or what seem to be excerpts from police reports. Reading it in translation the interplay between Hebrew and Yiddish will inevitably mostly go past me, but the translation by Aliza Shevrin seems strong and she's able to make some of that apparent.
At that time Aleichem was new to New York, having fled the Kiev pogrom. His family was still in Europe, his older children at school in Switzerland. He had just had two failures on the New York Yiddish stage, possibly because Aleichem, not knowing New York, had offended the wrong claques. Already a pretty well-known writer, but never, it seems, very astute with money, he needed it badly at the time, and a contract for a serialized novel was a huge boon. (I also have to assume that the Yiddish press was not so well-established at the time that it could pay its authors all that well.)
"Come with me, reader, give me your hand, let us proceed--we have a long, long way to go!" 
"Why are we standing here? It's time to say goodbye!" 
Not such a long way as all that at 220 pages, but a good one.
Note: His name is usually transliterated Sholem Aleichem these days, but I spelled it Sholom throughout since that's the way it appears on the cover of my edition of In The Storm.
I've yet to borrow that bio but still want to at some point. It was Mel at Reading Life who introduced me to his short stories and that sent me down a delightful rabbit hole.ReplyDelete
I thought the biography was quite good. There's a DVD in the system, too, Sholem Aleichem: Laughing in the Dark that I just watched and thought was very good.Delete
like everyone, i've heard of Aleichem; but i haven't yet indulged: sometime, i trust...ReplyDelete
This would be a good one to start with, I think, especially if you prefer novels to short stories. But it may be hard to come by.Delete
I should read this - back in the day I visited Lodz and the former capital of Yiddish publishing Vilnius/Vilno.ReplyDelete
It seems to be hard to come by these days, but I thought it was a good one.Delete
This sounds like a good one. I haven't read many books set in this particular time period or place.ReplyDelete
It's a fascinating period, the years leading up to the Russian Revolution, & this is a good take on it.Delete
I skipped this one during the Yiddish year at the newsletter, because it sounded - sounds - second-rate, although I read and enjoyed other second-rate books by Sholem Aleichem. For calibration, I think Tevye is a masterpiece, and the Railroad Stories are not so far off. Details in the archives of the newsletter.ReplyDelete
I think this is much better than it's generally given credit for. Dauber is mostly positive, but says the characters are thin--and that's a bit true--but there's a lot going on & it's got real substance for 200 pages. As well as the usual wit you find in Aleichem.Delete
I glanced at your website before I wrote this, but your Yiddish year was before I was looking at yours, and you don't have Sholem Aleichem in your author list. (Shame!) Just found your series of posts, though. Looks like some good stuff. I'll have to read through.Delete
Oh he's there all right. A tricky case because his last name is not Aleichem. He's just Sholem Aleichem - "How ya doin'?"Delete
Ah, that's how I missed him. It is a bit weird how you index him. Is that Mr. Peace or Mr. Be With You?Delete
Mr. Peace Be With You. Maybe I should have bolded Aleichem, too. I don't know. Those were the early days. Frontier days.Delete
I should have said, 'how one should', not 'you should'. Sounds like maybe you knew what I meant.Delete
Frontier days. At least it avoids that feeling of belatedness. And now the frontier would be bookstagram, I suppose. Not an improvement.