THE NIGHTINGALE by Sholom Aleichem


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A more parochial (less secular) and more melodramatic Aleichem novel (written in 1889) than translator Shevrin has lately provided, this was originally the middle segment to a trilogy about Jewish performing artists. All its inherent interest is centralized in its first half. Yosele Solovey, the ""Mazepevka Nightingale,"" is a teen-ager of extraordinarily pure cantorial skills, some learned from his cantor father and some that could be given only by God. Quickly he becomes a local sensation, and then the fame spreads, turning him into as much a superstar of the Pale as any of today's rock singers. And Aleichem's dissection of the uneasy position of cantors at that time--prized by competing synagogues yet without the respect accorded rabbis; forced to do menial synagogue works, as menial as begging, while at the same time cynically contracted-for at the times of special services and holidays--is sociologically compelling. The plot, the fictionalizing (based on an actual case of a 19th-century prodigy, ""the Vilner Balabeysl""), is not, though. It runs a tame track: Yosele is exploited by an older cantor during apprenticeship, has the hooks put in him by a grubbing manager, is snatched up by a rapacious widow, marries, loses his voice, loses heart. . .and finally returns to his home shtetl broken, only to find that his one true love, the modest Esther, has been forced into marriage with a man she despises, an older moneylender. Thicker, more predictable schmaltz isn't easy to find; and under its heaviness Aleichem's satirical gifts are smothered completely. A cautionary tale, all too simple; of interest for what it recounts about cantorial practices, but pulpy otherwise.

Pub Date: Nov. 15th, 1985
Publisher: Putnam