Book Review

Moshkeleh The Thief

Moshkeleh the Thief: A Rediscovered Novel

  • Author: Sholem Aleichem
  • Genre: Yiddish Literature
  • Publication Date: September 1, 2021
  • Publisher: The Jewish Publication Society

Thank you to Edelweiss for providing me an ARC of this book. I am offering my honest opinion voluntarily.

CONTENT WARNING: antisemitism

Rating: 4 out of 5.

This first English translation of Sholom Aleichem’s rediscovered novel, Moshkeleh the Thief, has a riveting plot, an unusual love story, and a keenly observed portrayal of an underclass Jew replete with characters never before been seen in Yiddish literature.

The eponymous hero, Moshkeleh, is a robust chap and horse thief. When Tsireleh, daughter of a tavern keeper, flees to a monastery with the man she loves—a non-Jew she met at the tavern—the humiliated tavern keeper’s family turns to Moshkeleh for help, not knowing he too is in love with her.

For some unknown reason, this innovative novel does not appear in the standard twenty-eight-volume edition of Sholom Aleichem’s collected works, published after his death. Strikingly, Moshkeleh the Thief shows Jews interacting with non-Jews in the Russian Pale of Settlement—a groundbreaking theme in modern Yiddish literature. This novel is also important for Sholom Aleichem’s approach to his material. Yiddish literature had long maintained a tradition of edelkeyt, refinement. Authors eschewed violence, the darker side of life, and people on the fringe of respectability. Moshkeleh thus enters a Jewish arena not hitherto explored in a novel.

Let me start by saying that I grew up with Sholom Aleichem books around the house for as long as I can remember. The name probably doesn’t ring any bells for you, but you’re probably familiar with his most famous work — Tevye the Dairyman, which was adapted into Fiddler on the Roof.

This is a short story, and I want to point out that it’s clearly geared towards readers who have some understanding of Yiddish. There are a few Yiddish terms that are preserved in translation without a glossary provided to define them, so it may not be as enjoyable to a reader without a background that involves at least minimal Yiddish. (If this is you, and you decide to read it but have questions, feel free to contact me and I’ll explain what I can). I grew up in a household where both of my parents spoke Yiddish fluently, and while I don’t speak it myself, I did pick up a fair bit. The narrative style was different from what I’m used to reading in modern fiction, but enjoyable nonetheless. It was written as though the narrator was speaking directly to the reader. 

I thoroughly enjoyed the story. In just 88 short pages, the author managed to portray the grittier side of shtetl life that is often overlooked in this genre. He also created vivid and likable characters, incorporated humor, and built an intriguing plot that I couldn’t help but want to find out what happened next. This was a read that gave me strong nostalgia vibes, and made me wish that my dad was still alive to share with — he would have loved it. 

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