Yiddish theater joins teen lovers in Sholem Aleichems Stars

Readers who have seen “Fiddler on the Roof” will recognize the background of the novel “Wandering Stars”: a Russian shtetl of a century ago, practicing its faith, traditions and language.

The same author originated both stories. Sholem Rabinovich was born in the shtetl 150 years ago and took the pen name Sholem Aleichem — “Peace Be With You.”

“Fiddler on the Roof” deals with exile, pogroms, religious conflict and the difficulties of a poor tradesman with daughters to marry off. It was adapted from a series of stories called “Tevye the Dairyman,” and reflects on religion and morals, serious ideas advanced with Aleichem’s own humor.

“Wandering Stars,” a complete translation of the 100-year-old story (published on the 150th anniversary of the author’s birth Feb. 18, 1859), overlooks the hardship and tragedy in the czarist oppression. Instead, it deals with the fascination of European and American Jews with the Yiddish theater at the start of the 1900s.

Two teenagers from the shtetl, Reizel and Leibel, fall in love with one another and with a company of traveling players. They run off with the players but are soon separated when business problems split the company.

They remain in love, but their letters are intercepted, and they only meet again years later in New York. Both are in loveless engagements to others and Leibel is an unwed father. They meet for one long conversation at the Bronx Zoo.

“Stars” leaves vague what happens afterward. It’s unclear if they ever meet again.

Translator Aliza Shevrin, who has done eight other Aleichem novels, said in an interview that hers is the first complete English version of “Wandering Stars” — a different translator in 1952 abridged the text and gave it a happy ending different from the Yiddish original.

Aleichem was disillusioned with America, though he was a favorite of American Jews.

“In that turbulent land of ‘hurry up,’ ” he writes in the novel, “no one had any time and everyone was busy from early morning to late night.”

Reizel has her own disillusions.

“There is no love, just an image of it, an ideal that we ourselves create in our fantasies,” she writes to her mother back in the shtetl. “Love is no more than a dream.”

“Wandering Stars” by Sholem Aleichem, translated by Aliza Shevrin (415 pages, Viking, $29.95)