"I was captivated by that record," Horwitz says. "I memorized it. I was 10 years old, and about that same time, my grandfather had tried to read me some of the stories in Yiddish, but I don't think he was any more successful getting me to understand them than I was years later reading them to him in English after he'd had a stroke. It was that record that I loved."
This was no mere childhood fancy. Horwitz maintained his love of Sholom Aleichem, despite the paucity of good English translations, all the way through his studies at Kenyon College in the 1960s. For his senior drama thesis, he did a one-man show of comic characters, for which he adapted a Sholom Aleichem story. And that's when the fixation really began.
"My mom said, 'You see what Hal Holbrook does with Mark Twain? You could do that with Sholom Aleichem.'" (Not only was Holbrook famous for his one-man Mark Twain show, but Aleichem is often called the Mark Twain of Yiddish literature.) "So in 1974, shortly after I got married, a nightclub owner in Philadelphia who'd had some success with one-man shows asked me to do one. I said, 'Nobody's going to come see Murray Horwitz do a series of comic characters like I did in college, but they would come to an evening of Sholom Aleichem.' And so, Philadelphia being the City of Brotherly Love rather than the City of Perceptive Critics, the show did very well."
Horwitz is still performing the show around the country, when he's not busy running the American Film Institute's Silver Theatre and Cultural Center in Maryland. (Before that, he was vice president for cultural programming at National Public Radio.)
"What drew me to those stories is, in the first instance, they're funny; on a surface level, they made me laugh," Horwitz says. "And hearing them in Da Silva's voice, there was a cadence and interpretation that was very soulful. Beyond that surface level, what continues to draw me to these stories is something that Howard Da Silva called his 'irresistible humanity.' Everybody hears in them that irresistible humanity, and that's why Fiddler on the Roof, which is based on just a couple of his stories about Jews in a shtetl in czarist Russian, which is not the most commercial concept you can imagine, plays all over the world."
Horwitz also appreciates Aleichem's avoidance of sentimentality. "One of his greatest stories is about Tevye's youngest daughter, the seventh, who isn't in Fiddler on the Roof. She ends up a suicide because she falls in love with a wealthy boy who traduces her. I'm getting chills just thinking about it. It's sparse; there are no violins in the background, and I love that about him. And then he makes you laugh about things that are tough. He says to us, you've got to stay alive, even if it kills you."
Horwitz praises the author's flair for writing the way people talked in his world--the Yiddish-language world of Jews in Europe and America--and this caused Horwitz to think long and hard about how to put across the material in English.
"Do you do it with an accent? Do you try to make it sound Yiddish, with the inflections? When Howard Da Silva was doing Sholom Aleichem in the '50s, he had a very Yiddish cadence, which I think probably would seem a little too stylized today. It would not be appropriate for me to do that, anyway, because I'm portraying the writer, and the writer would not have talked like that.
"But it's not hard to do in English once you find the right 'language' for it. He was one of the best at putting down human speech the way it came out. But for a long time, there weren't any English translations that did him justice. He was a great man of letters--Cynthia Ozick said he may have single-handedly created Yiddish literature; he almost willed it into existence--and because he was such a big deal in the world of literature, those who translated him into English tried to make literature out of it, and so they kind of denatured it. He'd use the Yiddish word for 'bedbugs,' and they'd translate it as 'mites.' He'd say 'rats,' and they'd say 'vermin.' My translator, Joe Singer, who was Isaac Bashevis Singer's nephew and translator, goes right back to the original spirit of the language, and he makes the stories much easier to animate."
In the course of his show, Horwitz portrays Aleichem himself, and introduces us to several of his characters, as well as his stories from both the old country and America. Not coincidentally, all four of Horwitz's grandparents were immigrants who would have known people like Aleichem's characters.
"These are characters from czarist Russia, rabbis and tinkers and tradesmen and sharpsters and hausfraus, but we recognize them even now, after 100 years," Horwitz says. "One reviewer said that we've all met people like this, we may even be some of them. That recognition makes Sholom Aleichem accessible and meaningful today."