People of the Book Chekhov Aleichem

In interviews, Amos Oz often talks about the revelations Chekhov gave him. When he first read Chekhov, he realized he could write about the people he knew — their disappointments, failures, thwarted aspirations (and Chekhov, the great poet of the disappointing life, knew how to write differently about all three). Chekhov writes about rural Russia, but he might as well be writing about Kibbutz Hulda, or Pikesville. He writes about little people who in other circumstances might have been great, and deserve to have their disappointments known, dignified and sympathized with.

One of my favorite short stories by anyone is “Difficult People” by Chekhov. It tells of a brief explosion in family life, one no doubt in a series of thousands. The explosion’s about money, of course, and it’s a scene which happens in any family. In all families, people who love each other feel imprisoned by obligation and fear of the unknown to stay loyal when sometimes, they never want to never see these people again.

Everyone in the story thinks they’re the victim, and the challenge is to view it from their perspective. You should never absolve characters (or people) of their flaws, but as you study the story more, you learn to leaven your contempt with compassion. What seems tragic or pathetic upon first reading becomes funny. Like so many life moments, you can see it in infinite perspectives when you examine it. “Every family has its joy and horrors,” says the story, “but however great they may be, it’s hard for the outsider’s eye to see them, they are a secret.” It is only by examination and study that we understand them. Family is family, the inescapable blessing and curse of life everywhere, and perhaps of Jewish life particularly.

Sholem Aleichem thought the story so Jewish in spirit he requested of Chekhov permission to translate it into Yiddish for a special book to raise money for pogrom victims. Many great Russian writers — Dostoevsky, Pushkin, Gogol, Turgenev — were anti-Semites, but Chekhov wrote to Aleichem how gratified he would be to see his work able to alleviate suffering of Jews at other Russian hands.

When you see Chekhov’s plays in America or England, it’s very difficult to get a sense of their greatness. Translations to English are often stilted, and the way Russians talk is so different from Americans — grappling with large ideas, fraught with existential troubles, and so frank about what troubles them. It feels false to American ears, but a few weeks ago, the Maly Drama Theatre of Moscow presented Three Sisters at the Kennedy Center, and showed us exactly what we miss.

Maly’s Chekhov is a piece with the stories; the acting much more flamboyant and ‘stagey’ than most American actors taught to understate for the camera, much more casual than classical English actors taught play extraordinary characters rather than ordinary. Without the flamboyance, the ridiculousness of their extravagance; the sadness ceases funny, and you lose half the play’s meaning. But this self-indulgence of emotions, this intermingling of sadness with humor, this speaking what’s on your mind without hesitation, we Jews see this every day. Jewish culture and Russian culture were inseparable for 300 years. We go so far back together that it’s impossible to know whether Jews taught this quality to Russians or Russians to Jews.

American culture is so gigantic and bifurcated that this enormous country’s become thousands of small countries. Every clique limits the perspective of its members. Most Americans think in primary emotions — they never have to deal with people different from them, and therefore their perspectives are never challenged. Increasingly, people different from them become “the enemy” who needn’t be understood, only feared. They never see life in the round. They never learn what’s sad can be funny, what’s erudite can be crude. Once you learn, it becomes much easier to understand people not like you, and people who once looked at each other with fear develop a bond of mutual understanding.

Like Chekhov, Judaism is a passport; a goulash of cultural influence which teaches you how to see the world from multiple perspectives. The health of a society can almost be measured by how it treats Jews, because in an unhealthy society, different perspectives are unwelcome. Judaism’s often an unwelcome intrusion. It’s not because we’re particularly difficult or even the irrationality of antisemitism. It’s because we have a uniquely critical way of looking at the world, informed by 2000 years of travel, that demands knowledge from our neighbors that their way of life might not be the only correct one. The majority of the world, now as ever before, can’t deal with that notion without feeling threatened.

Evan Tucker is North Baltimore-based writer and composer. He is the violinist and lead singer of the Yiddish rock band Schmear Campaign and has a monthly podcast, “Tales from the Old New Land,” which is a Jewish version of A Prairie Home Companion. Listen at podomatic.com/podcasts/oldnewland.

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