Sholem Aleichem considered Stempenyu (סטעמפּעניו) his first “Jewish novel”, and opened it with a letter to Mendele Moykher-Sforim (Sholem Yankev Abramovich), whom he addressed as the “grandfather” of Yiddish literature. Published in 1888 in Sholem Aleichem’s own literary almanac, it is the story of the beautiful Rochele, married to a man she does not love, and Stempenyu, a virtuoso klezmer violinist, who almost breaks her heart.
Since “roman” (novel) also means “love story”, Stempenyu is also about the boundaries of Jewish love. Taking his cue from Mendele, Sholem Aleichem sets out to demonstrate that Rochele and Stempenyu’s love is doomed from the start and cannot be realized. It has no place in a mode of serious fiction that tries to present normative Jewish life through a realistic lens. The best that a responsible Jewish novelist can do is render the language of love and the inner world of klezmer musicians.
Neither is there any room in Jewish life for a romantic heroine, like Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, who appeared a decade earlier; that is, for a Jewish daughter in Israel who would betray the home and hearth in pursuit of her amorous desires. At novel’s end, Rochele leaves the shtetl for the big city, there to establish a loving Jewish home with her husband, while Stempenyu is left shackled to his shrewish wife.