First published in serial form in 1903, the great Yiddish writer Sholem Aleichem’s novella Moshkele the Thief is the story of the eponymous village Jew—“a thief and the son of a thief”—who, as a child, freed himself both from his father’s discipline and from schooling when he “pulled an iron horseshoe from his pocket and snapped it in two, like one breaks a bagel.” Herewith, an excerpt from Curt Leviant’s new translation of the opening chapters:
[Moshkele’s] feats of strength were famous not only in Mazepevke but in all the surrounding villages. It was known that Moshke could wrestle three soldiers and singlehandedly beat and pummel six men so badly blood would run. In brief, he wasn’t easily forgotten.
Even at the tender age of thirteen, Moshke made his mark a few times, showing what he could do with his fists. The Mazepevke peasant lads, who almost every Sabbath picked fights with the Jewish boys as they took their Sabbath strolls along the streets, would sic their dogs on them, chase them, hoot at them, call them “Yids,” and taunt them with anti-Semitic ditties. But once they got the taste of Moshke’s fists they spread the word not to start up with that Jew. And later, when Moshke grew and became a young man, the adult peasants too felt Moshke’s paws and were scared to death of him.
One can say that getting into fights was a kind of wild passion for Moshke, an irresistible impulse, and he loved starting up with someone bigger and stronger than him. . . . In short, when it came to blows, clouts and punches, he had achieved renown. And I’ll even say that at fisticuffs Moshke was a genius.