1: Book covers, Sholem Aleichem's "Motl, the Cantor’s Son."
It can be difficult to teach the writing of Sholem Aleichem without teaching the history of Sholem Aleichem: how his works have been received and understood over time. While a book’s cover may not be able to tell us what’s inside with any accuracy, it can tell us something about how publishers, marketers, and readers felt about the book in a particular context. This activity works especially well to help introduce a unit on Sholem Aleichem or Motl, the Cantor’s Son.
Suggested Activity: Show students the book covers, one at a time. Ask them to write down when they think each was published and who its target audience was (adults, children, students, etc.). What does each cover lead them to expect about the story it contains: What will it be about? What will its tone, genre, themes, and/or plot be? A follow-up discussion can take place as a full class, in groups, or as partners. Ask students to share their thoughts and responses about the covers. They should also discuss what features led them to these conclusions. What conclusions can they draw about the reception of Motl in the century since its publication? Who has read and still reads it—and why? What do students notice about the Yiddish book covers? Do the Yiddish editions seem to be targeting the same audience? Once students have read Motl, return to these questions, and ask students which cover, if any, seems to most accurately or artfully represent the book.
Sources: Sholom Aleichem, The Adventures of Mottel, the Cantor’s Son, trans. Tamara Kahana (Henry Schuman, 1953).
Sholem-Aleikhem, Motl Peyse dem Khazns, ed. Chone Shmeruk (Magnes Press, 1997).
Sholom Aleichem, The Adventures of Mottel, the Cantor’s Son, trans. Tamara Kahana (Sholom Aleichem Family, 1999).
Sholem Aleichem, Tevye the Dairyman and Motl the Cantor’s Son, trans. Aliza Shevrin (Penguin, 2009).
Sholem Aleichem, Motl Peyse dem khazns: Abridged and Adapted for Students with Exercises and Glossary, eds. Sheva Zucker and Anne Gawenda (League for Yiddish, 2017).
Sholem Aleichem, Motl Peysi dem khazns (Warsaw, 1953).