Motl the Cantor’s Son is one of the two stories of written by Shalom Aleichem in his book titled: Tevye the Dairyman and Motl the Cantor’s Son.
At first I had a little trouble understanding what a Cantor meant. I don’t know much about Jewish culture and religion, which is why I’m taking two classes this fall term.
A Cantor, turns out, sings in synagogs during rituals and ceremonies. It is an important figure in the Jewish community. In Sholem Aleichem‘s story, Motl is the youngest son of the Kasrilevka’s Cantor, Peysi. Motl lives with his family in the “invented” shtetl of Kasrilevke, which is an Orthodox Jewish community in Russia.
This story tells Motl’s accounts of his life in Kasrilevka as a young kid, whose voice infuses the pages of wonderful adventures. Peysi, his father is sick and will soon die, leaving Motl an orphan that will be protected by everyone in the shtetl despite his mischievousness. Through out the pages, we can see how his mother and older brother struggle first by having to sale every single piece of furniture (except the bedding, God-forbid) so they can buy medicine for their ailing husband and father, Peysi.
Motl’s observations and interactions about other members of the community are interesting, because of their vivid imagery in the dialogs. Not only Motl describes these characters using humor and sarcasm, but with the candor of child.
Little by little, we see how this family transitions from grieving Peysi’s death to the reality of having to make a living with out the breadwinner. Motl’s mother is so consumed in grief that all she does is cry, Motl’s older brother soon to be married to the baker’s daughter, tries to assume the role of father figure for the little orphan that everyone pities. In the meantime, Motl does what any other regular child of his age would do, play and get into all sorts of troubles.
Motl has inherited a good voice from his father, and as it is the costume, he will have to be apprenticed as a Cantor. He is sent to be apprenticed into the trade in part so he wont starve. His mother is not making a living and there is no money or food in the house.
Motl’s brother gets married to the Bakers daughter, and the shtetl rejoices. Once married, the entire family start a few small enterprises that always end in some sort of disaster until they all decide to go to America.
After selling the house, they embark on an epic adventure full of funny descriptions and many hardships that will see them through until they arrive in New York City. The descriptions of real cities along the way, how they must cross borders into Germany, and make it to London, sail on Prince Albert and then be detained in Ellis Island are incredible. Their arrival into the big apple is not less impressive and the description about this new culture and the family transformation is endearing and remarkable.
But all good stories come to an end, and the end of this story is as abrupt as death. You are left with a blank page and a short note explaining that Sholem Aleichem never finished this amazing story, and that soon after having written the last entry he would die.
I finished this story last night. I couldn’t put down the book! I was so shocked at the ending. No matter what, I loved it all the way through. My summary doesn’t do justice to the book itself, so encourage anyone to read it.
Thanks for reading.