MUCH HAS BEEN SAID about the importance of childhood in Sholom Aleichem's work - he was roughly shaken out of his own idyllic one just before the age of 13 by his father's financial ruin, followed by the death of his mother. Thus, in his tales, redemption for the Jew comes, at that critical instant just before judgement, in a reversion to childhood and its innocence. This is what gives the stories their sense of optimism in the face of a reality that is, after all, despair.

In a tale included in the present collection. "The Guest," it is not only the child who believes in the Messiah ben Joseph, who has arrived in the persona of a confidence man, but his father and mother as well. "The enforced discovery, at too early an age, of the bitterness of the world," is what Irving Howe, in his correspondence with Ruth Wisse which stands in place of an introduction, feels the story is about. But I would, respectfully disagree.

The formula is an old one - a well-known chestnut of Jewish history, the arrival of a stranger claiming to be the representative of the 10 lost tribes. All are taken in briefly by the impostor. In their handbook, Sholom Aleichem, Frances and Joseph Butwin comment on the relationship of his art to this oft-told story, saying that his "comedy is like the Messianic promise. It converts all the evidence of a paskudneh velt, 'a wretched world,' into hopefulness and even levity."

What Howe and Ruth Wisse have exposed now is his quite frightening pessimism - darkness that only messianic dreams can lighten. Yet the Messiah ben Joseph is a crook who spins dreams for the childlike Jews of the Diaspora, all the while stealing them blind, and "The Guest" reveals an implicit anger felt by the Jews at their messiahs and all the trouble that dreams of them have brought.

Howe and Wisse have done something radical in assembling a "modernist" Sholom Aleichem and making us aware of their subject's "self consciousness" as a writer. They give us not "the best" of Sholom Aleichem but the darkness. It's a prophetic Sholom Aleichem, plumbing all the bitter questions of assimilation, revolution, messianism and drawing a unflattering portrait of the Jewish character.

Howe's jibe that "The world doesn't need more than one Kafka," is too glib, but by placing Sholom Aleichem in such company, he points a direction and for this we must be grateful. His general observations on the "guilt and anxiety" of Aleichem's work lead the reader to both Aleichem's reiterated fury at the proverty of the Jew and his stinging awareness of the Jew's abased position in the eyes of the world. One can't help but recall the anguish of black America.

What redeems the Jew in Sholom Aleichem's eyes is the moment of repentance, of turning - that childlike crying. In "Get Three Out," Tevye, driven from his home by anti-Semites, may lose the physical world - his house, his neighborhood - but the disaster is a form of salvation: his daughter comes back to him. In "Chava,"he cannot turn, quite literally, though he tries to, back to this daughter who has married a non-Jew. But, uprooted, he regains a more important kingdom and ends crowned with grandchildren.

The tale speaks of Diaspora Judaism, with its constant forced removals and the paradoxically resulting cohesion. As we watch children of assimilated Jews gain awareness of the Holocaust and consciousness of family ties, Sholom Aleichem's gifts as a seer become apparent.

In A Treasury of Yiddish Stories, Howe and Eliezer Greenberg cited Aleichem's use of Yiddish as "one of the most extraordinary verbal achievements of modern literature . . .. His medium is so drenched with irony that the material which comes through it is often twisted and elevated into direct tragic statement - irony multiples upon itself to become a deep winding sadness."

The current introductory letters, especially Ruth Wisse's, initiate a discussion of the translations which is fascinating and almost a requisite for penetrating beyond the familiar anecdotal voice of the tales in English. Her explansion of how Aleichem describes the executed rabbi in "The Krushniker Delegation" as not merely hanging, but hanging in a phrase that brings up the image of a pious Jew swaying in daily prayer, changes the whole tenor of the story. If you miss her insight, you miss the story, because there is no indication of this in the translation.

I can understand the editors choosing Saul Bellow's translation of "Eternal Life" rather than Francis Butwin's; though we lose some specifics, we do gain the long funny rhythms of Bellow's narrative voice. However, I would like to hear their reasons for reversing the order of "Chava" and "Get thee Out," from the standpoint of chronology and publishing date. And, with Hillel Halkin's version of "Tevye Strikes it Rich," I have a bone to pick. Halkin is a distinguished translator of Hebrew yet several gauche moments in the English of this tale are puzzling. Did Sholom Aleichem really write, "rat-Jew" or say, "he damn near starved to death?" Comparison with the original above out that the translation was so free an adaptation that distortions crept in.

Pursuing the melody of the rhyme, Halkin often leaves behind the details of the imagery. Thus:

"'How many children?" I said. 'Forgive me for boasting, but if each child of mine were worth a million rubles, as my Globe tries to convince me, I'd be the richest man in Yehupetz. The only trouble is that poor isn't rich and a mountain's no ditch. How does it say in the prayer book? Hamavdil beyn koydesh l'khoyl, some make hay while others toil.'"

But it seems that Tevye actually begins with a self-deprecatory slyness: "'Children"' I say, 'I can't complain.'" The boast comes in the next breath, and in its backhanded way makes him both richer and poorer than the people whose lavish table he is fidgetting at. "'If every child,' I say, 'is worth, as my Golde wants to persuade me, a million, then I am richer than the richest man in Yehupetz.'" It is to this exaggeration that the phrase, "The only flaw is that poor isn't rich and crooked isn't straight," hangs as a pendant. ("Mountain" and "ditch" have nothing to do with the reckoning, but are figures of speech introduced by Halkin for the sake of the rhyme.)

There's no explanation that the Hebrew phrases, Hamavdil beyn koydesh l'khoyl, which comes from a hymn said after the end of the sacred Sabbath, means, "He who separates the holy from the profane," Without such guidance, many readers will likely miss the sly profanity of Tevye's next breath, "If you have jingling [coins that clink] in your pocket, you're well off." (The "hayc and "toil" again are related only by rhyme to the Yiddish text.) Though I'm sure Hillel Halkin could niggle at my effort too, he has simplified the difficulties. It's just that I don't believe in it, not in a volume which is presenting a more complex Sholom Aleichem.

Despite my disappointment at its failure to footnote or offer dates of translation or to provide critical glosses on the tranlations, this anthology is a great joy. By showing the darker resonances and nuances of Sholom Aleichem, Howe and Wisse have made me treausre again a writer I admired but felt I had outgrown. CAPTION: Illustration, no caption, Jacket drawing by David Levine