Sept. 22, 2006
The chronicler of our stories
Sholom Aleichem was one of the greatest Jewish writers ever.
When Sholom Aleichem moved to New York in 1906, the city had a
large Yiddish-speaking population. They read the Yiddish classicists:
Mendele Machersforim, I.L. Peretz and Sholom Aleichem (Solomon Rabinowitz).
There were as many as four Yiddish daily newspapers and four theatres.
One by one, they all disappeared.
At home, my parents spoke Yiddish to each other, not to my brother
and me. I still relish its cadence, its rich, thick expressive sounds.
When I was nine, an Arbeiter Ring teacher started a children's Yiddish
class. I took to it and it took to me. Years later, when I entered
college, I was required to take an elocution course to divest myself
of Yiddish intonation.
It was in this nearby little basement shul that I first learned
about Sholom Aleichem. I pictured him as a kindly uncle, always
ready to recite a story. If I were small enough, he would let me
sit in his lap and put my arms around his neck. Wherever Aleichem's
characters appear, in Chelm, Yehupetz or Boiberik, and whatever
they do, they always derive from some part of their creator. They
are all Aleichem himself: the fools, the wise ones, the jokesters,
men, women, children, which is why, being at ease with all aspects
of himself, he treated all of them in a kindly fashion, regardless
of their behavior or community standing. Victoria Aarons even wrote
a book, Author as Characters in the Work of Sholom Aleichem.
Aleichem became a writer at a time when literature in America and
Europe was undergoing a transition from romanticism to realism.
Wealth and power had become the purview of the new ruling class
of entrepreneurs. Their objective making money and using
their power to make even more did not allow them the time
and circumstances to emphasize their status by using the props,
pretences and postures the landed nobility had used for centuries
to identify themselves as people of privilege. The new class couldn't
hide behind alleged superiority by dint of blood and/or God's grace.
They had to settle for success as its own justification all
very Darwinian. This development underpinned the movement from romanticism
When Aleichem and his family moved to the United States, he was
compared to Mark Twain. Indeed, when the two met, Twain jokingly
introduced himself as "the American Sholom Aleichem."
The comparison was justified. Aleichem's Mottel closely resembles
Huckleberry Finn, both poor but independent boys who refuse to accept
ridiculous and unfair adult conventions. Twain and Aleichem both
wrote stories in which the way people are treated is determined
solely by their appearance. This was a recurring theme in the 19th
century, when titles of nobility were losing their importance and
class distinctions were often recognizable only by speech and apparel.
Both writers ridiculed pretensions and both deliberately used simple
language and constructions.
But there was a difference between Twain and Aleichem. Twain could
be bitingly misanthropic and pessimistic, especially when he was
describing the people of foreign countries he visited. "What
a shabby, poor, ridiculous thing man is," he once observed.
Aleichem never displayed the least misanthropy or chauvinism in
his life or work and, as familiar as he was with tragedy, he always
maintained hope for improvement.
Aleichem wrote about 300 stories, five novels, many plays and other
works. His best-known work, enjoyed by millions who never had any
prior contact with Yiddish culture, is Fiddler on the Roof,
based on Tevye, the drayman. It became a Lerner and Loewe production
that turned into a huge Broadway and motion picture success.
Tevye himself is a an example of Aleichem's unheroic heroes. He
prizes learning as much as or more than wealth and he has experienced
pain and despair. While he is waiting for manifestations of the
mercy and gentleness of God, which he is certain will ultimately
prevail, he complains and, moreover, criticizes shades of
Abraham opposing the destruction of Sodom and Jacob wrestling with
a spirit on the banks of the Jabbok.
Aleichem was well versed in Hebrew and he wrote in that language
as well as Russian, but failed to connect with his readers
so he turned to his mamaloshen (mother tongue) and won instant
acceptance. His first writing, oddly enough, was to devise a glossary
of the curses and imprecations with which his stepmother, someone
straight out of a Grimm brothers' fairy tale, accosted him daily.
She was an abusive scold of a woman and, as a boy, Sholom suffered
much at her hands. Nonetheless, he found that the richness and imagery
of her curses imparted something of her undoubted inventiveness.
Aleichem began writing, not as a hobby, but to make a living. Much
of his writing was done at night. While his family slept, he stood
in front of a lectern writing on small pieces of paper, which he
then pasted together.
The future of Aleichem's idiom, Yiddish, is probably dim, even though
some people are striving to maintain it. Nobel laureate Isaac Bashevis
Singer, a man known for his wisdom who also wrote in Yiddish, once
remarked that there were roughly as many Jews in the world as Norwegians
(no longer true) and asked why, if they could maintain Norwegian,
we couldn't maintain Yiddish. His reasoning was obviously faulty.
The Norwegians have a country in which Norwegian is the official
In Israel, for some years after the Second World War, among native-born
Israelis, there was insufficient understanding of the plight of
European Jews during the Holocaust. Israelis were ready and able
to fight their enemies and many had little understanding of how
Jews of the Holocaust were systematically deprived of their ability
to resist. Yiddish, at that time, was not treated respectfully in
Israel. It was the language of the oppressed, who somehow had "allowed"
themselves to be exterminated. A popular curse was, "You should
live, grow old, sit in a rocker and speak Yiddish." Now, there
is a growing respect for Yiddish.
To a significant degree, Fiddler spawned the growth of klezmer
and Chassidic new wave rock, even Jewish bluegrass. Some hoped for
a Yiddish revival. There was even a Yiddish library established
near Boston, to which people were invited to send any book in Yiddish.
When works meant to be read become part of what is more a museum
than a library, it can have only one meaning. Although Yiddish is
dying, it has certainly penetrated and influenced American English.
Yiddish words have appeared even in a U.S. Supreme Court decision.
Yiddish was the language and Aleichem the chronicler of a vanished
civilization that, in spite of its almost insurmountable hardships,
presented to the world a culture of piety and learning. Ultimately
profound in its influence, this civilization was methodically and
deliberately destroyed forever.
Aleichem died in New York on May 13, 1916, and was buried in a Brooklyn
cemetery. His funeral still holds the city record for the number
of mourners who attended. First and second generation American Jews
had lost one of their own, someone with whom they could identify.
Eugene Kaellis is a retired academic living in New Westminster.