Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Sholem Aleichem's Final Act

Those of you unfamiliar with Jewish Eastern European culture might not recognize the name Sholem Aleichem (1859-1915), although his impact on the literary world was profound. His plays and books, written in Yiddish instead of the language of intellectuals of his time - Russian and Hebrew - depicted ordinary life in the shtetls, or small villages that were in essence ghettos imposed on the Jews.

By the Czar's orders, Jews were cordoned off in the Pale, a 400,000 square mile area covering parts of Russian, the Ukraine and other Eastern European nations of today. Jews were only allowed to pursue low level occupations, which made their lives miserable. Photos of the period record the poverty of the persecuted.

But Sholem Aleichem, a pen name which means "peace be with you," found humor in the darkness, shedding a brutally honest yet lighthearted ray of joy into the daily travails of his people. He was called "the Yiddish Mark Twain," to which Twain responded that he was "the American Sholem Alcheichem." (Fiddler on the Roof is based on Sholem Aleichem's seminal character Tevia.)

Sadly, the world of investment banking was not the forté of S.A's poetic genius, and after losing a family fortune in this endeavor, his life became a struggle financially. This did not deter him from a voluminous literary output, but the touring schedule of a poet-writer-humorist in those days did not line his pockets with gold.

He settled in America near the end of his life, where he could get better care for his many illnesses which included diabetes and tuberculosis. When he died on May 13, 1915 (ironically a day with the number he avoided his entire life, even skipping the number 13 in the pages of his printed works and labeling them 12a instead), his funeral procession in New York was 200,000 strong.

And herein lies the unintended consequence of his life. This mass gathering of mourners was the largest ever of its kind in New York, and the politicos of the era suddenly realized that the Jews were a population to be reckoned with. Henceforth, this wandering tribe that had landed on American shores would find its rightful place in "the land of the free."

Sholem Aleichem's success in death was in an inverse proportion to his view of life. His writings reflect the inbred pessimism of a man who looks squarely in the face of the devil yet sticks out his tongue. How amazed would he have been that his very death triggered a life-empowering event that heralded the recognition and acceptance of his people.

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