Historical Background

Jews have undergone a tremendous process of transformation, and Sholem Aleichem, perhaps more than any writer, has captured its difficulty. He’s captured its challenges; he’s captured its humor. He’s captured so much of it and so brilliantly. If one has lost access to Sholem Aleichem, then, in fact, one has lost access to that process of modernization itself. If you cut it away, then what you cut away is such a valuable understanding of one’s own transformation into who we are. How did you become that? It’s all there. And when that is lost, then one is empty of something—empty of something that is really part of one’s self.

—Ruth Wisse, Sholem Aleichem: Laughing in the Darkness

Reading Sholem Aleichem’s writing serves a dual purpose. First, it exposes us to the life and culture of Jews in a particular time and place—eastern Europe at the turn of the twentieth century. Second, it allows us to connect history to our own lives, as any encounter with great literature does. Of course, recognizing connections between oneself and the life of someone who lived a century ago is a difficult task, especially considering that the particular world Sholem Aleichem wrote about is gone—transformed by modernization, and then eventually destroyed by the Holocaust. However, literature—because of its suggestive power—can serve as a bridge to the past.

Many of Sholem Aleichem’s characters struggle to construct and reconstruct their own identities in the wake of rapid modernization in the society around them. In doing so, they capture an essential characteristic of our time: the need and the freedom to define and redefine who we are in response to a world that is undergoing constant change. Because this is a fairly universal theme, Sholem Aleichem’s works are particularly useful for bridging gaps, resolving tensions, and forging connections between students’ own lives and the lives of their parents and grandparents. These stories can be used to humanize and to illuminate the lives of eastern European Jews as well as to encourage both Jewish and non-Jewish students to examine the roots of their own identities. Most importantly, this writing can breathe life into a community whose members are too often discussed as victims rather than a thriving group that—despite the constraints of antisemitism, poverty, and discrimination—left a rich, vibrant, and relevant cultural heritage.

Sholem Aleichem (1859–1916) was a Jewish writer and humorist. He was born near Kiev, the contemporary capital of Ukraine, which was under Russian rule at the time. Born Sholem Rabinowitz, he settled on the name Sholem Aleichem, after trying several pen names, to mimic the common Hebrew/Yiddish greeting “Shalom aleichem,” which literally means “Peace be upon you” (in its daily use, it is the equivalent of “How do you do?”). A nod to his Jewish culture, Sholem Aleichem’s choice of this pen name is also a reflection of one of the main reasons his work is so significant: his constant engagement with the everyday language and culture of eastern European Jews. At the time, most major Jewish texts were written in Hebrew, the sacred language of religious Jews. Other non-religious texts were usually written in Russian.

The majority of Jews couldn’t read Hebrew or Russian and were thus cut off from a great deal of contemporary literature. Sholem Aleichem, however, wrote primarily in Yiddish, a language that most Jews in Europe spoke, despite regional differences, enabling them to communicate with Jews in other regions. Yiddish was very much a “portable homeland” for Jews—a context in which one could feel safe and secure, regardless of one’s proximity to home.1 Sholem Aleichem’s somewhat radical decision to write in the popular Jewish language (he called the decision a mishigas, or a “craziness”) was a means of communicating with and uniting a people who were not often able to access much of the literature of the time.2 Sholem Aleichem is considered one of the major pioneers of Yiddish literature and a groundbreaking humorist whose impact on modern literature far exceeds the scope of his intended audience.

Sholem Aleichem’s writing is noted for portraying eastern European Jewish life with both humor and compassion, which he did by drawing directly from his own upbringing. Sholem Aleichem grew up in the town of Voronko in the Russian Empire. Voronko was a shtetl (the Yiddish word for “town”), or a predominantly Jewish and Yiddish-speaking market town. Voronko was likely a major influence in the creation of the mythical shtetl of Kasrilevka, where many of Sholem Aleichem’s stories take place. Vibrant but self-contained communities, shtetls in eastern Europe were found primarily in regions known as the Pale of Settlement.

When parts of Poland came under Russian rule, Catherine II of the Russian Empire established the Pale of Settlement, which largely limited Jews to living only in the former Polish countryside. Some exceptions to this rule were in effect: Jews who were engaged in the medical field or who had graduated from a university were allowed to live “beyond the Pale.”4 Sholem Aleichem’s family lived outside of the Pale for much of their time in Russia, and Sholem Aleichem lived there illegally.

The shtetls originally emerged at medieval crossroads where farmers sold their animals and produce and bought artisanal goods in return. Jews, who were by and large banned from owning land in prewar eastern Europe, served as intermediaries: while they could not own the land themselves, they managed the large estates of the nobility. Jews were also small shop owners, worked in myriad petty trades, and were involved in commerce and money lending. They often made up a large part (if not the majority) of the population in these small market towns, although the shtetl was home to a variety of different peoples (Jews and non-Jews alike). These towns became dense centers of Jewish life, tradition, and religious observance. Because of the heavy emphasis on religious tradition, family, and commercial ties in the shtetl, an individual’s sense of identity was often inextricably linked to his or her community there. Particularly at a time when travel was slow and expensive, the rhythms of small-town life constantly reinforced traditions and cultural norms.

But processes of industrialization and urbanization, when they emerged, began to erode the economic foundations of the shtetl. As a result, the nineteenth century saw the shtetl in decline as many Jews moved to emerging industrial centers and larger cities for work. As the agrarian and artisanal economic base of shtetl life declined, poverty became rampant among the fewer and fewer Jews who stayed. Furthermore, a cultural rift began to emerge between those who stayed in shtetls and those who chose to leave. Jews who did migrate to larger cites were now exposed to new currents in art, literature, and philosophy.

But exposure to new places, peoples, and ideas often complicated their sense of Jewish identity and called into question many of their traditions and beliefs. One result of this process was the rise of the philosophical movement called the Haskalah, or the “Jewish Enlightenment,” in the region (the movement had begun in Germany several decades before). The ideology of the Haskalah encouraged Jews to obtain a secular education, which challenged many of their former norms and traditional beliefs. Influenced by the Haskalah as well as the effects of modernization, many Jews began to promote the idea that if Jews were able to acculturate into secular Russian society, they would prosper both financially and socially. Although rare, conversions from Judaism did occur as some Jews, often attempting to climb in social status, broke with their tradition.

The belief that acculturation was easy or even desirable, however, was shattered in 1881. That year, Tsar Alexander II of the Russian Empire was assassinated. Alexander II had been a great reformer of the Russian Empire; notably, he freed the serfs living under Russian rule. While one person involved in the assassination of Alexander II was Jewish, there was no reason to believe that Jews as a group supported the murder. But the government, for its own reasons, spread rumors that “the Jews” were responsible for Alexander’s death, and this sparked a series of pogroms, or anti-Jewish riots, throughout the empire.5 

Many Jews who had been previously optimistic about the future of Jewish/Christian relations were forced to rethink their position. Thus began one of the biggest Jewish migrations in modern times, as many Jews decided to seek out a safer future in the United States, in particular (a smaller number emigrated to South Africa, Palestine, and other destinations). Several years later, nearly 50 Jews were murdered and many others wounded during the Kishinev pogrom.As a result, more Jews decided that it was time to leave in order to escape persecution and find better economic opportunities in other areas of the world. All told, as many as 3.5 million Jews left eastern Europe before World War I.7

Sholem Aleichem eventually left his home in Kiev (where his children had been born) after the revolution of 1905 failed to overthrow the monarchy. He moved to New York City, where he was initially greeted with great enthusiasm from the American Jewish community. He eventually returned to Europe but, for the rest of his life, never spent a prolonged period of time in one place. When he returned to New York almost a decade later, Sholem Aleichem did not find continued success in America, despite the fact that he was considered a modern thinker back in Europe; by this time, many American Jews, far removed from the world of the shtetl, desired literature that reflected modern life in the United States.

In many ways, Aleichem’s work was considered too modern by an older generation but not modern enough to be accepted by the younger generations. This is the dilemma that Sholem Aleichem faced—and one that is so brilliantly, if painfully, articulated in his stories. For many of his characters, reconciling traditional ways with the ever-changing modern world proves to be too difficult. This tragic dimension to Aleichem’s work is in the background of his funny and entertaining depiction of Jewish life at the turn of the century.

The advance of industrialization and urbanization in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries brought about a major shift in public outlook. The world people inhabited was becoming less rooted in tradition and increasingly diverse. New generations of Jews saw and were forced to grapple with phenomena such as the breakdown of the father’s authority in the family unit, closer proximity to non-Jewish peoples, the ups and down of capitalism, new politics based on class, and utopian ideologies that promised to fix all that went wrong. With the emergence of rationalism and a new focus on science and historical research methodology, the “old world” came to seem superstitious if not altogether obsolete. Many of Sholem Aleichem’s characters are caught in the middle of the process of modernization and must decide which facets of their traditional identities they want to maintain and which can or should be discarded.

This feeling of being “stuck in the middle” between tradition and modernity is one that may resonate with young people today as they grow up in communities that might hold values that are different from those of their parents. In this sense, Sholem Aleichem’s characters and their struggles are profoundly universal.

As a resounding testament to the impact that Sholem Aleichem and his stories had on readers, 100,000 people attended his funeral in New York City after his death on May 13, 1916. It was one of the largest funerals the city had ever seen.

Three generations of a Jewish family in Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania, in 1938 or 1939. In the eighteenth century, Vilnius (Vilna in Yiddish) was a center of Jewish learning. By the 1920s and 1930s roughly a half of the city’s inhabitants were Jews.

1 David Roskies, quoted in Sholem Aleichem: Laughing in the Darkness, directed by Joseph Dorman (Riverside Films, 2013).

2 Dan Miron, quoted in Sholem Aleichem: Laughing in the Darkness.

3 Jeremy Dauber, The Worlds of Sholem Aleichem: The Remarkable Life and Afterlife of the Man Who Created Tevye (New York: Schocken, 2013), 14.

4 “The Paths Jews Took: Antisemitism in Russia,” in John Efron et al., The Jews: A History (New Jersey: Pearson Education, 2009), 280–281.

5 In February of 1903, a young Kishinev boy named Michael Rybalenko was murdered. While it was later determined that he had been murdered by his uncle, a rumor was spread by the government and the local papers that Rybalenko had been killed by Jews so that they could use his blood to make their matzo for Passover. The Kishinev newspaper The Bessarabatz (which also appears in this story as The Bessarabian) was instrumental in spreading this rumor and calling for the death of Russian Jews. After another rumor spread that a Christian servant girl had been sacrificed the night before Easter, a mob began rioting and attacking Jewish homes. Forty-seven Jews were killed and 500 were injured during the three-day Kishinev pogrom.

6 According to the online YIVO Encyclopedia of Jews in Eastern Europe, “From 1881 to 1900 more than 760,000 Jews left Eastern Europe, and in the period from 1901 to 1914 about 1.6 million Jews emigrated. The overwhelming majority left from the Russian Empire (about 2 million) and Galicia (350,000). In all, prior to World War I about 3.5 million Eastern European Jewish emigrants and their descendants settled outside Eastern Europe. They lived mainly in the United States but also in Hungary, Romania, the Asian part of the Russian Empire, Great Britain, Argentina, Canada, Germany, Austria, South Africa, Palestine, and France, although smaller groups could be found in practically every corner of the globe.” See http://www.yivoencyclopedia.org/article.aspx/Population_and_Migration/Population_and_Migration_before_World_War_I.

7 John Efron et al., The Jews: A History, 280–281.

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