Overview and Objectives

This website presents three lesson plans that are meant to familiarize students with the author Sholem Aleichem (1859–1916) and to supplement and deepen students’ understanding of the transformation of traditional Jewish life in late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century eastern Europe. The website is designed as a guide that examines the challenges modernity posed for both traditional and non-traditional Jews in eastern Europe.* It also aims to help students connect these struggles to questions people today face as they work to balance tradition, community, and identity. These lessons were created to accompany Joseph Dorman’s documentary film Sholem Aleichem: Laughing in the Darkness. They draw from several of Sholem Aleichem’s short stories mentioned in the film as well as from additional sources. These lessons can be adapted for students in grades 8 through 12.

We have divided the lessons into three themes: Identity in a Modern World; Understanding the Life of Shtetl Jews; and A World in Transition: Emancipation, Acculturation, and Antisemitism. If you teach these lessons in succession, your students will to be exposed to a lively portrait of eastern European Jews at a crucial moment in history. Each lesson can also be taught individually, and you should feel free to choose individual lessons based on your time and needs.

We encourage you to start by familiarizing your students with the basic characteristics of Jewish life in eastern Europe and to develop a working understanding of concepts such as the shtetl; Jewish and Christian/Russian relations in eastern Europe during this period (the region where Sholem Aleichem was born was under the control of imperial Russia at the time); antisemitism; and the general role of philosophical movements such as the Haskalah, socialism, and Zionism. You may find these resources useful:

  • Reading: The Worlds of Sholem Aleichem: The Remarkable Life and Afterlife of the Man Who Created Tevye, by Jeremy Dauber
  • Reading: Chapters 1–3 in The Jews of Poland, by Facing History and Ourselves
  • Reading: Chapters 8, 10, and 11 in A Convenient Hatred: The History of Antisemitism, by Facing History and Ourselves
  • Reading: Chapters 10, 11, and 12 in The Jews: A History, by John Efron et al.
  • Reading: The World of Sholom Aleichem, by Maurice Samuel
  • Film: Image Before My Eyes: A History of Jewish Life in Poland Before the Holocaust, directed by Joshua Waletzky (1981)
  • Online resource: The YIVO Encyclopedia of Jews in Eastern Europe

Overall Objectives

  1. Students will broaden their knowledge of Jewish culture and Jewish life in eastern Europe during this period and be able to demonstrate an understanding of subjects such as the shtetl and shtetl life; the effects of modernity on Jewish communities and culture; antisemitism and its manifestations in eastern Europe; and the use and significance of Yiddish.
  2. Students will become more aware of a culture and period that may have previously seemed remote or inaccessible. Students will develop a sense of historical empathy and a deeper understanding of the beliefs, challenges, and choices of many eastern European Jews within the context of the time period.
  3. Students will be able to use Sholem Aleichem’s works to recognize universal dilemmas about individual and collective identity from the study of a particular people, culture, and time period. Questions that may arise as a result include: How does one’s identity take shape? How important is tradition in shaping identity? How do minorities respond to a majority’s prejudice and discrimination? How do individuals within a minority replicate or reinforce cultural norms? How do minority groups respond when assimilation or acculturation becomes possible? What does identity mean in a world that is constantly changing or “modernizing”?

* Broadly speaking, traditional life revolved around the Jewish community, the Jewish law (Halacha) and holidays, and religious institutions such as the synagogue, the heder, and the rabbi. Non-traditional Jews were either less religious or not religious at all, and they centered their lives around their professional pursuits, politics, and business, which often involved daily interaction with non-Jews.

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