This lesson explores the social, political, and economic pressures that eastern European Jews experienced as they moved away from the shtetls to larger urban centers toward the end of the nineteenth century. Through an examination of the choices these people made, students will learn about the ways in which such choices affected Jewish identity. Additionally, students will be asked to think about their own experiences with pluralism and diversity and to answer the question of how we behave when we are thrust into a world that is unfamiliar and that may not be as safe as our home or community.
- What are some of the ways people react when their traditional way of life is called into question?
- What role might the past play in shaping the ways we identify ourselves? What elements of our past might be important to preserve? What elements might be constraining?
- How might one retain cultural identity while establishing individual identity?
Sholem Aleichem began writing at a time when many Jews were moving from shtetls to larger urban centers and were being exposed to new ideas stemming from the Haskalah, or Jewish Enlightenment. This led many to seek secular educations and to try to fit into Russian culture and society. However, Jews of this time period also faced increasingly violent antisemitism, which contributed to the decision of many to leave the Russian Empire or to embrace ideologies such as socialism, which declared that all are equal, regardless of wealth, race, ethnicity, or beliefs. Laughing in the Darkness examines these varying responses and argues that Sholem Aleichem used Yiddish, the everyday language of eastern European Jews, to reach a diverse and increasingly fragmented population. Our glossary of terms might be helpful in this lesson.
The cultural, political, and economic shifts that were occurring in the world around Sholem Aleichem’s famous character Tevye the Milkman were real changes taking place during Aleichem’s own lifetime. Both he and his characters lived through one of the most dramatic transitions in human history. Recently invented modes of communication and transportation redrew old boundaries and broke down old barriers. New urban areas sprang up around emerging industrial centers, and many hundreds of thousands of people moved to cities. An older way of life, centered around farming, petty trades, small workshops, and the confines of country towns and villages, began to crumble. By the middle of the nineteenth century, the shtetls that many of Sholem Aleichem’s stories depict began to lose the central place they had long held in the lives of eastern European Jews. The effects of industrialization on the shop owners, artisans, and small business owners in these places were profound, and many Jews, much like everyone else, were forced to seek work in the factories that were growing in size and number as the century wore on. As these people began to make their homes in new urban centers, they entered a diverse cosmopolitan society. Many stopped dressing in traditional garb in order to resemble the rest of the population. Such changes in lifestyle or habit were not minor; they represented major shifts in how these individuals chose to construct and express their identities. The former shtetl Jews were confronted with new opportunities as well as new challenges. In the cities, they were exposed to the influence of scientific thinking, liberal and socialist ideologies, and secularism, forces that drove them further from the old life. They also encountered the influence of nationalism and increased antisemitism.
Modern times presented Jews with new questions: What was the best way to ensure the emancipation of Jews, individually or collectively, as the restrictions of religious intolerance were gradually lifted? Was there a way to remain Jewish and still prosper in a new, more cosmopolitan environment? Was it time for the Jews to follow the political current of the time and establish their own state? The Jewish response to the latter question ranged from acculturation and emigration to self-emancipation and Zionism, and even occasional conversion to Christianity. Indeed, by the beginning of the twentieth century, Jewish intellectual and social life was a bustling marketplace of ideologies and political views.
Violence against the Jews on a large scale was rare before the 1880s. Although it did occur and was often incited by political interests, the situation changed for the worse in 1881 when, following the assassination of Tsar Alexander II by a Russian revolutionary group, some anti-Jewish newspapers, religious propagandists, and government officials blamed the Jews for the assassination. These groups created a hostile atmosphere which was taken advantage of by local antisemites to start acts of anti-Jewish violence (pogroms) in various towns. Outbursts of Christian mob violence lasted for 3 years with little or no government intervention. The pogroms sent shock waves across the Russian-controlled Jewish communities in the Pale of Settlement that included a large-scale migration to Western Europe, the US and other countries.
A second wave of anti-Jewish riots, starting in Kishinev in 1903 and ending only in 1906, added to the growing sense of fear and insecurity among the millions of Jews living in the Russian Empire. Thus, modernity in this region of Europe brought not only greater freedoms, but also religious, nationalist, and antisemitic movements which forced many Jews to make difficult decisions. Roughly two million Jews had left central and eastern Europe between the 1880s and the 1920s. Others felt that they had to abandon their Jewish heritage altogether and assimilate. Still others looked for new ways to merge the traditions of their past with the new reality of unrelenting change they faced. A smaller number of Zionists believed that the Jews had to leave Europe and build a modern nation for Jews in Palestine. This challenge of reconciling one’s traditional identity with the forces of a modernizing world is one that features prominently in Sholem Aleichem’s work.
This lesson will introduce students to the different ways in which the Jewish community began to branch out as the traditional shtetl life became less economically and socially viable under the pressures of industrialization and urbanization. It will also provide students with a historical example with which to examine how communities redefine and reshape themselves as they become more diverse. Additionally, students will be asked to think about the challenges of integration.
Read the poem “Dedication,” by Gustavo Pérez Firmat and respond to the questions
This extension gives students the opportunity to explore the feeling of being “stuck in the middle” between one generation and the next, or between multiple traditions and identities. The film suggests that Sholem Aleichem’s response to the “fragmenting Jewish community” was to reach out to them by writing in Yiddish. Aleichem’s characters Max and Patti are able to come together at the end of “Two Anti-Semites” by singing a Yiddish folk song. While Yiddish had historically been a source of unity among eastern European Jews, its use became increasingly less common as Jews moved to larger metropolitan areas, where it was more practical to speak national languages on an everyday basis (many of these Jews even elected not to teach their children Yiddish in the hope that they would then have better chances of assimilation). Show students the second clip selected for this lesson from Laughing in the Darkness (film clip 4, 39:00–40:05), which tells how Sholem Aleichem’s own children couldn’t read their father’s stories in the original form because they were never taught Yiddish. After watching the clip, have students read the following poem entitled “Dedication,” by Gustavo Pérez Firmat and respond to the questions below. Gustavo Pérez Firmat is a writer and poet from Cuba. He has written both critical and creative works that deal with the notion of bilingualism and Cuban American identity.
The fact that I
am writing to you
already falsifies what I
wanted to tell you.
how to explain to you
don't belong to English
though I belong nowhere else,
if not here
—Gustavo Pérez Firmat
As Sholem Aleichem saw the language of his childhood becoming less and less relevant in the world around him, particularly as younger generations turned away from Yiddish in favor of languages tied to national identity, he became one of the first writers to bring Yiddish into the literary realm. The language became more endangered after a great many Yiddish-speaking Jews perished in the Holocaust, and with this loss went some of the ideas, thoughts, and meanings Yiddish helped to communicate and preserve. You might use the following questions to help students reflect on the connections between language and identity.
Describe how Gustavo Pérez Firmat, whose native language is Spanish, feels about the languages he speaks, based on his poem.
What is the relationship between language and identity?
How can language bring people together? How can it create a barrier between people—particularly between people of different generations?
Firmat ends the poem by saying, “that I don’t belong to English / though I belong nowhere else, / if not here / in English.” What kind of relationship does the poet construct between himself and his language, or between his identity and the languages he speaks? What might he mean when he says “I belong nowhere else”?