Notes on Bel Kaufman and Sholem Aleichem by Merle Molofsky


(First published on Clio’s Psyche)

I well remember when Bel Kaufman’s book came out, in the 1960’s, with that evocative title, “Up the Down Staircase, a title that somehow encapsulated everything about school as I knew it. I had three marvelous years at P.S. 208 in Brooklyn, fourth, fifth, sixth, and all the rest was up the down staircase….

The stories of Sholem Aleichem, which I read when I was very young, were a major influence on my worldview, my perspective, and my sense of my ethnic identity.

My favorite story was “A Yom Kippur Scandal”. I found two videos on YouTube, Part 1 and Part 2, a telling of the story in Yiddish, with English subtitles. Here are the links, for the curious. If the links don’t work, go to YouTube, type in Sholem Aleichem, A Yom Kippur Scandal, and you will have access to the videos.

Click Here to View:  Sholem Aleichem A Yom Kippur Scandal, Part 1

Click Here to View:  Sholem Aleichem A Yom Kippur Scandal, Part 2 

Those who may not listen to the whole story might want to listen a bit anyway, might find it interesting to hear the cadences, the intonations, of the story told in Yiddish. And, if you don’t stay with it to listen all the way through, and to read the subtitles, I hope you might be interested in finding an English translation and reading it. The story is collected in The Old Country.
I really enjoyed the humor of the story when I was a kid. I must have been eight or nine years old when I read it. I also was reading the plays of Oscar Wilde, and was delighted with how funny those plays were. I didn’t have a TV, but, when I was at friends’ houses, I couldn’t stand watching cartoons, because the cartoon characters kept getting hurt, and I didn’t think that was funny.

Sholem Aleichem was dedicated to creating an image of shtetl life, small town life of Eastern European Jews. He was born in Ukraine, and knew well the culture of shtetl Jews. He almost single-handedly created a new genre of literature, Yiddish literature. “Serious” Jewish writers wrote in European languages, not the “jargon” the common folk, simple Jews, spoke. He helped create a new sense of Yiddish culture, and, in doing so, he allowed Yiddish-speaking intellectuals and writers to individuate, to claim a singular identity.

This particular story is about a number of themes, and particularly, about father-son relationship, paternal pride, filial rebellion, values, and shame, within a strong sense of community. Here is a Jewish writer, forswearing the languages of Jewish intellectuals of his milieu, Hebrew and Russian, and opting to write in Yiddish, which was used as a language in “folks-blat”, simple short articles in newspapers and popular magazines. Even his pen name, Sholem Aleichem, is a nod to the accessible, to the paths of the common people, because it is a greeting, used by everyone — nothing elevated. And yet, an elevated sentiment — Peace be with you.
So in a sense Sholem Aleichem turned away from the Jewish literary patriarchy, he rebelled, he opted for a potential new identity, a Yiddish-speaking artist and intellectual.

An interesting rebellion, since his father was a rebel. His father came from a traditional Chasidic family, and encouraged his son to explore the secular, Russian-speaking world, essentially a non-Jewish world, as well as attend cheder, a traditional Jewish education. The father was drawn to the ideas of the Haskalah, the Enlightenment, eager to move away from the “superstitions”, the beliefs of Chasidic Jewry. His son benefited from his father’s rebellion, and yet, in his own rebellion, he moved closer to the people from whom his father tried to separate. He did not become more religious, he did not adopt the beliefs his father turned away from, but he adopted the language, and the stories of the people. His stories are set in an imaginary town, Kasrilevka, and the foibles and heartaches of the people are told gently, humorously, and, nonetheless, poignantly. Probably everyone reading this knows at least one story, the story of Tevye the Dairyman, popularized in “Fiddler on the Roof”.


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