A Passover Story by Sholem Aleichem
ENGLISH CORNER, CON LINDA JIMÉNEZ – Sholem Aleichem (born Shalom Rabinowitz) is considered one of the fathers of modern Yiddish literature (along with Mendele Mocher Sforim and I.L. Peretz. He was born in Pereyaslav, the Ukraine, and moved as a child with his family to Voronkov, a neighboring small town which later served as the model for the fictitious town of Kasrilevke described in his works. . His father, a wealthy merchant, was interested in the Haskalah (Enlightenment) and in modern Hebrew literature.
Though Sholem Aleichem began writing in Hebrew, his first “serious work” — a dictionary of the curses employed by stepmothers — was written in Yiddish. Later on he wrote Hebrew biblical “romances”. In 1879 he began publishing. For about three years, he wrote reports and articles, mostly about Jewish education, for two Hebrew publications.
In 1883, Sholem Aleichem decided to write in Yiddish rather than in Hebrew. One of his first stories appeared in a Yiddish paper under the pseudonym “Sholem Aleichem”. He explained the pseudonym as a guise to conceal his identity from his relatives, especially his father, who loved Hebrew. In those days, Yiddish literature, greatly despised by the maskilim (enlightened) who wrote in Hebrew and the Jewish intelligentsia in Russia who spoke Russian, led Yiddish authors to write under pseudonyms or to publish their works anonymously.
He wrote stories, sketches, critical reviews, plays and poems in both verse and prose. Sholem Aleichem did not limit his creative scope to Yiddish, but published stories, sketches and articles in Hebrew and in Russian. In 1888, his financial situation enabled him to realize a long-cherished dream: the founding of a Yiddish literary annual through which the standards of European taste would be introduced into Yiddish literature.
Following a pogrom in 1905, Shalom Aleichem decided to emigrate to the U.S. This was the beginning of a period of wandering which continued until shortly before his death. His immense popularity did not decline after his death but rather increased beyond the Yiddish-speaking public. In 1910 his son-in-law, Hebrew author Y. D. Berkowitz, began translating his works into Hebrew. His works have also been translated into most European languages, as well as Russian and English. His plays and dramatic versions of his stories have been performed by the best Yiddish and Hebrew theatrical companies in America, Israel, Russia, Poland, and many other countries. The dramatic version of Tevye’s Daughters has been performed by the finest Yiddish actors, and in the 1960s these sketches formed the basis of the stage and film musical, Fiddler on the Roof. Also, in many countries there are monuments, streets and schools dedicated to Sholem Aleichem, including: Ukraine, Lithuania, Russia, Australia, the US, Argentina and Israel, among others.
Sholem Aleichem died in New York on May 13, 1916. At the time, his funeral was one of the largest in New York City history, with an estimated 100,000 mourners. The next day, his will was printed in the New York Times and was read into the Congressional Record of the United States.
His will contained detailed instructions to family and friends with regard to burial arrangements and marking his yahrtzeit (yearly anniversary of his death). He told his friends and family to gather, “read my will, and also select one of my stories, one of the very merry ones, and recite it in whatever language is most intelligible to you.” “Let my name be recalled with laughter,” he added, “or not at all.” The celebrations continue to the present day.
This Passover story by Sholem Aleichem is called On Account of a Hat and is adapted from the book “A Treasury of Yiddish Stories”, edited by Irving Howe and Eliezer Greenberg.
The story was supposedly told to Sholem Aleichem by a paper merchant from Kasrilevke, who says that it’s one of the many stories told there about Sholem Shachnah, known for being a scatterbrain.
A very happy Passover to all of you from all of us here at Radio Sefarad.