In a Bronx winter, Sholom Aleichem turned 57 on March 2, 1916, eroded by tuberculosis, his prostate, diabetes and a broken heart — his son Misha had recently died in Europe after being denied entry at Ellis Island. His daughter was in Odessa. His “republic,” as he once laughingly called his large family, was scattered around this world and the Other World, let alone divided by the Great War’s trenches.
He could hear the elevated subway screech and rumble on Westchester Avenue as it entered and left the Intervale Avenue station, down the block from his Kelly Street walkup. Not long before, while on a speaking tour in Russia, he collapsed in Baranovich, was bedridden for weeks and his “beloved readers” spread straw on the
street beneath his window so his sleep wouldn’t be disturbed by the clip-clop of horses over the cobblestones. There wasn’t enough straw in the Bronx to soften his landing. Life was grim and closing in. He was nearly broke, losing his wife’s inheritance in the Kiev stock market, losing money from publishers and theatrical producers who got the better of him, losing touch with so many of his readers behind the war’s eastern front.
He had two months to live. He wrote his own epitaph: “Here lies a plain man who wrote in plain Yiddish … And while the whole world was merry, and saw in him but gladness, poor man, he suffered on the quiet. God knows, but no one else did.”
The New York Times reported that more than 100,000 of his readers lined the streets for his funeral with “a crush that threatened to develop into a stampede,” to say goodbye. They loved him, and they knew he loved them back.
If his last days were sad, his afterlife has been splendid. His name is associated with a twinkle; “Fiddler On The Roof” cemented his fame, bringing new readers to new translations. This month, his 150th birthday, there were celebrations in Tel Aviv. Limmud FSU launched “The Year of Sholom Aleichem,” with young Kiev activists visiting his Pereyaslav birthplace. Ukraine opened a Sholom Aleichem museum and issued a stamp, a coin and a cultural prize in his name.
A Ukrainian television crew flew to New York to cover events here: A Sholom Aleichem Shabbat (March 7) at the New York Synagogue on East 58th Street, featuring Sholom Aleichem’s granddaughter Bel Kaufman (a writer herself, most famously for “Up The Down Staircase,”) and a celebration at the Players Club, later that evening, with Kaufman, Theodore Bikel, “Fiddler” composer Sheldon Harnick and author Pete Hamill. Penguin Classics released a new translation of the Tevye and Motl stories, and Viking released a new edition of “Wandering Stars,” his novel about a Yiddish theater troupe, with a foreword by Tony Kushner, author of “Angels in America.”
But let’s return to an Odessa long ago, when little Bel Kaufman would get letters with a Bronx postmark: “Dear Belichka, I am writing you to ask you to hurry and grow up so you can learn to write, and write me letters. In order to grow up it is necessary to drink milk, have your soup and vegetables, and fewer candies. Regards to your dolls. Your papa, Sholom Aleichem, who loves you very much.”
Then came a three-word cable in English. Chaim Nachman Bialik, Kaufman’s neighbor in Odessa, came over to translate: “Papa very sick.”
“I’m almost 98,” says Kaufman today, “the only descendant of Sholom Aleichem who knew him, because I’m so old.”
She was separated from him, in his final years, and didn’t see her grandmother Hodel (Olga), for several years more because of war and revolution. She last saw her Papa when she was 3, vacationing with her cousin Tamar in Bavaria.
“He had a little goatee,” Bel recalls, “and velvet vests. He had blonde hair, longish in the style of the time. And he had pince-nez glasses at the end of a black ribbon. He was very happy, so youthful and full of fun.
“He adored us.” As they walked he’d say, “The harder you hold my hand, the better I write!” Bel squeezed tighter. “Do you see that mountain? I just gave it to Tamarichka. Do you see this lake? I’m making a present of it to Belichka.”
They walked through a zoo, stopping in front of a monkey on a branch. “Papa takes a piece of paper, folds it into a cone, fills it with water from a nearby fountain, and lifts it up so the monkey can drink. The monkey refuses. Papa bends down to me, and I can still hear his voice: ‘Belichka, it’s a spoiled monkey.’ Papa refills the paper cone and drank and drank, very thirstily. Only later did I realize he was suffering from diabetes. But even about that he’d joke, ‘At least I know I won’t die of hunger. I’ll die of thirst.”
“The German landlady made us lovely dinners,” remembers Bel. Then war was declared. “No more lovely dinners. We had to escape,” she to Odessa, he to New York.
When “Fiddler” opened in 1964, The New York Times asked Isaac Bashevis Singer to explain Sholom Aleichem to a burgeoning audience. Singer, who could be acidic about other writers, responded with reverence: “Can a folk writer be a genius, and can a genius think and feel just like an average man? If such a phenomenon is possible, Sholom Aleichem is its closest approximation.”
He loved everyone and everything Jewish. Even when he became less religiously observant as he grew older, he never stopped writing stories about the exhilaration of the holidays and their seasons.
He was fiercely against intermarriage, saying that his children could have “whatever religious convictions they will, but I beg of them to guard their Jewish descent.” If they didn’t, he would disown. He had Tevye say of his intermarried child, Chava, “She is no longer my daughter. She died long ago.”
And yet, in a story written less than two years before he died, Sholom Aleichem had Tevya and Chava reconcile. He had Tevye address Sholom Aleichem himself: “Please don’t think badly of me that tears come to my eyes when I remember this … After all, she was still my child … How can a person be so harsh when God says of Himself that is an all-forgiving God? … What do you say, Sholom Aleichem? You’re a Jew who writes books and gives advice to everybody. Tell me, what should Tevye have done?
“Goodbye,” says Tevye to Sholom Aleichem, “be well, and forgive me for filling your head with so many words. It will give you something to write about.”
Read more about Sholom Aleichem at Jonathan Mark’s Route 17 blog