Recreating Sholom Aleichem


Bat-Sheva Slavin helped Emily Bendeson, 9, of Smithtown slip the wedding dress over her street clothes while Mike Delmonaco, 9, of Commack adjusted his top hat.

The two then stood next to each other while other youngsters played the roles of a rabbi, bridesmaids and best men for a mock wedding photo amid a painted scene of a Ukrainian village a century ago.

At least that is how Slavin, who painted the village, visualized it based on her readings of the works of Sholom Aleichem, the Ukraine-born writer of stories, poems and plays. Three of his sketches formed the basis of the stage and film musical “Fiddler on the Roof,” the first commercially successful English-language play about Jewish life in Eastern Europe.

The “village” forms the basis of the new exhibit in the Alan and Helene Rosenberg Discovery Museum at the Suffolk Y JCC in Commack. It had been scheduled to open last year to mark Sholom Aleichem’s 150th birthday, but delays pushed it back a year.

Located at the rear entrance of the JCC, the museum has been totally restructured.

“A year ago we hired an architect to design a family-oriented space,” said Slavin, the museum’s director. “It is designed to empower adults and children to become knowledgeable about Judaism and tradition, history and Israel. The exhibit is changed every year.”

The JCC also has a 24-book collection of Sholom Aleichem’s original works in Yiddish, one from 1910. There are also recordings of his stories that visitors can listen to through headphones.

“He loved to write stories for and about children,” Slavin said.

Born Solomon Rabinowitz in 1856 — he adopted the pen name Sholom Aleichem — he grew up in a small shtetl as one of 12 children in a small home with little money, Slavin told the youngsters.

“He took a name that means, ‘Peace unto you,’” she said.

In material she handed out to visitors, Slavin wrote that Sholom Aleichem’s “rich descriptive stories [are] infused with tradition, rituals and human nature … about times long gone.” But she said his “message of the importance of the family and tradition is everlasting.”

In recreating one of his villages, Slavin said, she would like visiting youngsters to “turn the clock backwards and learn from Sholom Aleichem how to dream wisely, how not to play foolish games, to live richly with humor in our hearts, and turn tragedy into a blessing.”

As the youngsters gathered around the “wedding couple,” Slavin told them that “in the village of the shtetl when something bad happened everyone was involved, and when there was a wedding, everyone would come. That’s why this ‘wedding’ is taking place in front of the synagogue in the town square.”

The village Slavin created includes also a tailor shop and a butcher shop and vegetable stands stocked with pretend food. Another part recreates his office, complete with an antique typewriter; a third section requires visitors to wear 3-D glasses to see images projected on a screen in a black room designed to recreate a crater on the planet Mercury named after Sholom Aleichem. There is also a video presentation about Mercury.

At the end of the tour, Emily took off the “wedding gown” and said she had learned a lot about Sholom Aleichem, including the fact that all of his writing was in Yiddish “instead of Hebrew.”

Ethan Hanovich, 10, of Commack, said it was “interesting to learn about him — and learning that he has a crater named after him on Mercury.”