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Sholem Aleichem

Updated: Apr 7, 2022

March 2nd marks the birthday of Sholem Aleichem. He is one of the three classics of Yiddish literature, alongside Mendele Moikher-Sforim and Y.L. Peretz.

The Classics are the part of literature and art that endures over time, based on eternal national and universal values.

And so Sholem Aleichem's works always remains relevant. The main motifs of his work are love and respect for the common man; community solidarity; the search for one's own path in life - not the thoughtless imitation of someone else's; and the respect for the native language, culture, and traditions. These are values that are addressed to the heart and conscience of every generation, especially when all this is dressed up in sharp Jewish humor and conveyed in lively folk language.

This year marks another anniversary, though unfortunately a very sad one: 110 years since the beginning of the Beilis trial in Kiev, the last blood libel in history.

Sholem Aleichem lived a substantial part of his life in Kiev, and took very hard to heart the accusation against Mendl Beilis of the "ritual" murder of Christian teenager Andrei Yushchinsky and the vile antisemitic campaign that was launched, aimed at inciting pogroms and anti-Jewish massacres. For two years he worked on a novel inspired by these events, called "Der blutiker shpas" (Bloody Joke). By the author's own admission, he put into this novel "all the juices and all the strength, all the courage, blood and brain." With this novel, the writer wanted to shake up both Jewish and non-Jewish society and cry out to the world with a call to prevent the tragedy.

In the center of the plot are two young men, the Russian nobleman Grigory Popov and the Jew Hershko Rabinovich. At the end of their schooling, they decide as a joke to exchange identity documents for one year. Grigory Popov (living as Hershko Rabinovich), plunged for the first time in a Jewish environment, becomes the victim of a blood libel. It is he who is accused of killing a Christian boy on the eve of Passover.

In this novel, Sholem Aleichem fully reveals his Zionist convictions. So, through the mouth of Grigory Popov, the writer says: "Zion is the only way for us to revive the ancient Jewish nation and our new state in the ancient land of our forefathers - what could be more beautiful, higher and more practical than this? ... Why has this lofty ideal not yet penetrated the Jews of the whole world?"

And through the mouth of the hero, Sholem Aleichem stands in defense of the persecuted and long-suffering Yiddish language: "Yiddish, you say, is not a language? Jargon, do you speak? It has no grammar? First of all, it is the same language as all the others ... Secondly, you are embarrassed to speak Yiddish, not because there is not yet grammar, but because you are slaves of fashion ... We take offense at others for being humiliated, offended, made a laughing stock everywhere. How can we demand respect from others if we trample ourselves and spit on ourselves in the face?"

A better known version is the dramatization of this novel, "Shwer tsu zein a yid" (It's hard to be a Jew), which has been staged many times both on theatre stages and on Israeli television.

Sholem Aleichem exposed the irrational essence of antisemitism and racial hatred, which, unfortunately, we witness almost every day, even today, 110 years later.

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