Friday, February 20, 2009

Feast of Saint Sholem

Brothers, Sisters, and Transgendered Comedists Everywhere,

This week is the 150th anniversary of the birth of Sholem Aleichem. Born Sholem Robinovich in Perevaslav in the Ukraine which was part of Russia at the time, he grew up in a poor family in a small Jewish town, son of a merchant who had interest in learning. His mother died while he was young and his father remarried to a nasty woman who verbally abused the children.

Sholem was sent to a Russian school where he received a secular education, studies at which he excelled. He tutored a wealthy young woman for a while, but when a romance blossomed, the father dismissed him. He went on to become a rabbi and a writer for various periodicals. When his former pupil found one of his articles, they reconnected and married.

Rabinovich adopted the pen name "Sholem Aleichem" which is a casual Jewish greeting (literally, peace be with you) and began writing character studies based upon the small Jewish villages -- shtetls -- of his youth. His characters were all too human, with comic flaws and tragic lives. His gentle playful way showed that no matter who you are, live will make you a schlmazel. He paved the way for the sort of Jewish humor we would see a century later with people like Gary Shandling and Richard Lewis.

Most famous of his works are his stories of Tevye the dairyman -- stories that formed the basis for the musical and film Fiddler on the Roof. Tevye was the archetype of Jewish humor. He was witty and good natured, but always downtrodden. Nothing ever went right for him no matter how well it seemed to be going. And all of it taken in stride with Tevye always misquoting scripture to make his point. The misquotes both made him seem humble, uneducated, and ignorant, but also extremely clever, wise, and poignant. did he know less than you or did he know more but was playing you? He was a perfect vessel for all that oppressed Russian Jewry was. Plain and poor, but spirited and joyful in the face of pogroms and hatred. "I know we're your chosen people, but could you choose someone else just for a little while?"

This raising of the humble led him to champion the Yiddish language. Hebrew was the Latin of the Jewish intellectuals. It was the true language of wisdom. Yiddish was the dirty language of the villages. For this reason reason, Sholem Aleichem championed Yiddish language literature trying to elevate it to a place of legitimate respect.

But always with a twist, always with humor.

He tells of the rabbi's wife who faints when finding upon the lectern a strange object. Finding her, someone calls for help and people from all over the village came running. They were horrified to find "a picture of a bearded man -- obviously a Russian Orthodox priest -- with an odd black cross at his side. And not just one priest, but two priests and two crosses, one priest upright and the other one standing on his head." No one would touch the the thing until the cantor's son-in-law picked it up and said, "It's nothing. What's there to get excited about? It's the king of clubs." He thought he was allaying everyone's fears, but how does the cantor's son-in-law know about the king of clubs?...

Thank you Reb Sholem. Shalom aleichem.

Live, love, and laugh,

Irreverend Steve