Sholom Aleichem: Laughter Through Tears
Program notes from the Artistic Director, Ari Roth
With this world premiere, written and performed by the incomparable Theodore Bikel about one of his greatest inspirations, the great Sholom Aleichem, our play performs a neat trick. We go back in time a century and stay up-to-the-minute in a veritable post-modern hall of mirrors. For we find ourselves in the presence of one living legend meeting up with another (no longer living), who conjured immortal characters like Shmulik, his inspiration, and, even more famously, Tevye the milkman, who in turn was made immortal by Bikel who performed the role of Tevye over 2,000 times in a musical that transformed American Jewish culture. When he asks, “what will remain” in our collective consciousness, our performer wonders aloud both of his own legacy, Sholom Aleichem’s, the fate of Yiddish, and our broader heritage. Even more impressive than all this tripling of meaning, the play becomes a moving meditation on how our culture, our language, indeed our soul is transmitted from generation to generation; from artist to artist; from one cultural artifact into a new work of art more alive than that which was nestled on the bookshelf, or in the memory bank. Which leads us, in the end, to Sholom Aleichem’s will. For like Bikel, Sholom Aleichem was not content to have his great stories languish in libraries. They were meant to be shared!
Theo’s play and Sholom Aleichem’s stories are rich enough that you need no additional analysis from me. Only, perhaps, a few more facts. Sholom Aleichem was born in Pereyaslav, the Ukraine, in 1859, with a different name. The father, a wealthy merchant, was interested in the Enlightenment and in modern Hebrew literature. A failed business affair caused the family’s descent into poverty and in 1872 the mother died of cholera. Though he began writing in Hebrew, his first “serious work,” a dictionary of the curses employed by stepmothers, was written in Yiddish. In 1883, he married Olga Loyev and decided to write in Yiddish for good. He later explained his use of a pseudonym as a means of concealing his literary identity from his relatives, at a time when Yiddish literature was still despised by the Enlightened.
Sholom Aleichem wrote stories, sketches, reviews, plays and poems in both verse and prose. History brought him to America. The reality of America sent him back to Europe. But the catastrophes he would learn of upon his return would bring him back to America for good.
On the day after his funeral in 1916, Sholom Aleichem’s will appeared in the pages of The New York Times and was read into the congressional record. Called “one of the greatest ethical wills in history,” it contained burial directives, charges to his children and specific instructions as to the commemoration of the anniversary of his death. He told friends and family to gather and “read my will, and also select one of my stories, one of the merry ones, and recite it in whatever language is most intelligible to you. Because,” he added, “I would rather be remembered with laughter, than not be remembered at all.”
And so we have Theodore Bikel’s artful play, recreating the life of the brilliant author who left a legacy in story as rich as that which Theo shares with us today in song, in re-enactment, and in cultural transmission. What a treasure we have before us. – Ari Roth
(Biographical material drawn from The Jewish Forward, The Jewish Encyclopedia, Jewish Heritage Online Magazine and Jewish Virtual Library)