Shalom Aleichem: Some Laughter, Some Tears
Tales From the Old World and the New
Selected & Translated by Curt Leviant
Perigee Trade (1979), 254 pages
Reviewed by Israel Drazin - June 9, 2010
Three great Yiddish short story writers lived during the beginning of the twentieth century: Mendele Mocher Seforim, Sholom Aleichem, and Yitzchak Leib Peretz. The most famous today is Sholom Aleichem (1859-1914) because of the huge success of Fiddler on the Roof, a play based on one of his comical characters, Tevye the Dairyman. Sholom Aleichem's complete works are available in a 28 volume set containing novels, plays, satires, romances, an autobiography, memoirs, and hundreds of shorter works of fiction. One must remember to call him by his full pen name Sholom Aleichem, words meaning "hello," and not, Mr. Aleichem.
Sholom Aleichem composed his first stories in Hebrew and then switched to Yiddish, two unrelated languages. Hebrew is Semitic while Yiddish, the language of the average Jew during Sholom Aleichem's lifetime, is a version of German, with some other languages mixed in.
This collection of twenty of his tales is aptly named because this humorist, called the Mark Twain of Judaism, had the knack of combining pathos with his humor. An example is the tale Elijah the Prophet about a small boy whose mother warned him not to fall asleep during the Passover Seder meal; because if he did Elijah would step in, place him in a bag, and take him away. She kept on saying "You are going to fall asleep" until he fell asleep and Elijah came to take him.
Still another is the story of The Tenth Man about nine men on a train who required one more male Jew to make up the quorum of ten to say the mourner's prayer for an only son who the police had hanged. There was another man on the train dressed as a non-Jew but the nine men were convinced that he was trying to pass for a non-Jew, a "Jew can recognize a fellow Jew a mile away." The man heard the conversation of the nine Jews, admitted that he was Jewish, but refused to be counted in the ten because "I don't believe in these things." The aggrieved father persuaded him to be counted by promising to tell him a story why he deserved a gold watch. After the service the father told the stranger three stories and a punch line that had a punch.