Page 108 - Jewish Book Annual Volume 16

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J
e w i s h
B
o o k
A
n n u a l
94
Sholom Aleichem taught a people steeped in tragedy to laugh
at its troubles. He discovered the liberating power of laughter.
His predecessors, including his adored Mendele, had used humor
and ridicule, biting satire and sardonic irony, as instruments to
reform individuals and groups, as means to elevate their readers
to a more enlightened level of moral behavior.
Sholom Aleichem believed that the primary need of Jews the
world over was to become happier human beings. Necessary re-
forms and communal improvements would result inevitably if
gaiety and light-heartedness replaced wailing and whining. He
therefore caused health-giving, sorrow-dissolving laughter to re-
sound throughout his works.
Once, when a tragic ending to a story seemed inevitable, he
stopped short in his narrative and begged his readers not to
make him continue to the unhappy conclusion. Most golden
dreams, he generalized, end in sad disillusionment. Preferring
to leave lamentations and moralizing to others, he took leave of
his Yiddish audience in a mood of cheerfulness and with the wish
that all his coreligionists might join him in laughing more often
at this sorry mess of a world.
Sholom Aleichem loved his men and women for their weak-
nesses and their follies no less than for their quiet heroism and
their mute idealism. But his deepest love was reserved for the
children of the many Kasrilevkes who refused to grow up and
accept the established order. The most attractive of these chil-
dren was the orphaned boy Motel, the Yiddish Huck Finn, a
cantor’s son who could not easily adjust himself to adult norms
and who managed, without ever descending to delinquency, to
turn every situation topsy-turvy.
The Message of Sholom Aleichem
Sholom Aleichem came to America in 1906, and again in 1914
at the outbreak of the First World War. He was critical of the
trend towards assimilationism which was then gaining increas-
ing momentum. He warned American Jews of dangers ahead if
they persisted in deemphasizing their uniqueness. He begged
them not to be led astray by the will-o’-the wisp of radiant
Anglo-Americanism and not to be seduced by the tinsel lure
of the non-Jewish surroundings.
His admonitions, unheeded by his American Jewish contem-
poraries, are finding a more receptive hearing today. His Kas-
rilevke, a term of mockery a half-century ago, is more likely to
induce a nostalgic mood in our day. For Kasrilevke is no longer
a definite spot on this globe, a
stedt l
teeming with
schlemihls
and
liiftmenschen.
Kasrilevke is now a memory of an integrated,
though harried Jewish communal existence. A return to Kas-
rilevke is unthinkable, and there is no craving anywhere for its
reconstitution in the form of Jewish suburbia. But there is a