Page 74 - Jewish Book Annual Volume 25

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e w i s h
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most secret joy and restorative for the diminishing numbers of
those who could read him in Yiddish. Today he is somethng
that he himself never foresaw. He is a world figure, and in be-
coming that, he has become, for us, something more.
He has become—and this seems so incongruous to those who
knew him, with his simplicity, his unaffectedness and his gaiety—
a tremendous national symbol, a tribune and a vindicator. He
symbolizes Jewish creativity in the Exile, affirming to the non-
Jewish world what it has long been loath to perceive, namely,
that the Jewish people did not leave its creative capacity among
the ruins of its homeland two thousand years ago. Certainly he
does not stand alone in Yiddish literature; and certainly, from
the earliest years of the Exile, the Jewish people has poured out,
in various languages, from its inexhaustible spirit treasures of
poetry and prose, of philosophy and learning. Here and there
these achievements have, indeed, found belated recognition among
scholars. But Sholom Aleichem is the breakthrough in the
twentieth century to a wider, more public enjoyment and public
acknowledgment of the Jewish
contribution to the sum
of human spiritual experience. He is the
par excellence.
We must be careful to understand the nature of Sholom
Aleichem’s laughter. It was more than a therapeutic resistance
to the destructive frustrations and humiliations of the Exile.
It was the application of a fantastic technique that the Jews
had developed over the ages to counter the torments and dis-
criminations to which they were continuously subjected. It was
a technique of avoidance and sublimation; also a technique of
theoretical reversal. They had found the trick of converting
disaster into a verbal triumph, applying a sort of Talmudic in-
genuity of interpretation to events they could not handle in
their reality. They turned the tables on their adversaries dia-
lectically, and though their physical disadvantages were not
diminished thereby, nor the external situation changed one whit,
they emerged with a feeling of victory.
Sholom Aleichem’s Charm and Heartbreak
Thus described, the technique sounds portentous and dull,
as do all serious analyses of humor. Only examples can convey
some of its charm—and heartbreak. I offer, as the first, one that
does not come direct from Sholom Aleichem, but is in the true
style of the tradition. The story is told of a Jewish merchant who
lived in the famous or infamous Pale of Settlement to which
most Jews were confined in the Russian Empire. With some
difficulty he obtained a three-day permit to visit the city of