One of the books I brought back from my mother's library is The Bewitched Tailor by Sholom Aleikhem. That's how his name is spelled on the cover. Inside I see his name and another phrase in Cyrillic letters. There's no date of publication, and I don't know when or how the book became my mom's possession.
In the back of the book, it says Printed in the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. The publishing house -- Foreign Languages Publishing House, Moscow -- was a state-run publisher (of course it was), founded in the 1960s. That's probably when this edition, illustrated with woodcuts by Y. Krasny, saw print.
Shalom Aleichem was his pen name. His given name was Solomon Naumovich Rabinovich. He was born in 1859 in a small town in what is now Ukraine. After witnessing the terrible pogroms that swept across the region in 1905, including Kyiv, he emigrated to New York in 1906, and died there in 1916.
The last place I traveled before the COVID-19 pandemic began here was to see my niece in the national touring production of Fiddler on the Roof, the classic musical based in Aleichem's stories. It's set in Anatevka, a fictional village based on Aleichem's experience growing up as a Jew in shtetl Ukraine.
I remember being nervous that day. I was slightly anxious about traveling to Boston given whisperings of the virus, though we didn't yet know that COVID was airborne, so I had no fear of sitting in a crowded theater! Mostly I was nervous that my son wouldn't like the play. I so wanted him to like the play.
Fiddler on the Roof is a classic of Jewish American theater, of course. But more than that, it tells a real story about the real kinds of things that happened to real people, including my own forebears. My grandfather grew up in a shtetl in neighboring Belarus only a few years after Shalom Aleichem fled.
My kid loved the play, though he recoiled in horror when the Russians smashed up the wedding. That kind of casual, callous antisemitism was completely foreign to him then. He's a few years older now, and has learned more about a lot of things. He knows who Putin is. He knows what Nazis were, and are.
Aleichem left Ukraine after the 1905 Kyiv pogrom. Wikipedia says the perpetrators of those pogroms blamed Russia's problems on "the Jews and the socialists." Once I would have rejoiced that those kinds of views were history, and better yet, they were somewhere else's history. Lately I'm not so sure.
When I picked up the book, it didn't evoke current events for me. Russia hadn't yet attacked Ukraine. I brought it home because I'm a rabbi, and a student of Jewish literature, and also it was my mom's and we are beginning to clear out their house. Now it might as well be bound in yellow and blue.
A friend noted recently how many people seem to want to claim or find a connection with Ukraine now. I don't think that's a bad thing. The real work, I guess, is figuring out how to feel that connection across the globe, not just with people in the places that were home to my literal or literary forebears.
- Fleeing Kyiv: a group of friends escapes Kyiv after Russian army's attack, written by Tetiana Bezruk for OpenDemocracy and republished at Global Voices.
- This War is Not In My Name, New York Times.
- Thousands of Russians are Protesting Against the War, Washington Post.