What underlies the humor of Shalom Aleichem?

 

Shalom Aleichem is the pen name of the famous writer Solomon Rabinowitz, who wrote hundreds of humorous tales in Yiddish, and became one of the three most famous early Yiddish writers, along with Mendele Mocher Seforim and Yitzchak Leib Peretz. He was the only one of the three who wrote in a humorous vein. A close reading of the humorous tales reveals the pain suffered by Jews in the nineteenth and twentieth century.

There is a film bio about him that is excellent called “Shalom Aleichem: Laughter in the Darkness” which captures this insight. He wrote his humorous tales at a time when Jews suffered in Russia from pogroms and other State-supported Russian murders of Jews. Despite the suffering around him, his humorous tales address how Jews adapted to the modern world and the crisis of identity they suffered as Jews in the modern period.

During his heyday, Shalom Aleichem wrote and published a new story every Friday in the Yiddish newspaper so that fellow Jews could read a funny story on the Shabbat. It is said that he chose the pseudonym Shalom Aleichem, Hebrew for “hello to you,” as if to say, “hello, I am here again.” The famous play and film “Fiddler on the Roof” is based on some tales of his about Tevya the Milkman.

He was born in 1859 in Russia in a shtetl, a small town made up mostly of poor generally unenlightened Jews. His father was interested in the enlightenment, a movement to give Jewish children a strong secular education and a chance to become part of the modern world, and he sent Solomon to a secular school. Solomon gave private lessons to obtain money and married the daughter of a rich man who he taught and lived a wealthy life until he went bankrupt due to bad investments. He spent every day until around 3 PM as an investor, then spent time writing from 3 PM throughout part of the night. Some scholars think that he began to think or over-think about his stories and did not give sufficient attention to his investments. His mother-in-law paid his debts but she was so disgusted with him that she refused thereafter to speak to him.

Even before “Fiddler on the Roof,” about Tevya the Milkman, there was a 1939 film called “Tevya.” One of the main points in Shalom Aleichem’s story about Tevya was that Tevya was unable to come to term with one of his seven daughters marrying outside Judaism. The films changed this theme and show a reconciliation between father and daughter. All versions show Tevya believing in God in an uneducated painful way, but despite his belief, he was unable to understand and accept the suffering that he understood God was sending him.

Shalom Aleichem died in 1916 in America after years of illness, illnesses that could be treated today. He had escaped to America to avoid the many pogroms. Over 200,000 people attended his funeral. His books continue to be popular in Israel and the US a hundred and one years after his death.

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