From Baruch Spinoza to Moses Mendelssohn and beyond, the Jewish Enlightenment in Europe produced countless writers and academics who explored and expounded on the religious ideas and philosophies of the day. However, it wasn’t until the late 19th century when the literary titan Sholem Aleichem effectively introduced humor and cultural fiction to mainstream Jewish literature. Born in the Ukraine in great and troubling times for the Jews, Sholem Aleichem’s writings embraced the experience of Jewish life in Eastern Europe, in all of its glory and sadness. Over the last few decades, Aleichem’s hometown of Pereiaslav-Khmelnytskyi has become something of a living attraction, its many museums preserving the regional culture as it was for both Jews and Russians at the turn of the century; the most famous of these, of course, being the Sholem Aleichem Museum honoring the Jewish author’s life and works.
The identity of the first person to tell jokes about Abram Rabinovich or the wise men of Chelm is lost forever in the mists of history. But the man most responsible for popularizing Jewish humor and who is most famous for raising it to an art form is undoubtedly the writer Sholem Naumovich Rabinovich, better known as Sholem Aleichem. The Jewish Mark Twain was born in 1859 in the small town of Pereiaslav-Khmelnytskyi south of Kiev. He began writing in his teen years, and according to some sources, his first work was a vocabulary book.
His efforts soon turned towards more humorous, and simultaneously more serious, themes. Many of his early works drew on his experiences growing up in a small Russian-Jewish village. Among his most popular writings were his stories of Tevye the Milkman, which consisted of semi-fictional and often humorous accounts of the lives of everyday Jewish peasants. These stories would later become the inspiration for the Broadway show Fiddler on the Roof, and Pereiaslav-Khmelnytskyi the inspiration for the fictional village of Anatevka.
In addition to his stories of Tevye the Milkman and other classic residents of Anatevka, Sholem Aleichem wrote nearly two-dozen popular novels and plays. Among these are collections of popular children’s stories. Although stories about the mythical Wise Men of Chelm almost certainly predated him, he helped to introduce them along with other popular and talented writers such as Isaac Bashevis Singer to American audiences. By the time he was in his thirties, Sholem Aleichem was the most popular Jewish writer in the world.
Sholem Aleichem remained in Russia until 1905, when the pogroms against the Jews became so severe that he was forced to leave. He and his family emigrated to Switzerland, and eventually to New York City, where he spent the remaining years of his life. His writings became as popular in the New World as in the Old, and by the time of his death in 1916, he had become a literary behometh in both America and Europe. He is commemorated in both places, especially in his hometown of Pereiaslav-Khmelnytskyi, where his life and works are now enshrined in the most prominent of the city’s many museums.
Walking around Pereiaslav-Khmelnytskyi, a self-described living museum, is like walking through a movie set. From its old onion-domed churches to its 17th century Cossack fortress to the rolling hills and farms, the historic district of this city easily evokes images of the old settlement which inspired the stories of Tevye the Milkman. This is especially true on the grounds of the Museum of Folk Architecture, where several old buildings have been preserved and/or reconstructed.
From a literary pilgrimage standpoint, the highlight of Pereiaslav-Khmelnytskyi is the Sholem Aleichem Museum, commemorating the city’s favorite son. Artifacts from the author’s life, as well as early writings and samples of his work, are on display. More than a dozen other museums honor everything from the Cossacks to bread.
Pereiaslav-Khmelnytskyi is locted close to the center of the Ukraine, approximately sixty-five miles south of the capital at Kiev. Its many museums offer visitors a glimpse of Jewish and Russian peasant life in the 19th and early 20th centuries. As of this writing, there was no visitor information for the Museum of Sholem Aleichem. Web: Not available
The city of Chelm in Poland is a beautifully preserved old city, though little remains of the Jewish community whose population came to a sad end in the death chambers of Sobibor. However, the Synagogue of Chelm, in which many of the Chelm stories were set, is still standing. There is also a Monument to Sholem Aleichem located in Kiev. The Gravesite of Sholem Aleichem is located in the Mount Carmel Cemetery in New York City.