For many months now, New Yorkers in large numbers have been flocking to the Barbizon Theater to see The World of Sholom Aleichem, a production offering selections from the works of Sholom Aleichem, Peretz, and other great Yiddish writers. As often as not the New York theatre-goer will buy four, five, or six tickets, inviting his parents to come along and bringing the children as well: The World of Sholom Aleichem has found an audience suddenly eager to discover a bond of community in reminiscences of the bygone Jewish world of 19thcentury Eastern Europe. But the ghetto world presented to them on the stage has suffered a sea change into something not so rich and quite strange, Midge Decter asserts here—a fact not altogether surprising, considering the familiar politico-cultural tendencies of those responsible for the production.
All through the performance of The World of Sholom Aleichem, I had the most disturbing sensation of being reminded of something. It was as if the production was presenting and at the same time evoking the not-presented. There was the work of Sholom Aleichem, writer of Yiddish and Hebrew books, born in Russia in 1859, died in New York in 1916, bounded at either end by life and death and in the middle by the horizons of his own special genius for perceiving and communicating. And there was his “world,” now, bounded on all sides by the arrangement of stage and audience in the Barbizon Theater. It was only this “world,” though presumably taking its existence from the literature, that ever came into sharp focus. Sholom Aleichem had somehow to retire into a hazy background, where he couldn’t quite be seen but couldn’t quite disappear either.
The production should properly have been called The Little World of Sholom Aleichem. It is the result of a great effort to press down a mass of existence and extract one small drop of pure essence. To that end, adapter, director, and costumer have combined to quell every possible deviation from a single tone and range of gesture. Arnold Perl, who adapted the material for the stage, has pointedly selected three discrete and unrelated scraps of literature, a story of Sholom Aleichem, one of I. L. Peretz, and a tale of Chelm. If Sholom Aleichem and Peretz, two unique writers who saw differently and felt differently and wrote differently, can be put together on one stage within one production—and if to them can be added one of the stories of Chelm, the legendary Mecca of innocents and idiots—there must be something outside them all that gives them a unified meaning. That something is the ghetto. Now there is possibly nothing wrong with this. But if you combine one man’s vision with that of another, what you see should get larger, not smaller. And Mr. Perl’s ghetto is a precious little essence, distilled and bonded. It is just the kind of Never-Never-Land American Jews like to think they came from, quaint, not quite respectable, but abounding with a special sweetness—the land of the little shlepper who couldn’t make a living but knew how to follow the tortuous intellectual gymnastics on a page of the Talmud and knew also how to turn his bitter fate to Eternal advantage. It is, in short, the land of Dos Folk, Amcho.
The East European Pale might have looked something like this, caught static in the repose of a sunny Sabbath afternoon. But it never was static; it was always going somewhere, about to do something, about, in fact, to fall apart.
Sholom Aleichem and Peretz caught it in motion, each in his way, and both had a real sensitivity to the tempos of decline and dissolution. It was the touchstone of their work. But on the stage, the rhythm of the Pale gave no sense of real motion, of development. It was a steady, even repetition, from opening moment to closing, of one figure in variation. The whole production was a sort of spoken folk dance.
The show opens with an introduction to Ghetto Man—who calls himself, I suppose for reasons of literary lèse majesté, Mendele Mocher Seforim (but is not under any circumstances to be taken for the “grandfather” of Yiddish literature, he of the iron prejudice and Rabelaisian pen). This Mendele the Bookseller is the evening’s master of ceremonies. He limps in with his pushcart, all saggy-shouldered, shrewd-eyed, resigned, a home-remedy intellectual, a total failure. He sets the tone and the precise manner in which the audience is to be carried back to Eastern Europe. There is a brief but crucial interplay here between audience and stage. This audience has for the most part assembled out of a new-found piety for its “cultural heritage.” The pieties of American Jewry are, however, peculiarly touchy and selective. These Jews have brought their children; they have come for the uplift promised them by Jewish apologetics. They are at once in a high state of anticipation and yet wary lest their journey to the past bring up some past unpleasantness. Now our Mendele, failure though he is, is a clever fellow. He knows they are not to be disturbed and sets them immediately at rest. The nature of the world about to unfold is in his first gesture. “Nu,” he says, “I wasn’t staring. I was just looking.” (Happy laughter.) And picks up a book. (Serious nods of appreciation.) “You have perhaps”—over the top of his spectacles—“heard of our little town of Chelm. . . .” (Relaxed interest.)
The little town of Chelm is the subject of countless stories, jokes really, in which all the malicious self-mockery of East European Jewry is given full play. One could not find better confirmation of Freud’s theory about the schizophrenic nature of Jewish humor. The people of Chelm are fools, and each of their foolishnesses is merely a logical extension of the sophistry of shtetl society. The story presented here involves the purchase of a goat, and there are endless complications, brought on by a couple of pranksters, about determining the sex of the animal. Finally the rabbi of Chelm, torn between a paper of rabbinic certification indicating one sex and visible evidence indicating its opposite, decrees both ways. A highly mannered performance, something on the order of a Hasidic dance, coupled with the sweet and soothing commentary of Mendele, manages to take out every last bit of sting. What is left is surely the Chelm story and yet bears no resemblance to it. “Aren’t we all idiots,” it insinuates, “and isn’t it somehow nobler to be a poor little idiot in this intense and sober world?” The director himself seemed to realize that by making each character a bouncing figure of fun he had robbed the whole thing of its real funniness, and the scene closes with a frantic tapping of forefingers on temples and murmured “Ooo’s,” as if to cover for some possible embarrassment. This is not distortion but a kind of subtle conversion. Chelm, Fool’s Town, has been reconverted to a suburb of the ghetto of the common man.
The truth is that ghetto Jewry was not pleased with itself at all. If it could be humorous, that was because it was sitting on a keg of spiritual dynamite and had no other way to protect itself against the big explosion. American Jews can afford to be pleased by the ghetto. Time and distance and indifference have settled most of its conflicts for us. And even we can only enjoy the ghetto by retroactively making of it something it was not quite: a new Jewish folk tradition. We must remember that Sholom Aleichem was made laureate of the ghetto by his readers because he touched something very deep in their image of themselves, a disturbed image. He has no meaning for us unless we take him on his own terms. Comedy that has no butt ceases to be funny and pales sweetly.
Similarly with irony that has no ambiguity. Perhaps the biggest conversion of all was worked on Peretz’s “Bontsche Schweig.” The story was there in full—it’s not much of a story, really. But if Bontsche is only a pathetic little man, hounded and beaten all his life, asking, when offered any wish Heaven can provide, for a hot roll with butter—if he is not also the Jew who has no life in this world and cannot accept Paradise—then he has lost his ghetto-meaning. He becomes precisely what he became in this performance, an emasculated symbol of the little people. Here we have the danger of making art “folk”—a favorite pastime these days. For people to rediscover the folk implies somehow (at least for the main agents of this activity) a return to the simple and pure. For Jews to return to the “simple and pure” means to return to the ghetto—in the ghetto, people were little, close to their origins, close to their God, and so on. “Little,” pinned down, always means “poor.” And poor the ghetto Jews were, God knows, enough and plenty. But what if they weren’t pure and simple? What if they were about the most God-forsaken, mixed-up, complicated people that ever lived? Maybe they were pretty intimate with their God, but what if they were at the same time downright impious? Well, then, the whole folk structure caves in; we shall make them pure and simple. In “rediscovering” the past we caricature it. Bontsche shuffles downstage to his seat at the Heavenly judgment in a style that is no longer even beaten-ness but mere gaucherie. He is dressed in rags that go beyond poverty into straight costume. He is a perfect empty outline for the evening’s portrait of a noble and oppressed mass.
The ghetto has always lent itself to ideological use. It is the clinching argument for Zionism, Hebraism, Yiddishism, Bundism, assimilationism, survivalism, the sine qua non for every Jewish tendency. And the special ghetto of The World of Sholom Aleichem has its special message for the forward-looking. Bontsche Schweig’s defending angel chronicles his life with ringing tones of denunciation for the oppressor. Be still no more, little men! You have friends in Heaven!
It does no good, even in the rosy afterthought of five decades, to gainsay the facts: nobody in the ghetto liked it. Eventually vast numbers of people left it, and those who remained threw off its spiritual discipline. The literature seen today as the greatest flower of its creativity, the very literature with which The World of Sholom Aleichem seeks to reintroduce us to the charms of our past, grew out of a movement to “do something” about the impossible ghetto and its impossible Jews—the Enlightenment. The ghetto was not, as we like so much to think today, the center of a clean and simple life made unbearable by the pressures of a big and hostile world. Those who left, for America or Palestine or cosmopolitan Europe, escaped not so much from the Polish police dogs as from the heavy hands of their own fathers. It is not possible here to state in detail what the ghetto was, beyond saying merely that it was a human society, more particularly, a Jewish human society, and therefore by definition a very complex business. If a society is always far more terrible than its folklorists would choose to find it, it is also far more wonderful and beautiful. Had you told a ghetto Jew he was noble and oppressed—or, as in this case, noble because oppressed—he’d have laughed at you. What chances for puny “noble and oppressed” pitted against his formidable tsores ? Had you in addition called him “little man,” he would have become radiant in his anger. Not because he was especially proud—he was too wily a creature for social pride—but because he was, perhaps more than any other man on earth, poignantly aware of himself as an individual, irreducible human being.
Sholom Aleichem and Peretz and, to a lesser extent, Mendele, passed far beyond the tendentiousness of their contemporaries, the Enlighteners, because they were artists and therefore poor didacticians. They were simply unable to thin out the complexity of the life they saw around them, or put away either half of the ambivalence they felt toward it. How much more disturbing, then, to see just these three being used for this kind of hatchet job—cutting the ghetto down to easy sentiment—and a “progressive” moral.
The Sholom Aleichem story, “The High School” (“Gymnasiye”), is made to crystallize around a problem near and dear to the hearts of all good liberals, the numerus clausus for Jews. That Sholom Aleichem never wrote such a story one cannot say. He did. But that his story was not about discrimination in the school system of 19thcentury Russia will be immediately clear to all who know him. It is the story of a man with a wife and of a wife with a son. The problem of getting the boy into a gymnasiye is a mere circumstance. (“I ask you,” says the hero Aaron Katz in the last line of the story, “whoever dreamed up a—wife?”) Katz is nagged and pushed and prodded by his wife, in the end sacrifices all, to do something he opposes: get the boy into a secular school. He is left alone while his wife and son travel from town to town seeking a school with an opening, he sells his business, and when the boy is finally admitted somewhere, he moves to the strange new town, penniless and exhausted. Then with a wonderful Sholom Aleichem twist the new scholar goes out on a students’ political strike. This woeful tale is transmuted—by a fairly simple process of selecting, de-emphasizing essentials, and at the end, where there was nothing else to do, rewriting—into a rousing drama of man faced with an evil society. Katz is really proud and delighted about the school: he just adopts a manner of good-natured carping in response to his wife’s good-natured hounding. Once involved, he becomes concerned with beating the system. And so on. In the last scene, when his son returns home to announce the strike, he shouts a long speech (this is completely of Perlian manufacture) ending with arms outstretched and the cry, “Strike!”
Somehow that “Strike!” is a necessary and inevitable finale. One waits through most of the evening for it to happen. It was in the first place no mere fortuity that Howard da Silva, the producer, and his company—most of whose political careers have left them in an acute state of professional embarrassment—undertook to present a night of modern Jewish folklore. The enterprise of folk production has been for some time a private monopoly in the hands of the “progressives.” And they have never yet managed either to subdue or to disguise the reprehensible politics that spark it—even in their most innocent products.
There is, despite the openly political character of this final piece, an absolute unity of form throughout the production. Little Jews, innocent and unsullied, the people of Chelm, Bontsche Schweig, Aaron Katz, court buffoons for the universe, terribly, amusingly pathetic, but strong with the strength of the weak and the many. (Some of the clichés escape me right now.) How can one better be both entertaining and instructive about the noble future of the Common Man than by taking off from such people?
The response to The World of Sholom Aleichem has been one of universal delight. Here is the Jewish past as we like to think it. Here is Jewish culture as well-meaning friends like to understand it. Sweet and simple. Some enterprising young man of letters ought to start a ghetto revival—not just a spatter of tributes in memoriam, but a real honest-to-God revival replete with a rediscovery of values and the unearthing of hidden beauties. The ghetto is sufficiently dead in us by now to become a serene source of ageless wisdoms. This show has proved it. The revival would snowball.
And what of the real Sholom Aleichem? As Maurice Samuel, in his splendid book The World of Sholom Aleichem, describes Tevyeh, Sholom Aleichem’s most famous character:
[He] will not let you strike an attitude in his behalf; he is not docile material for your fits of cosmic righteousness.
Ah, the real Sholom Aleichem may have to wait until some golden time when plays can be produced without an audience.