Shalom Aleichem comes to 2016 Tel Aviv

Arutz Sheva attends Tel Aviv Festival held in the writer's memory and watches the 1939 Yiddish film Tevye. No fiddlers on the roof.

Rochel Sylvetsky ,

Shalom Aleichem
Shalom Aleichem

A century has passed since the death of Shalom Aleichem (Shalom Rabinowitz 1859-1916), the brilliant writer who brought the shtetl to life with warmth, wry love, realism and an insider's knowledge of yiddishkeit.

He wrote his works at a time when no one could have predicted that the shtetl would go up in flames and make his writings doubly precious, in addition to their being great works of literature that awaken nostalgia about a period in Jewish history. Yiddish lovers revel in his style and phrases, but since his works are available in translation, everyone can get to know the shtetl and appreciate the great man's understanding of human nature.

Shalom Aleichem knew how to paint a vivid picture of Jewish life in Eastern Europe, the wind of secularism that swept these communities and the migration to America in the early twentieth and late nineteenth centuries.

What really made the shtetl a household word, however, was the adaptation of Shalom Aleichem's classic Tevye der Milchiker (Tevy the milkman) to the wildly successful musical Fiddler on the Roof.

"Fiddler" had the flavor of the original and much of the pathos and wit, but it could not reproduce the most endearing characteristic of that quintessential unlearned but deeply religious and principled shtetl Jew, Tevye.  I am referring to the absurd malapropisms  caused by his well-meaning misinterpretation of Biblical and Talmudic phrases with which, like a good Jew should, he peppers every sentence. They simply cannot be translated with any semblance of meaning, but they are hilarious and Shalom Aleichem at his most brilliant.  They are what made Tevye such a popular character among Yiddish speakers in addition to the empathy his story evokes.

Yiddish is undergoing something of a well deserved renaissance in the Jewish secular and academic world. It didn't need a rebirth in hassidic circles where it is the language of choice or in Litvish yeshivas where it imbues the Talmud study with authentic geshmak (one of those not translatable words) - and where Shalom Aleichem's works are not read, but where their spirit, to a great extent, lives.

The rebirth of interest in the Yiddish language made it natural to produce the "Shalom Aleichem Tel Aviv 2016" two-day festival this past week at the Tel Aviv Cinematek in honor of the 100th year since the writer's birth.  Part of an International Conference in his memory under the auspices of Hebrew University's Daat Makom Center and Tel Aviv University's Goldreich Family Institute for Yiddish Language, Literature and Culture, the Tel Aviv Municipality and the city's Cinematek, it began with an evening of Yiddish songs and theater featuring Yiddish singers such as Chava Alberstein, Dovale Glickman and Mendi Cahan and three actors from New York's Yiddish Theater, Shane Baker, Alec Burko and Yuri Vedenyapin.  This was followed by the premier of a short comedy, "Menachem Mendel in Tel Aviv," filmed  by Eran Turbiner and directed by Yaad Biran.

Chef Shmil Hollander took part in the ongoing "Yiddishkeit fair" (yes, that is what it was called) at the entrance to the theater which, in addition to food, featured stalls selling books, CD's, souvenirs and even klezmer, a pleasant diversion in skyscraper-filled Tel Aviv, all thanks to the festival's performing arts director Eti Anka-Segev.

Zugt mir dem emes,  tsu gut un tsu shlechts (tell me the truth, for better and for worse),  what bigger contrast between Jewish life then and now could there be? Could Tevya, or Shalom Aleichem for that matter, have imagined skyscrapers in a Jewish homeland? 

The real Shalom Aleichem for me, however, was the second day's Yiddish film marathon, which included the screening of the 1939 version of Tevya der Milchiker in Yiddish (borrowed from the National Center for Jewish Film at Brandeis U.).  Directed by Maurice Schwartz, he (as he tended to do in his films), took the starring role of Tevya and gave a magnificent performance. The music is by another legend, Shalom Secunda, who wrote Bei Mir Bist Du Shoen. The two, with the addition of Molly Picon, are the most well known names of the famous pre-WWII  New York Yiddish Theater.

No song, no dance, no color, just the story of the persecuted Diaspora Jew who lives in poverty, as do his anti-Semitic gentile peasant neighbors, but who is culturally on a totally different plane, talking to G-d as if that is the most natural thing for a milkman to do.

I understand Yiddish well, and it is a long time since I have heard such beautiful, rich use of the language. The pithy expressions and sentences simply roll off the actors' tongues and when Golde said "Gott fin Avruhm" the women's prayer as the end of the Sabbath approaches as my own mother did, it was an emotional moment for me. For those who don't speak mama loshen, the subtitles in English are fine, much better than the Hebrew ones, and anyone who knows Hebrew will understand Tevye's quotes anyway.

It is, after all, really and truly mame loshen for the actors, because except for Tzeitl's two children, whose Yiddish has an American accent, they are all Eastern Europeans. It seems that this particular movie, unlike most other classic Yiddish films which were shot in Poland where filming was cheap, was actually filmed in New Jersey with actors brought there from Eastern Europe – all except for the children, who were "local"!

Why film a Boiberik, Anatevka and Yehupetz story in New Jersey? Schwartz feared that the scenes showing the priest's cruelty and Tevye's heartrending mourning at his daughter Chava's conversion (there are only two daughters in this film) would not sit well with the Polish authorities. Ironically, the actors were prevented from returning to Europe by the outbreak of the war and were saved, including the Jews who play the parts of "goyim." Those were the dark days of 1939, the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact had just been signed - and that may be the reason the goyim are pictured mainly as drunken boors.

Great literature deals with timeless issues and dilemmas that affect individuals and all of humanity or are recurrent historical themes. Shalom Aleichem captured the abject poverty that characterized Eastern European shtetl life for Jew and gentile alike, aiming barbs at the upper class Jewish townspeople who buy Tevye's dairy products but also showing deep empathy at the cruelty and indifference of the church and peasants to Jewish suffering, the devastating scourge of intermarriage, the Jew's unquestioning faith in G-d and acceptance of His will. As opposed to Y.L. Peretz, he is not bitter, nor is he criticizing those people and that eternal faith.

Tevye, whose married-out daughter returns to join her family upon their banishment decides to go to "Palestina." This is said in 1939, so had there been a sequel, Chava's second husband would probably have been a kibbutznik.

That would have sat well with those who produced the Shalom Aleichem festival and the crowds that attended it in Tel Aviv.

Tevya Movie poster 1939 INN:HS
Yiddish singer Chava Alberstein INN: Asaf Antman
From the film Menachem Mendel in Tel Aviv INN:Screenshot