BOSTON — 100 years after his death, Sholem Aleichem can still draw a crowd.
Born in 1859 in Russia, Solomon Naumovich Rabinovich, went on to become a prolific Yiddish writer and humorist, adopting the familiar Yiddish greeting for his name. Dubbed the “Jewish Mark Twain,” Sholem Aleichem brought to life the stories of the traditional but disappearing Eastern European Jewish shtetl through authentic characters in all their shortcomings.
When he died on May 13, 1916, in New York, where he had lived at various times, more than 100,000 people lined the funeral route — the largest ever funeral procession until then.
His fictional stories of Tevye the Dairyman were the source of inspiration for the 1964 Tony Award-winning Broadway production of “Fiddler on the Roof” (Bock, Harnick and Stein) in which a new generation met the endearing, tradition-bound milkman, his wife Goldie, and their daughters Hodel, Chava, and Tzeitl, who embraced broader horizons.
The new Broadway production, with Danny Burstein and Jessica Hecht, is directed by Bartlett Sher and was just nominated for three Tony Awards including best musical revival. Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations Danny Danon recently hosted more than 1,200 UN and community guests, including diplomats from 70 countries at a performance in honor of Israel Independence Day.
A recent concert in Boston, “Tevye’s Daughters: Journeys to a Better World,” paid tribute to the revered writer on the centennial of his death. The rousing evening of music that paired A Besere Velt, the Boston Workmen’s Circle’s Yiddish Chorus and The Klezmatics, the New York-based klezmer band, drew more than 1,000 people who filled the massive sanctuary at Boston’s historic Temple Ohabei Shalom.
For the musical program, A Beserve Velt drew on Sholem Aleichem’s legacy and imagined the lives of later generations of Tevye’s daughters and granddaughters as they created new traditions, according to Steven Lipsitt, conductor of the 80-member community chorus.
Descendants honor the writer with laughter, not tears
The occasion brought together three of Sholem Aleichem’s actual descendants: his great-grandson, Ken Kaufman; Kaufman’s 25-year-old daughter Kara, who works at an international human rights advocacy organization, and another great-great granddaughter, Audrey Marcus Berkman, Hillel Director and Campus Rabbi at Wellesley College. Both women now live in the Boston area; they met that evening for the first time.
One week later, on Sunday, May 22, the yahrzeit of Sholem Aleichem’s death on the Jewish calendar, some 250 people attended a tribute to the author at the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research in Manhattan, where a new exhibit that features the newly acquired Sholem Aleichem Family Archive will be on view through Fall 2016.
Later that day, a private gathering hosted by his family drew more than 450 guests.
“In his will, he asked his descendants on his yahrzeit to remember him with laughter rather than tears,” Ken Kaufman said after the Boston concert. “He died 100 years ago and the family has carried on that tradition. When I was kid, we would go to my great-aunt’s house who was one of his daughters, as my grandmother was,” recalled Kaufman, who’s been organizing the events in recent years.
Kaufman’s aunt, the acclaimed novelist Bella (Bel) Kaufman, author of the bestselling novel “Up the Down Staircase,” died at age 103 in July, 2014, leaving Kaufman’s father as the oldest descendant.
Sholem Aleichem’s gift was to see life in its fullest, from its beauty to its absurdities, according to great-great granddaughter Audrey Berkman.
“It’s what makes his writing so enduring for the Jewish people and strikes a universal chord,” she wrote in an email.
“‘Laughter through tears’ is my legacy and one that I strive to bring into the world,” the 42-year-old rabbi added.
Singing for a better world: From shtetl music to pop
The Boston concert featured 15 pieces, including a lullaby written by Aleichem, and other selections inspired by his writing as well as a few contemporary songs.
A Besere Velt, which translates into “A Better World” in Yiddish, performs music that reflects Boston Workmen’s Circle’s century-long historic ties to Yiddish culture and labor and civil rights causes. The music speaks to that history and brings it into the present, chorus conductor Lipsitt told The Times of Israel.
The evening began with a lively Fiddler medley, striking a familiar chord with a twist: “Tradition,” “Anatevka,” and “L’Chaim,” were sung in Yiddish, in translations by Shraga Friedman, arranged by Lipsitt.
Other numbers included “Shlof Mayn Kind” (“Sleep My Child,”) by Aleichem and David Kovanofsky, a tender toned lullaby arranged for the chorus by its former director Lisa Gallatin.
The simple, heartwarming yet profound lyrics reflect the writer’s deep understanding of shtetl life, according to Frank London, the Klezmatics‘ long-time trumpet player.
“He knows the world it came from. It was his world,” London said.
Tradition was turned on its head with the surprising cover of the 2012 pop hit “Some Nights,” by Indie rock band Fun. Lipsitt’s arrangement pulsated with hard-driving percussion and keyboard and rich vocal harmonies. A new verse of an original Yiddish poem, “A Mol,” by long-time chorus member Linda Gritz, linked the song’s message of pacifism and civil rights to our own time, Lipsitt wrote in a follow up email.
The evening closed with “Ale Brider, Ale Shvester” (“All Brothers, All Sisters”) a Yiddish folk adaptation of a poem by Morris Winchevsky, a 19th century Socialist leader.