Sholem Aleichem is a man without didactic intentions or social ideology, one of those rare storytellers whose work sums up the outlook of a whole culture. Few writers have so completely captured the imagination of their people as Sholem Aleichem has that of the Jews. He is the property of the Jewish people as a whole, known and loved even by those on the borderline of literacy. He is the only writer of modern times who may truly be said to be a culture-hero — more so than Mark Twain or Dickens, whose popularity hardly rested upon any feeling among their readers that they were moral spokesmen; and certainly far more so than T. S. Eliot, about whom it should be said that the claims entered by his admirers have yet to he recognized by his culture.

In his humorous yet often profoundly sad stories, Shalom Aleichem gave to the Jews what they instinctively felt was the right and true judgment of their experience: a judgment of love through the medium of irony. Sholem Aleichem is the great poet of Jewish humanism and of Jewish transcendence over the pomp of the world. For the Jews of Eastern Europe he was protector and advocate; he celebrated their communal tradition; he defended their style of life and constantly underlined their passionate urge to dignity. But he was their judge as well: he ridiculed their pretensions, he mocked their vanity, and he constantly reiterated the central dilemma, that simultaneous tragedy and joke, of their existence — the irony of their claim to being a Chosen People, indeed, the irony of their existence at all.

Sholem Aleichem's Yiddish is one of the most extraordinary verbal achievements of modern literature, as important in its way as T. S. Eliot's revolution in the language of English verse or Berthold Brecht's infusion of street language into the German lyric. Sholem Aleichem uses a sparse and highly controlled vocabulary; his medium is so drenched with irony that the material which comes through it is often twisted and elevated into direct tragic statement-irony multiplies upon itself to become a deep winding sadness. Many of his stories are monologues, still close to the oral folk tradition, full of verbal by-play, slow in pace, winding in direction, but always immediate and warm in tone. His imagery is based on an absolute mastery of the emotional rhythm of Jewish life; describing, for example, the sadness of a wheezing old clock, he writes that it was "a sadness like that in the song of an old, worn-out cantor toward the end of Yom Kippur" — and how sad that is only someone who has heard such a cantor and therefore knows the exquisite rightness of the image can really say.

excerpted From: Irving Howe & Eliezer Greenberg, A Treasury of Yiddish Stories (Viking Books, 1953; republished by Schocken Books)




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