So my biography of Sholem Aleichem – the great Jewish writer, perhaps the greatest in modern Jewish history, the man who created Tevye, the person who can lay as good a claim as any to inventing modern Jewish humor – comes out today, and, as you can imagine, I’m pretty happy about the whole thing. Schocken, Nextbook Press, and Random House produced a beautiful volume; the reviews so far have been very kind; I got mentioned in a Huffington Post listicle; and thanks to the JBC Network, I get to go to a whole bunch of places and talk to people about how the man’s life was just as remarkable, in its own way, as his remarkable work. I leave for DC tomorrow; and Baltimore, Charleston, Philadelphia, Detroit, Houston, Miami, and others aren’t far behind.
So naturally my thoughts are turning to Sholem Aleichem’s experiences on tour: since he was, at different times in the course of his career, a prodigious traveler, heading from city to city to give readings to make money to support his family. (Why was such an enormously popular author, a massive seller, in such financial straits? It’s a long story; the answer’s in the book. But he was.) It was the age of the railroad, and Sholem Aleichem became deeply familiar with the train routes that criss-crossed Eastern Europe – although he had his share of mishaps, which included getting lost, oversleeping, and confusing himself for a high-ranking non-Jewish official with whom he had exchanged hats.
Okay, that last one didn’t happen to him; it was a fate that befell one of his characters, the protagonist of “On Account of a Hat,” one of Sholem Aleichem’s finest stories. It’s a brilliant tale, born of an old joke and transformed, through authorial artistry, into a meditation on the underlying uncertainties of modern Jewish life. For the purposes of this post, it’s enough to say that it’s not the only time, or place, where travel becomes an inspiration for Sholem Aleichem’s literary artistry. In his series of “Railroad Stories,” the most exciting thing about the train is that it’s a source of narrative inspiration. Travel is where you meet your next stories, where you find your inspirations.
And so I’m excited to get on the road; who knows what I’ll learn.
I just hope I don’t oversleep.
I’ve had four opportunities to visit the Soviet Union/Former Soviet Union over the years, the fourth being the trip I’m preparing for as I write this blog that MJL will be posting online while I’m physically there.
My first trip, as a twenty-six-year-old single in 1968, was mainly exploratory. I wanted to check out the terrible press reports, leave behind some Jewish books, and instill some hope. In this pre détente era when tourism between the USA and the Soviet Union was virtually unknown, I signed up with the Dutch Student Travel Organization, NBBS, for a two week all-expenses-covered trip costing $250. I was the only Jew and the only American among the thirty travelers. The railroad that left Amsterdam took two days and nights to reach our first stop, Minsk. At the intersection between the two Germanys, bloodhounds came on board to search. Crossing Poland, I recognized the names of towns like Bialystok, well known in Jewish history. Were these the same tracks used a quarter century earlier to bring Jews to the concentration camps, I wondered? Continue reading
Here’s a thought experiment designed to show you how the Jewish world does not work today. Imagine that some extremely committed, professionally accomplished Jewish individual arose today in America, and suddenly served as lay director of key Jewish religious institutions, stewarded vital Jewish community interests on Capitol Hill, supervised American Jewish contacts with Israeli leaders, and managed campaigns for imperiled or impoverished Jewish communities around the world. You’re thinking about a Jewish Papacy that could never arise – at least never again.
Let’s expand these experimental terms, and move beyond the concerns of Modern Jewish History and think about ethnic realities in American History. When has it ever happened that the acknowledged leader of one ethnic group takes up the reins for other ethnic groups, managing and directing their courtroom and public battles against discrimination and prejudice? How many ethnic leaders in America have attended to the parochial affairs of their own group, fought for justice for other socio-religious groups, and creatively broadened conceptualizations of legal rights to afford protection to the environment?
By all these, Jewish History, American History and Ethnic History, standards, Louis Marshall’s life (1856-1929) stands out as a singular, and compellingly intriguing, event.
Reviewing items stored in his archive, at the American Jewish Archives in Cincinnati, I wondered how many lives could have collected so many papers that would have to be ranked with the “Top 100 documents in American Jewish History.” No matter how seriously or entertainingly one might envision such a list – whether it would include George Washington’s letter to the Jews of Newport or Sandy Koufax’s first contract with the Brooklyn Dodgers – Marshall’s collection would likely provide 10 percent, or more, of the items. Henry Ford‘s apology to the Jews (sent to, and dictated by, Marshall) is in the Cincinnati archive, as is the recently discovered “Protocol of Peace” agreement ending the great cloakmakers strike of 1910, along with cornerstone documents of the early phases of signature American Jewish organizations and institutions (the American Jewish Committee, the Jewish Theological Seminary, the Joint Distribution Committee). Continue reading