Sholem Aleichem: Jewish author in a Ukrainian context

Sholem Aleichem (Source: Wikimedia Commons)
Sholem Aleichem (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

In May the Melbourne Jewish Writers Festival (MJWF) dedicated one of its sessions to the centenary of the death of Sholem Aleichem (1959-1916), perhaps the best-known Jewish author who wrote in Yiddish. Sholem Aleichem’s stories about Tevye the Milkman were adapted as Fiddler on the Roof (1964), one of the longest-running Broadway musicals, which, in turn, was the basis of a popular film (1971).

The roundtable “Fiddler in Ukraine” explored Sholem Aleichem’s relationship to Ukraine, where he was born and spent most of his life. Born in Pereiaslav (Kyiv oblastʹ), Sholem Aleichem spent his childhood and early school years in the small town of Voron’kiv (close to where Kyiv’s Boryspil’ airport is today), in Lubny as a government-appointed rabbi, in Kyiv as a rich investor, inheritor of his father in law’s wealth, in Odesa as a man who had lost most of that wealth in speculation, and in Lviv in Austria-Hungary where he stayed for a while after leaving Kyiv, where he had witnessed one of the pogroms of 1905. He emigrated to the United States in 1906. A prodigiously productive author, Sholem Aleichem is best remembered his humorous tales set in the environment of the late-nineteenth-century Jewish small towns in the Russian Empire.

From left: Renata Singer, Marko Pavlyshyn, Ena Hinde Burstin
From left: Renata Singer, Marko Pavlyshyn, Ena Hinde Burstin

The roundtable “Fiddler in Ukraine,” chaired by Renata Singer, President of Kadimah, the Jewish Cultural Centre and National Library, was held in the Lamm Jewish Library in Caulfield South on 22 May.

The award-winning Australian Jewish novelist Arnold Zable spoke of the style and ethos of Sholem Aleichem’s prose and of its impact upon him as a boy. Ena Hinde Burstin, writer and translator from Yiddish to English,  lecturer in Yiddish at Monash University and candidate for a creative writing PhD at Monash, discussed the significance of Sholem Aleichem for the flowering of Yiddish-language poetry by women in Ukraine and in the 1920s. Professor Marko Pavlyshyn, Director of the Mykola Zerov Centre for Ukrainian Studies, reflected on the resonance of Sholem Aleichem’s work in Ukraine and on the analogies that exist between Sholem Aleichem’s efforts to establish a literature in the spoken language of the Jewish people of Eastern Europe in the 1880s, and the endeavours of the pioneers of literature in the vernacular Ukrainian in the late eighteenth and first decades of the nineteenth centuries.

Arnold Zable
Arnold Zable

On 9 May, also in celebration of Sholem Aleichem, a screening and discussion of the film Pisnia pisenʹ [Song of Songs] directed by Ukrainian filmmaker Eva Neymann took place under the auspices of Kadimah at the Classic Cinemas, Elsternwick. Song of Songs, a film adaptation of Sholem Aleichem’s story of the same name, won prizes in 2015 at the Karlovy Vary (Czechia) Film Festival in and at the Odesa Film Festival (Ukraine), where it won the “Best Picture” and the “Best Ukrainian Feature” awards.

The discussants were both Monash University staff members: Professor Marko Pavlyshyn and Bobbi Zylberman, lecturer in Yiddish Language and Culture at Monash’s Australian Centre for Jewish Civilisation. The moderator was Yiddish teacher, translator, broadcaster and community activist Danielle Charak.