Commentary Magazine


Cedars of Lebanon: Toward My Biography

Sholom Aleichem, the 100th anniversary of whose birth is currently being celebrated, is no stranger to COMMENTARY. Selections from his work published in earlier issues include: “Journalism in the New Kasrilevke” (July 1956), “Sholom Aleichem in Sickness” (October 1950), and “Sholom Aleichem in Exile” (December 1949). In addition, a memoir of Sholom Aleichem by his daughter, Lala Kaufman, appeared in September 1957, and an article on him by Norman Podhoretz in September 1953.

The selection that follows is a brief autobiographical memoir that was written in response to a request from Sholom Aleichem’s friend, Y. H. Revnitzky—also the friend, publisher, and collaborator of Chaim Nachman Bialik, the great modern Hebrew writer. These notes anticipate a later, unfinished autobiography, begun in 1913 and published in 1916, which appeared in English as The Great Fair. Jacob Sloan translated these excerpts from the original Yiddish.—Ed.

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Dear friend Revnitzky,

So you want me to jot down a few notes, no more, toward my biography, do you? I’m very much afraid that there really is no call for a biography of me as yet. Don’t you think it’s a bit early for that sort of thing? That’s number one. And, secondly, I’ve an urge to write the story of my life myself—to make a book of it. In the third place, nowadays, I’m (God save you from such a fate!) head over heels in business—literary business, that is. I’ve never been so productive, so fertile, as I am these days. You know me—I can write anywhere, on the head of a pin, or the sharp edge of a sword! . . . The only trouble is these are bad times, our people are in a gloomy way, you don’t feel like laughing, and when you do—it’s Pagliacci. . . . Then again, corresponding with the bigwigs, both Jews and (mutatis mutandis) Gentiles, takes up a tremendous amount of time. Still, for your sake I’ve taken off a whole hour (murderer!), and here are your “few notes.” . . .

Yours devotedly,
Sholom Aleichem

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A small town called Voronko, no bigger than a peanut, situated near the city of Pereyaslav (where I was born in 1859) is where I spent the golden years of my youth, the first, good, foolish, childhood years. In this small town of Voronko, my father was the man of breeding, the man of wealth, the chief officer of all the local societies—Reb Nachum Vovikson, no less! And we, Reb Nachum’s children, were treated with respectful consideration. We were entrusted to none but the best tutor, Reb Zerach. And we were really and truly pious.

I still remember how sweet the tears tasted that we shed at our rebbe’s sermon. Every day, our rebbe, Reb Zerach, delivered a little sermon for our benefit. Afterward, at prayers, we beat our breasts over our enormous sins—for, at the same time that we were very pious, we were terrible transgressors. We lied, didn’t obey Father, skipped through the prayers, stole money from the charity box (see my story “The Pocket Knife”). And as for the “secret meditations of the heart,” alien ideas, thoughts—enough said! We had a friend, one of the older boys, old enough to be a groom (his name was Eli, Eli Kaylison)—and he told us stories that awakened our lust, spoiled us forever, turned us into grown-ups before our time. . . . Afterward, the rebbe preached, and we cried, tears pouring from our eyes, and we prayed honestly (no skipping), and we beat our breasts because we had sinned, and we cried, we cried, and repented.

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* * *

My fantasy has been dreadfully lively ever since I was a child. Houses looked like cities to me, dungheaps were countries, trees people, girls princesses, rich boys princes, grass soldiers, burrs and nettles Philistines, Edom and Moab, and I used to engage them in battle (see my “Shevuot Greens”).

* * *

To pick up the comical in everything and every person—that was almost a sickness I suffered from. Unintentionally, I used to imitate every single thing—beginning with my rebbe, Reb Zerach, Reb Zerach’s wife and the little Zerachs, going on to my school chums and their parents, and all the way down to Baruch Ber, the town drunk and (mutatis mutandis) Onisko, the Gentile watchman, he of the crooked legs. This trick of imitating people kept my face well slapped all day. In the one-room cheder I was “the pest” (The Comedian). Everybody used to laugh, laugh themselves sick, fit to die, except me. At home, my mother, taking notice of my nasty behavior, undertook to tear the evil out by the roots.

There was one other lad in town just like me when it came to pretending, “acting,” “making faces,” and the rest. His performance also included singing wonderfully lovely songs. He was Meir, the rabbi’s son, who later became famous as a performer under the name of Meir Medvediev. He knew the dramatic art even then, when he went around barefoot singing beautiful songs for a grosz or half an apple. (I remember one song with the lines: “As I went walking down Vilna Street way, I heard a loud voice cry: Oy, vay!”) We two, Meir Medvediev and I, played “The Robber”—a drama of our own composition. Meir was the robber, I was the poor Jew, I fell on my knees before Meir, the robber, pleading “What do you have against me? I’m only a poor Jew, just a pauper! Have pity on my wife and children!” The robber (Meir), flourishing a butcher’s knife, sang a song with a very pretty sentiment: It seems he had to—oh, he just had to, he couldn’t help it—he just had to slaughter every Jew he met!

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* * *

However spoiled and poorly brought up we may have been, I had so deep a love of animals that the sight of a sick horse made me desperately unhappy (as in my story “Methusaleh”). A dog with a broken leg sent me into tears (see “Rabtshik”). I even loved cats, despite the fact that they are considered unclean, like reptiles. I need not mention the hold that poor, sick children had on my sympathies (see “Creature”).

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* * *

Remarkably enough, I was inspired with the urge to write by my rebbe’s, Reb Zerach’s, extraordinarily fine handwriting. For a good “script” Father rewarded us children with a grosz (The First “Honorarium”). I sewed together a small book to show off my script; while I was at it, I wrote (“composed”) an entire treatise on the Bible and grammar. When I showed it to Father, he was struck with wonder at this opus. For a long time he carried it with him in his pocket wherever he went, showing everyone he met the beauty of his son’s writing (I was ten at the time), how well versed he was in the Bible, and how good a grasp he had of grammar. To this our neighbor, a Hasid with a Van Dyke, Reb Izak by name, who used to howl like a cat during prayers, responded: “Grammar, shmammer! The main thing is the handwriting. A golden script!” (The First Critique).

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I was attracted to the intellectual and spiritual order of things, to works of imagination, of song (see my novel Yosele Solevay), of drama (Stempeniyu) . After I was Bar Mitzvah I began playing the fiddle surreptitiously—I got it good and proper from Father for that piece of nonsense (see “On the Fiddle”).

Turning poor, we moved from Voronko back to Pereyaslev. There we had our first frock coats made, with a split in the back. And when Mother died (of cholera), Father put us in the secular state school, where I showed my true colors. I was talented; right off, at the age of fifteen, after finishing the first full-sized book I ever read, I produced a Robinson Crusoe of my own, entitled (appropriately): “The Jewish Robinson Crusoe.” This I showed to my Father, who in turn showed it to his guests (we had an inn), and they were all beside themselves with admiration!

From that time forth, Father regarded me as a precious stone. Taking me out of my stepmother’s keeping, he forbade her to beat me, or to assign me to rocking her babies to sleep, or to chopping raisins (we had a wine cellar). Father further released me from shining the boots of our guests, putting up the samovar, running errands, and such-like occupations with which my time was previously full.

During the period between my seventeenth and my twenty-first years, until I began to study (I wanted to become a state rabbi), I read a very, very great deal, and wrote even more. I wrote whatever I read: songs, poems, novels, any number of plays, and plain “articles,” just for the fun of writing. I sent my “works” to all of the Jewish and Gentile editors (I wrote in both Hebrew and Russian). Thanks to me, all the editorial offices were well supplied with fuel to stoke their ovens. . . . Eventually, Ha-melitz did print a couple of my “essays” along with a comment by the editor (in small type) and in the euphemistic Hebrew of the day: “Thou hast a gift for tongues. Send thy words to us, and we shall do them honor.” . . . I began to write Hebrew “articles” by the ton, whole wagonfuls—but they wouldn’t “do them honor,” I don’t know why! . . .

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* * *

“And it came to pass”—in 1883 a Yiddish paper appeared, the first Yiddish-language paper (Folksblat, published by Alexander Cedarbaum), and, seeing as how the Gentiles didn’t want to print my “novels” and “dramas” in Russian, and my Hebrew “articles” sat around with none to “do them honor,” as a curiosity I tried to write something in the ordinary vernacular, the language “as she is spoke”—like Mendele Mocher Seforim, whose books had come into my hands at the time. And, just imagine, the Folksblat accepted it, the editor himself, Cedarbaum, writing me a letter with his own hand, asking me (you hear? asking me) to write more. From that time I began contributing columns to the Folksblat, and the more I submitted, the more they wanted. Besides, Mordecai Spector stepped in. A contributor to the Folksblat himself, he has, to this day, never stopped encouraging me to write. Still, writing was more like play to me at that time—until the “Pocket Knife” episode, which created a revolution in my way of writing, and in my way of life, too.

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* * *

I was in business at that time, playing the stock market, speculating on paper profits, and other affairs that have nothing whatsoever to do with literature. I was completely engrossed In getting rich quick. I wanted to make a million, and would probably have kept at it, if something hadn’t happened to steer me off that path—maybe it was the right path. . . . Anyway, I had come to the big city, Kiev, on various important business affairs. Tired out after a day spent running around, I lay down to sleep, but couldn’t. So I got up, sat at the desk and wrote—no, I didn’t write, but the thing poured out of me. It was a memoir from my years in the cheder. ““The Pocket Knife,” I called it. I sent it off to the editor, and forgot about it.

One day, I was reading the Woshod when I came across a review of current literature by “Criticum” (Dubnow). He talked about a number of trifles, including my “Pocket Knife.” With beating heart I read Criticum’s few lines warmly praising my “Pocket Knife” and predicting that the story’s youthful author, who obviously had considerable talent, would some day enrich our unfairly neglected Yiddish jargon literature.

With tears of joy and gratitude I re-read these words by the generous Criticum over and over. Then and there I swore that I would write on in that vein. Those few, warm, good, true words still stand before my eyes; whenever I finish a new thing, I never fail to ask myself: “What would Criticum say to this?” . . .

Afterward, I lost my money, but I kept my resolution. The pen is firmly fixed in my hand! Should I thank the good Criticum for that? Or—God forbid! ought I do the opposite? . . . I am not the one to say. I have reached the stage in my disease (writing) where I hardly belong to myself or to my family—rather to our literature and to that great household called the public. . . .

Kiev, Succoth, 5664 (1904)).

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About the Author




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