Commentary Magazine


The Great Fair: Scenes from My Childhood, by Sholom Aleichem

Back from the Fair
The Great Fair: Scenes from My Childhood.
by Sholom Aleichem.
Translated by Tamara Kahana. Noonday. 306 pp. $3.75.

Take up the autobiography of a writer in that rare and, to us, almost unimaginably golden situation which was Sholom Aleichem’s—a writer whose very substance and identity were indivisible from his material and his audience, a writer to whom it never occurred to think or talk about his “position as a writer”—and you can be sure of one thing: this will be no Portrait of the Artist as a Young Kasrilovkite. Even if he had tried such an unlikely thing, his heart could never have been in it, or in any self-consciously defensive or solemnly contrived re-creation of his childhood, any attempt to show “how I became a famous writer despite the slings and arrows of outrageous mother, father, teachers, brothers, sisters . . . .” Instead, the shape and mood of this unfinished autobiography—had written only two sections before he died, in 1916—are as uniquely natural, ruminative, amiably discursive, roundabout, and relaxed as any other stories he told. And if The Great Fair doesn’t quite measure up to the most memorable work of Sholom Aleichem—if there are no Tevyes here, no Menachem Mendels or Mottels—it still has for us the renewing freshness of reading Chekhov or Dickens after a steady diet of the newer directions of literary autobiography. Imagine it!—a writer telling us about his own life, and we are confronted with stories and people that are all quite free of the gratingly familiar tics and strains and stresses; no agonized, injured innocents trembling with sensibility and spite, the stocks-in-trade of most contemporary writing about childhood.

Sholom Aleichem obviously had no use for the ponderous or malicious allocating of blame chat we all know by heart—this made me that sad, unfortunate way; there goes the fault for all those traumas—and he had no need to indulge in a purposeful summing up and reshaping of the remembered past for readers whose existence, attention, and sympathy he was not quite sure of. When he introduces us to the Rabinowitz maid Fruma, pockmarked, blind in one eye, who slapped the children and shrieked unprogressively at them day and night and made their life something of a lively hell, is she served up in a sauce of self-pity, a revival of old resentments that have been festering through all the years? Nothing of the sort: instead, we are told that Fruma was “an enormous trial to the children, and, when her wedding day came, they celebrated a great holiday. Long live curly-haired Yideleh the Thief . . . who oiled his hair with goose-fat and who could never properly blow his nose because his nostrils had grown together! Blessings on him, fool that he was, for deciding to marry blind Fruma!”

The people Sholom Aleichem was writing his autobiography for knew all about him already; he was just adding a few stories he may have neglected to tell before. Besides, he now had a good reason to talk about himself. Though his friends had been urging him for years to write his autobiography, he tells us, he resisted a project that might smack of vainglory until it happened that “Before I had reached the age of fifty, I had the honor of meeting His Majesty, the Angel of Death, face to face . . . [and] I said to myself, ‘Now the time has come. . . . You may die suddenly. People who think they knew and understood you will turn up with cock-and-bull stories about you. What will you gain by it? Better do the job yourself.’ . . .” And when a great story-teller sits down to write about his own life, it is only to be expected that we shall find him doing nothing essentially different from what he has been devoting himself to, with love and genius, all his life. What one counts on finding, for all that this is called an autobiography, is exactly what The Great Fair turns out to be—one story after another, some good and some a little flimsy, long stories and short ones, some funny ones about life and some sad ones about poverty and death.

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He was writing about his childhood, remember, from the sad, unsettling vantage point of America—writing in exile, after all—knowing that his beloved shtetl Voronko, which he had transformed into the famous Kasrilovke, had vanished almost as completely as the child he so joyously and winningly recalls in middle age. But the bitterness one would almost gladly forgive him for feeling doesn’t rear its head for a minute. Backing away from an immodest temptation “to show himself in the most flattering light, to paint himself as a ‘good fellow,’&” Sholom Aleichem never goes in for an obsessed documentation of the darling self. He chose to put down these memoirs in the third person, holding them loosely together as the adventures of this scamp he knew so well—Sholom Rabinowitz, son of Reb Nahum Vevik, who had “a thin beard which seemed to smile,” who was considered the richest man in town—but not for long. (Speaking of his father, I must point out how bad a slip I think Tamara Kahana makes, in her otherwise workmanlike if hardly brilliant translation, when she has the children speak of “Mother” and “Father.” This is Central Park West, not Kasrilovke, and it seems hard to understand why she felt “Mama” and “Papa” weren’t good enough.)

Yet, third person or not, we are still hungry for some clues, in reading the book, that can help us know why such a boy even thought of becoming a writer, and in that very Ivre-Taitch, the “jargon good only for women,” about which people still asked, when he was in his teens, “After all, could you consider Yiddish a language?” The miracle of it is that any young boy of the shtetl could have had any liveliness left in him at all, much less the will to imaginative writing. Without spelling it out and insisting on the oppressiveness of the children’s regimen, Sholom Aleichem still makes it impressively clear that the grind of cheder was rigorous and relentless. “They studied all day long, and in the winter during the evenings as well. School work started as soon as they woke at dawn.” It seems astounding that young Sholom still manages to clamber so energetically all over the pages of the book, hurtling along with the most engaging and frisky inventiveness.

But it is obviously no accident that Reb Nahum’s beloved “Bible boy,” the smartest, if not always the most diligent, cheder boy in the family, should have turned to writing, for Reb Nahum was, among his other virtues, that rare thing in the shtetl, “a secret admirer of the more ‘worldly’ writers like Mapu, Slonimsky, and Zederbaum.” When his father confiscated Sholom Aleichem’s first literary attempt, a swaggeringly romantic imitation of Mapu’s “The Love of Zion,” instead of thrashing his son for such a profane waste of effort and kerosene, he showed it rather proudly to one of Pereyaslov’s intelligentsia.

A secret admirer of worldly writers, because a really Orthodox Jew like Uncle Pinney considered all such things a ticket to Gehenna. And the child of Kasrilovke, though he may, as elsewhere, have been father to the man, received no special dispensations on this account. A boy’s life was infested with teachers of every size and shape and temperament, with a stinging variety of spanks and slaps and beatings. The stifling bondage of cheder meant that the world outside was denied and forbidden, inordinately identified with sin. “What was handwashing to them, or prayers, when outside the sun was shining and the shadows were climbing the walls? The shadows nodded to them, called to them, ‘Come out, children, come out! There’s joy out here and freedom!’ . . . But then Father or Mother, an older sister or a brother would come. ‘Have you said your prayers? Back to school, you truant . . . !’”

Yet despite the gruelling devotion to learning and God which was expected of him, Sholom Rabinowitz’s eyes and heart and ears were never fettered. Both his curiosity and the clarity of his ironic observation functioned always, even at the most solemn and unlikely times. In the midst of delivering his Bar Mitzvah sermon, he tells us, “Sholom managed to observe the guests. He noticed every expression, every turn of the head.” Even more astonishing, as proof of the irrepressible beating of the writer-to-be in him, we learn that in the midst of saying Kaddish for his mother, not only did Sholom dream of buried treasure as the solution to his father’s problems, but he stored away incisive pictures of all the people who came to the house, and he notes, without even suggesting the awful irreverence of such goings on, “For little Sholom these visitors were a treasure house of types. No two were alike, and all demand to be preserved in these pages.”

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And they were, in thousands of pages, for he missed nothing. Somehow he always knew how to use everything he had seen and known. He acquires a stepmother, she turns out to be a genius at invective, and the brilliant ingenuity of her curses so inspired him that he made a lexicon of “Stepmother’s Vocabulary,” and admits, characteristically, that “it is possible to consider this Sholom Aleichem’s first work.” Many years later, writing in an apartment house in the Bronx, he could make the echo of those early years as strong and rich as the clang of their life itself. With his own magnificent good humor, with that unforced affection and sureness of touch and tone that come only out of the deepest commitment to the life one writes about, he managed, for all the sharpness of his irony, to create an umbrella of love that he could hold over his people.

It is interesting, in this connection, to recall a story Maurice Samuel tells in his superb informal history of the lost world of Kasrilovke. Early during the First World War, Samuel, then a young man, sat on the porch of a New Jersey resort hotel and listened to the great man talking about the autobiography he had begun to write. It was to be called Fun’m Yarid (“Back from the Fair”—a more evocative title than the one Mrs. Kahana has given her translation), and for this reason, Sholom Aleichem said: “When a man starts out in life he’s like a Jew setting out for the fair, to make his fortune. What impatience, what excitement and hope, what dreams and expectations! . . . But when the day is over, the same Jew, returning home, is quite another man. . . . He knows everything now—nothing was waiting for him, no fortunes, no rich merchants, no fateful encounters. He’s ready to talk. . . . When a man gives an account of what befell him at the fair, he must always be considerate of the feelings of his neighbors. He must be careful not to wound his fellow Jews, but strive to be at one with them.” Was there ever a writer who fulfilled this credo more beautifully and devotedly than Sholom Aleichem himself?

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