Thoughts about Sholem Aleichem and the Current Pogrom in Syria


Last night I made a special effort to watch the Documentary: Sholem Aleichem: Laughing in the Darkness a recent documentary biography of the life of Sholem Aleichem, playing at Cinema du Parc. Sholem Aleichem, was the pen name of Solomon Naumovich Rabinovich, who lived from 1859 to 1916. He was a popular chronicler of the lives of the Jews of that period. The Jewish population had been living for hundreds of years in the Polish/Russian countryside, and was facing the onslaught of modernity. French ideas of emancipation, American ideas of liberty and the pursuit of happiness, socialism, and the struggle against the rule of the czar, all intermingled with the cultural traditions of the Jews.

Most European Jews were speaking Yiddish at that time; a language that developed over the thousand year settlement of Jews in Europe and is a confluence of Hebrew, German and Slavic languages. Sholem Aleichem, wrote in Yiddish, although it was already a time when Jews were beginning to favor the languages of the countries in which they lived rather then their “mame loshen” – “mother’s tongue” of the home and hearth. Sholem Aleichem wrote about the Shtetle, characters who inhabited his world. He reflected on his time and place, and gave voice to the average Jew living in the Polish and Russian countryside. He wrote about Tevye, the Milkman, the character on which Fiddler on the Roof was based, and about Motl, the Cantor’s son. Die Kleine Menshelech, a play based on these same characters was the one that began the rebirth of Yiddish in Israel during the 1970′s. We all know that during the Holocaust, six million mostly Yiddish speakers, of every walk of life were murdered by the Nazi killing machine.

All of this concerns me deeply since I am working on a documentary about Yiddish culture since the Holocaust. What has happened to the Yiddish language three generations after the Holocaust? Does anyone still speak, or remember Yiddish?

Among all the excitement of hearing Sholem Aleichem’s accents and ideas in English on screen another thing that stuck out was the documentary reporting of the systematic attacks against Jews in Poland and Russia starting in 1881. This was a new phenomenon at the time. Prior to that Jews and their neighbours had been living side by side in relative harmony. Jew baiting was a medieval phenomenon, the nineteenth century was supposedly a period of “emancipation and liberty” for the common man. And then came the unexpected violence, killing of Jewish men, women and children in their homes by political gangs demonizing Jews as enemies of the state. These were the “pogroms” initiated following the assassination of the Czar in 1881 and repeated in 1905-06.

Sholem Aleichem, himself, lived through the pogrom in Kiev in 1905. The film reports that, he and his family “hid for three days in a hotel” while the massacres were going on. I suppose this is what gives rise to the title of the documentary, “Laughing in the Dark”.

The startling photographs of murdered bodies with grieving family members pictured in the documentary do not leave me. They remind me of the news stories we have been hearing about the deaths of Syrian citizens, men, women and children, in Homs and in other areas of Syria. The death toll reported so far is over 9000 people, with no end in sight.

Homes vandalized during the pogroms in Kishinev in 1903.


Victims, mostly children, of one of the pogroms in Ekaterinoslav in 1905. This photo was distributed by the self-defense organization of Poalei Zion as a postcard and drew worldwide attention to the pogroms of 1905.

In hindsight it is easy to see that the absence of response to the violence perpetrated against Jewish citizens in Poland and Russian led directly to the politics and daring destruction of Jews, practiced by the Nazis as an instrument of State. Sadly, I am reminded of the current practice of a similar statecraft in Syria today – violence practiced towards men, women and children as a tool of repression by the authorities in power, the Dictator Assad. But this has been going on for years in the Soviet Union, in North Korea, and Iran.

Purim Today – 2012

Esther ScrollToday I attended the CIJR Colloquium on the Iranian question. Three professors, Prof. Frederick Krantz, Chair (Concordia University), Prof. Harold Waller (McGill University),
and Prof. Norrin Ripsman (Concordia University) all spoke on the topic of Syria, Egypt and the “Arab Spring”: Israel’s Security Situation, following an introduction by  Rabbi Yonah Rosner.

The Rabbi spoke using the drama of the Purim story as a backdrop. (This week will host the Jewish celebration of Purim, March 7th & 8th). Yesterday, in synagogues, in Israel and all over the world, Jews participated in Shabbat Zachor, the Sabbath before Purim which each year reminds us of the injunction “to remember and not to forget” those who have attacked our innocents in the past, (Deuteronomy 25:17-19) or the dangers that these kinds of enemies pose at any time. In my own synagogue Rabbi Aigin also spoke about these issues.

Iran has made open and clear threats to annihilate the Jewish people, to wipe Israel off the map. Both Rabbis reminded us of Queen Esther’s injunction, and the importance of Jewish unity in the face of these kinds of threats. Our history reminds us that threats are serious. And as Prof. Krantz (a historian), pointed out, the only difference between pre Holocaust times and post Holocuast times is that the Jewish people now have a state, the independent State of Israel, and a well trained army and armaments to address these kinds of threats.

However, we are also reminded that the Book of Esther, never mentions G-d, but only the acts and foibles of men and women, some ordinary and some in authority, Kings and Ministers. Tomorrow President Obama addresses AIPAC, (American Israel Public Affairs Committee) the annual gathering of heads of American Jewish institutions and ordinary folk. We will all have to judge, is Obama Ahashverosh – the weak and easily influenced vacillating King described in the Purim Story who first has his Queen Vashti killed for insubordination, i.e. refusing to appear before his party in the nude, and then gives Haman permission to murder all Jews in his Kingdom on a certain day in spring, the day we celebrate as Purim, in exchange for ten thousand ducats. – not a very wise or compassionate King, although in the end he sees the error of his ways. But rulers are not always wise or compassionate. This we see clearly in our our own time. Most of them seem to be focused clearly on acquiring wealth and retaining power at any cost.

Prof Krantz reminded us of the heavy responsibility that Prime Minister Netanyahu now carries on his shoulders, the responsibility of guarding over six million Jews in Israel and the fate of their brethren in the Diaspora as well. For our fates have and always will be linked. Esther in the Purim story reminds us that if Jews have any hope for redemption they must be united, especially in times of crisis.



The Purim scroll is called the Megillah, and it is a tradition to have fun and to put on satirical plays on Purim, they are called Purimshpiels in Yiddish. Another Yiddish expression is “man tracht und G-t lacht.”  Man works and G-d laughs or the English idiomatic equivalent is “Man proposes G-d disposes”.

This article: Remember: The Answer to Terrorism has a deep message regarding how to respond in the face of threats.

Happy Purim to all.