Question: Aside from being American Jews, what do Allen Funt of Candid Camera Fame, Norman Lear known best for the ground breaking television show All in the Family, and Groucho Marx hilariously remembered for the television program You Bet Your Life all have in common? Answer: All three can lay claim to having a shtickel (little bit of) Sholom Aleichem in them.
Last month marked the centenary of death of a best known and most widely acclaimed Yiddish author. Born Solomon Rabinovitch in Pereyaslav Ukraine, he signed his works using his pseudonym Sholom Aleichem. Fifty- seven years later, living on Kelly Street in the Bronx, Sholom Aleichem was called to his eternal rest. Well over 100,000 Jews lined the streets as he was escorted to his final resting place in a small cemetery in Queens.
Although he died decades before television, with its pioneer reality show Candid Camera, Sholom Aleichem understood only too well, that despite protests to the contrary, we love to laugh at ourselves. If we can be brought to tears laughing at the reaction of a confused diner reacting to a coffee cup and saucer mysteriously inching away from him as he sits innocently at a lunch counter, then we can certainly find humor ridiculing the hapless, yet loveable shlimazels Menachem Mendel, Elya and Tevye who serve as the protagonists in but three of Sholom Aleichem’s many works.
Even though Tevya the dairyman was far from a bigot (in all likelihood he didn’t even know what a bigot was) he had Norman Lear’s Archie Bunker beat when it came to malapropisms. The daily daveners among us, quite likely have come across the phrase “shover oyvim u’machnia zeidim” which concludes one of the nineteen blessings of the Shemoneh Esreh prayer. Literally translated, it describes HaShem breaking the enemy and humbling the haughty. Leave it to Tevye the “philosopher”, whose understanding of Hebrew prayers leaves much to be desired, despite his seeming proficiency in reciting those prayers, to mistakenly draw a connection between the Hebrew “shover” which means “breaks” and the Yiddish “shoib” which means “windowpane”. Sounding ever so erudite, Tevye, speaking to no one in particular explains: “As we read in our daily prayers “shover oyvim u’machnia zeidem, He who shatters panes and breaks windows”.
The lyrics to the above mentioned television show Candid Camera remind us that “it’s fun to laugh at yourself”. This may very well have been Sholom Aleichem’s intent, as he introduced us to various characters. In reality however, it was Sholom Aleichem himself who was laughing with more than a scintilla of scorn at the parochialism and backwardness at the very characters he invented. Like so many other Yiddish authors of the time who made “aliyah” to large cities, there was more than a little disdain toward the shtetl and the country bumpkins who lived there in Sholom Aleichem’s works. Chances are that as much as the readers laughed at Menachem Mendel, Elya and Tevye, Sholom Aleichem laughed even more.
The American historian, folklorist and humorist Nathan Ausubel best known for his Treasury of Jewish Folklore, once remarked: Laughter is the universal bond that draws all men closer. In all likelihood, that very same remark could have been made by Sholom Aleichem.