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Do You Remember?

"Sholem Aleichem Lived on Kelly Street"

(Reprinted from the Bronx Times Reporter of 9-15-2011)


I recently read something on Sholem Aleichem and it reminded me of the time I attended one of his one-act plays at the King David Hotel in Jerusalem. It was a great play at a grand venue that I'll never forget. But then, Sholem Aleichem is still a star in Israel although he's been dead since 1916. His folksy way of writing has given rise to his being called the Jewish Mark Twain. He considered himself a common man writing for common people and always kept his dialogue simple. His style and name became more widely known to the non-Yiddish world only with the production of "Fiddler on the Roof."

Sholem Aleichem lived in the Bronx

Solomon Naumovich Rabinovich was born in on May 16, 1859 in a small Ukranian town and lived through an era when pogroms still ravaged Eastern Europe. He had always wanted to express himself in writing and began his career as a published writer at about the age of 20. He escaped from a pogrom in 1905 and fled to America where some of his plays flopped but where his story-telling became legendary. He wrote mainly in Yiddish but also in Hebrew and Russian. He took the pen name Sholem Aleichem when he married in 1883. It was meant to keep his identity a secret, especially from his father, as Yiddish writers were generally looked down upon by Jews with superior educations who generally wrote in Hebrew.

"Motl, the Cantor's Son" is one of his more popular serialized novels. Written in English for the New York World newspaper while he was living in New York, the book tells the story of an eight year old boy rejoicing at shedding his Eastern European culture and coming to a new life in America. The book is still widely available and inexpensive as it was reprinted by Penguin Classics under the title "Tevye the Dairyman and Motl the Cantor's Son." The book will give you an idea his of Mark Twain-like approach to story telling.

He is also the subject of the documentary film "Laughing in the Darkness." Directed by Joseph Dorman, the film also showcases the lives of European Jews transitioning to a new life. The title is well-chosen as Sholem Aleichem did say: To make people laugh is almost a sickness with me. Not only was he a wit, he was an intellectual wit, a side of his persona not often displayed in his writings.

Sholem Aleichem moved to the Bronx on his second trip to America. He lived at 968 Kelly Street near the Intervale Avenue IRT station of the White Plains Road #2 line which opened in 1904. He did quite a bit of writing at that location and passed away from tuberculosis there on May 13, 1916 when only 57 years old. There are varying figures as to how many people lined the streets for his funeral cortege. The New York Times reported in excess of 100,000 people and another paper put the number at 150,000. Either seems quite impressive to me. The cortege traveled through Harlem stopping at a synagogue where a noted cantor chanted over his casket before it proceeded to the Lower East Side where many of his most ardent readers resided. From there it continued to Brooklyn for his burial. And a great many people cried.

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