Themes and Meanings
Ironically, and as if to spite its comical language, situations, and mood, Sholom Aleichem uses this monologue as a vehicle to make some poignant observations concerning the image and self-image of the Eastern European Jew in the late nineteenth century (and also of human nature in general).
The surreal confusion that prevents Sholom Shachnah from taking the train—his inability to recognize himself in the officer’s hat—is not merely a measure of the protagonist’s nature as an absentminded scatterbrain; it is also an indication of the Jew’s grotesque, unnatural mind-set, growing out of his Eastern European way of life and surroundings wherein his (and his Gentile neighbors’) preconceptions about Jews stem from internal (Jewish) and external (Gentile) pressures: social, political, economic, and religious. These have given rise to a monolithic self-concept, also reinforced by a clearly defined set of features attributable to a Jew.
Though comical, this episode is also a sad commentary on the hero’s narrow self-esteem; following a long and unfortunate “tradition,” he has learned to identify himself as a Jew in a confined and limited way, particularly as being less than equal to his non-Jewish countrymen. Such a character is especially prone to humble himself and submit unquestioningly to those whose mere appearance implies authority.
The monologue also mocks the myth of the Yiddisher kop (Jewish head) as Sholom Aleichem presents Sholom Shachnah the Every-Jew as a numskull, an absentminded antihero who foolishly assumes that he is more intelligent than others. Adding insult to injury, however, he is portrayed as being ridiculously stupid, particularly when surmising that Yeremei the porter, the one with the goyisher kop (Gentile head), failed to awaken him.
The Passover setting of the narrative possesses strong causal links with the pre-Passover preparations of the merchant-narrator and Sholom Aleichem, his patient listener. The author, however, may have chosen this special occasion—marking the exodus and liberation of the Israelites from the house of bondage—to illustrate the sorrowful state and shortcomings reached by one of the heirs of that people. In so doing, Sholom Aleichem calls for a new exodus, whether a personal one (out of a constrained mind-set) or one on a national scale.