Sholom Aleichem World Literature Analysis - Essay

Sholom Rabinowitz

Sholom Aleichem World Literature Analysis

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Like Mark Twain, to whom he is often compared, Aleichem was both serious and comic. Beneath a comic veneer he addressed serious issues about the situation of the Jewish community in Eastern Europe at a time of transformation and crisis. In Aleichem’s day the traditional Jewish shtetl, or small town, was breaking down in the face of the forces of modernization and because of anti-Jewish laws and pogroms. Some Russian Jews fled to the cities, even though they could not legally live there, hoping to make a living in the new world of modern commerce and finance. Others fell victim to the anti-Jewish rioters, others emigrated, primarily to the United States, and some remained in Eastern Europe, trying to balance tradition and modernization.

Aleichem explores all these responses to the pressures of modernization in his major works, expressing a complex set of attitudes despite his accessible, colloquial writing style. Writing in Yiddish, the language of the Eastern European Jews, rather than in Hebrew, the language of the Jewish elite, he seeks to explore the everyday experiences of ordinary Jews from a sympathetic viewpoint, even while reserving the right to stand back and sometimes laugh at them.

Not only does he write in Yiddish, but Aleichem also hands over the narration of his major works to ordinary people with very little pretense to learning, Tevye the Dairyman’s frequent quotations from the Bible notwithstanding. Aleichem speaks to his readers through the voice of Tevye or through Mottel, a mere child, or through Menachem-Mendl, the naïve investor, and his wife, the uneducated Sheineh-Sheindl. At times he uses a gentle irony at the expense of these characters, revealing their lack of understanding of the situations in which they find themselves; for instance, neither Menachem-Mendl nor his wife truly understands the world of speculators and brokers in which Menachem-Mendl seeks to make a living. Aleichem, however, does not mock his characters but seeks to reveal the struggles they are undergoing as they deal with their various situations, all of which in a sense are the same situation: the fate of the Eastern European Jews at the end of the nineteenth century.

The Adventures of Menachem-Mendl

First published: Menakhem-Mendl, 1895 (English translation, 1969)

Type of work: Short stories

Menachem-Mendl and his wife exchange letters in which he describes his foolish business projects and she keeps telling him to come home.

Originally published as independent pieces, the Menachem-Mendl letters were gathered into a collection published in 1895, at which point Sholom Aleichem revised and expanded the stories to form a coherent whole. In this final form they constitute an epistolary novel of sorts—a novel in which all of the narration is done through letters.

In his first letter, Menachem-Mendl writes from the city of Odessa to tell his wife, Sheineh-Sheindl, who lives in the small town of Kasrilevke, how well he is doing as a currency speculator. He exaggerates so much that the reader is immediately skeptical, as is his wife, who wants him to provide more details. Throughout these letters Sheineh-Sheindl will continually ask for more details of her husband’s business ventures, while Menachem-Mendl will continually say he has no time to write.

Menachem-Mendl’s reluctance to say more is perhaps part of his struggle for independence from the shtetl life in Kasrilevke. In the opinion of literary critic Dan Miron, Menachem-Mendl is trying to break free of traditional life. He has escaped to the city and is never going home, despite his wife’s desire that he return. At the same time, he does keep writing her, suggesting that he cannot fully free himself; he wishes to maintain some contact with the traditional life he has left behind, even while seeking to throw himself into a more modern existence.

Part of the comedy, which is also tragic, derives from Menachem-Mendl’s inability to fully understand the modern life in which he is trying to participate. Sheineh-Sheindl understands it even less, and there is humor in her misunderstanding his references to coffee shops (she thinks they are the names of women) and her confusion over what her husband is doing. She keeps wanting to know the size and weight of the currency and stocks he is investing in, as if they were solid objects.

Part of Aleichem’s point is that these are not solid objects, but mere air, as Sheineh-Sheindl says at one point, and without anything solid beneath him, Menachem-Mendl perpetually falls. Thus, he eventually loses everything in his currency speculations and has to start again with nothing. He does, however, persist in starting over and over again, trying one business venture after another, moving from currency speculation to being a commodity broker, to discounting, to investing in real estate, forests, sugar mills, and mines, and to trying his luck as a writer, a marriage broker, and an insurance agent. Unfortunately, he has no luck at all, and though he is resolutely upbeat in the earlier letters, by the end he sometimes gives way to despair before deciding he should immigrate to the United States.

Another source of humor is the repeated contradiction between the flowery, conventional way both Menachem-Mendl and Sheineh-Sheindel begin their letters and the actual content that follows. Presumably they have learned the “proper” way to start a letter, which for Sheineh-Sheindl always involves thanking God that everyone is in good health. This is usually followed, however, by her writing that she or the children are ill. She also invariably signs off as Menachem-Mendl’s devoted wife, but this usually comes after a tirade against his foolishness and a demand that he end his speculations, stop ignoring his family, and come back to her. On the surface there is an attempt to maintain the forms of propriety and well-being, but underneath there is trouble and dissatisfaction.

Religion is notably absent from these letters. It is an absence brought to readers’ attention early on, when Menachem-Mendl notes that trading goes on in Odessa until the time when evening prayers are said in Kasrilevke. Menachem-Mendl seems too busy with business to attend to prayers and religion; business, in fact, seems to be his new religion, as well as a way to break free from his traditions. Also notable is the fact that Menachem-Mendl’s lodgings remind him of a jail. He is seeking freedom from the shtetl, but he seems to have found not freedom but a new sort of bondage, which includes perpetually avoiding the police, who might...

(The entire section is 2719 words.)