Friday, June 13th, 2008
The other week, a local Jewish elementary school put on a heckuva production of “Fiddler On The Roof,” but totally corrupted the ending, having Tevye and his family move from Anatevka to Israel, rather than to America. Now isn’t that Zionist of the school; Zionism being so noble that even a creaky old musical must corrupt itself as homage to corruption in Olmert’s government.
Of course, most Russian Jews didn’t move to Kedumim in the early 1900s, they moved to New York City. Mendel Beilis, arrested for killing a Christian kid, Yuschinsky, to make matzahs in 1913, ended up in the Bronx. His daughter, Raya, lives near Tremont – at least, I hope she does. I had a great conversation with her in 1999 (you can read it here), but she was well over 90 when we lost touch and if anyone knows of her whereabouts, please e-mail.
Albert Maysles, the great documentary filmmaker (”Gimme Shelter” and “Grey Gardens”) called a while back and said he was thinking of doing a documentary on Beilis. Is there anyone left, along with Rae Beilis, who can speak in first-person about the most pivotal blood libel trial of them all?
Sholom Aleichem, whose stories were the basis for “Fiddler,” and who wrote letters on behalf of Mendel Beilis, didn’t move to Israel, either. He moved to the Bronx, also. You’d think the day school, which is in the Bronx, too, could find a way to learn about Sholom Aleichem and Bronx Jewish history, if “Fiddler” had to be educational and not simply entertainment.
I once saw Sholom Aleichem’s ‘business’ card, of all things, and I copied it down, as if I could look him up, or call him up, on some magical Bronx night.
According to his card, he lived at 968 Kelly Street. Maybe the “March of the Living” guys could take some yeshiva kids there. I once drove deep into the Bronx to find 968 Kelly Street, and I learnt that Sholom Aleichem lived a few doors down from the trestles of the elevated subway. He, who wrote about Jewish dairy farmers coaxing their cows on dirt roads, also knew what the New York City inner borough streets looked like when forever in the shadows of the tracks.
My friend Sholom Aleichem’s phone number (I consider him a friend) is IN(tervale)-2-215, according to his business card. There was one less digit in phone numbers then, and (for all you kids) all phone numbers commenced with the first two-letters of a phone exchange, like BUtterfield-8.
I shouldn’t have to explain this history, but there are kids tonight who think Mottle Kamzoil spent the year after high school “learning” in an Israeli yeshiva.
Never listen to anyone who tells you “there’s nothing to see” in shtetls or Bronx neighborhoods. I once went “back” to Ciechanow, my grandfather’s hometown that the Nazis did a job on before the first snows of World War II. (You can check out Ciechanow’s absolutely riveting Yizkor Book here, and look up my old uncle, Benjamin Malina.
So I go back to Ciechanow and this is what I see in a place where there was nothing to see: I see a red sun sinking over trees on a short Friday, exactly what I could have seen in 1833; I see the river, with overhanging willows, where they went for Tashlich; I see the same City Hall that was there in 1839 and 1939, and the nobleman’s castle on the edge of town; I pay a couple of kopeks for a ticket to a one-ring circus that pulls into town, with gypsies and fantastical circus wagons and a canvas tent, surely every bit as rickety and charming as the circus must have looked in 1895. I see and hear little dirty-faced Ciechanow children clapping and whistling for a lady in sequins sewn into a worn-out dress, balancing atop a galloping horse going in circles around the ring.
And I saw all that in a town where everyone told me there was nothing to see.
You can see plenty on Kelly Street, too, but you need eyes that see in the dark.
There was a wonderful piece in The New York Times from 1916, a couple of days after Sholom Aleichem was buried in Queens. The Times did a long article on his final goodbyes, advice and instructions to his children, what some people today might call “an ethical will.” It is as compelling as anything in the genre.
The hefty headline and subheadlines: “Aleichem Begs To Lie With The Poor; Will of Noted Writer Says His Ambition Is to Rest Among Plain Jewish Laborers; Wants Works As Monument; Humorist Makes Touching Appeal For Family And Provides Funds for Yiddish Authors.”
You can read the article here.
Don’t let anyone tell you that Tevye would move to Ashdod when his friend had a place on Kelly Street.