Sholem Aleichem – prior to joining this year’s #AshkenazFest team as the Communications Associate, Sholem Aleichem was just a phrase I would use to greet people – it didn’t have much more significance than my own satirical way of saying hello, especially amongst my non-Jewish friends. Since my start at Ashkenaz, however, this phrase has taken on a whole new meaning.
Sholem Aleichem is the pseudonym of one of the founding fathers of modern Yiddish literature and theatre. Often called the “Jewish Mark Twain,” he is best known for creating the characters and stories that resulted in Fiddler on the Roof, probably the world’s best-known work of Jewish popular culture. There is no greater testament to his influence in his own lifetime than the fact that when he died in NYC in 1916, over 100,000 mourners turned out, making it the largest funeral procession the city had ever witnessed to that point.
The 2016 Ashkenaz Festival is observing the centenary of the iconic writer’s death as an overarching theme. As I have become more and more immersed in this year’s Festival program, I have learned the importance of looking at current Jewish arts and culture through a historical lens to fully understand its roots. Sholem Aleichem is one of the most important, if not the most important, protagonists of Yiddish language and culture. His wit and wisdom as well as his own life experiences are quintessential to understanding Ashkenazi Jewish culture. Sholem Aleichem led a life of triumphs, which were often overshadowed by personal travail and tragedy. His stories and characters often mirrored his life experiences and his use of satire in recounting these tragic stories set a tone for his work that is very much prevalent in Yiddish culture today.
Sholem Aleichem’s enduring characters and stories are a window into the lives and souls of our East European ancestors. Though plagued with hardships, the characters in these stories managed to remain upbeat and optimistic. Yiddish culture today maintains this theme. For example, Yiddish music that is ever-present at Jewish celebrations is often up-beat and fast tempo, but a lot of melodies have a minor-key, somber undertone, reflective of a history riddled with hardship, but counterbalanced by perseverance, strength and vitality.
Throughout his career in Eastern Europe and North America, Sholem Aleichem was devoted to elevating Yiddish literature and increasing its artistic merit and cultural status. The 2016 Ashkenaz Festival will most explicitly celebrate Sholem Aleichem as the theme of this year’s Ashkenaz Parade. Other Festival presentations related to this commemoration include:
- A presentation of the film: Theodore Bikel: In the shoes of Sholem Aleichem
- Ukrainian singer-songwriter Zhenya Lopatnik, whose work symbolizes the survival of the Yiddish language in the country of Sholem Aleichem’s birth
- A number of other artists who work within Yiddish will be linking aspects of their performance to Sholem Aleichem’s legacy as an icon of Yiddish, eg. The Klezmatics, Daniel Kahn, Semer Ensemble.
- The Yiddish-language production of Arthur Miller’s iconic Death of a Salesman (Toyt Fun a Seylsman), symbolizing the continuing relevance of the Mameloshen in this extraordinary re-imagination of an American classic
This year’s Ashkenaz Festival is taking place from Aug. 30 and runs through Labour Day Weekend. Shalom Aleichem’s legacy will surely be felt as over 60, 000 people come down to the Harbourfront Centre to celebrate the persistence and vitality of the language to which he was so devoted.