The Official Sholom Aleichem Website- Your First Resource
“On Account of a Hat”. - A Short Story by Sholem Aleichem- 1913
1859 Born in The Ukraine, then part of the Russian Empire
1916 Dies in New York City, then part of The U.S.A. His funeral is attended by 250,000
To most people, certainly me a few years ago, Yiddish writers were divided into two categories, Sholom Aleichem and a bunch of authors I have never heard about who I would never have read were it not for Yale University Press giving me a full set of The Yale Yiddish Library. These nine volumes, introduced by top authorities in Yiddish Studies, include some of the great classics.
Among the works were two totally marvelous novels by Sholom Aleichem. All of the works were pre-Holocaust, written in Eastern Europe and Russia. All were by men. As Yiddish speakers left Europe, mostly to NYC then Toronto and Montréal women writers like Blume Lempel and Chava Rosenfarb began publishing in Yiddish. I have talked a bit about the history of Yiddish Literature (running from around 1875 to maybe 2004 with the passing of the last of the emigrated writers) in prior posts.) My perception is most seriously into Yiddish Literature, a huge treasure trove of Short Stories, are “heritage readers” seeking ties with the world of their ancestors in Eastern Europe. Behind it is also a powerful message to those who would destroy Jewish Culture, you lose, we win. I read in this area because it is an incredibly wonderful literature. The stories range from heart breaking to funnier than a Mel Brooks movie. Yiddish scholarship has very strong support and thanks to the internet, and maybe especially The Yiddish Book Center, interest is increasing. Leonard Nimoy hosts on YouTube a series of readings of Yiddish Short Stories, including today’s story, “On Account of a Hat”.
Leonard Nimoy says this is one of the best of the hundred of short stories by Sholom Aleichem and who can argue with the voice of Mr. Spock. (I can visualize Mr. Spock quoting from a Yiddish story to a bewildered Doctor McCoy.)
The main character is a small time land broker. Passover is approaching and he has been away from home working on some deals. He sends a telegraph to his wife saying, “I will be home for Passover, without doubt”. The story is told by the developer as if he were telling it to Sholom Aleichem as a material for a story.
He gets to the nearest railroad station. As he waits for the train he sits next to a sleeping man in a uniform, a high ranking personage of some sort, for sure a goyem. He puts down his hat for a minute then when he reaches to
pick it up the official’s hat was blown next to his by a wind and he accidentally put on the wrong hat, marking him as a high ranking Tsarist official.
When he goes to get in the third class cabin the conductor sees the hat and insists he will be placed in first class. At first the man is a bit uncomfortable
as he is the only Jew there but he enjoys the ride. He wonders how the others in the cabin would feel if they knew they were riding with a Jew. Once he gets to his town people call him “your excellency” and defer to him. Once he gets home his wife says something like, “who are you fooling with that stupid hat?”.
The ending is a classic. I will leave it for others to discover.
Sholem Aleichem, the pseudonym of a Russified Jewish intellectual named Solomon Rabinovitz (1859–1916), created many of the most enduring works of modern Yiddish fiction. Born in Pereyaslav, Ukraine, he received a traditional education and lived in Kiev and Odessa before immigrating to New York City. Upon his death in 1916, the New York Times published a front-page obituary, memorializing him as “the Jewish Mark Twain.” More than 100,000 people attended his funeral procession, making it the largest New York City had ever seen. His humorous representations of the rhythms of Yiddish-speaking Eastern European Jewish life have had a lasting influence on modern Jewish literary traditions... From The Yiddish Book Center