An Exchange of Letters Between America and the Old Country - A Short Story by Sholem Aleichem (Story probably written 1910)
Translated by Curt Leviant from Yiddish
You can read the story here.
Published Summer 2019 in Pakn Treger, The Magazine of the Yiddish Book Center
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 that 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 rapidly growing. YouTube has lots of good videos and readings of stories.
Anyway Sholom Aleichem is by far now most known Yiddish writer. He is most famous from the movie Fiddler on the Roof based on his Tevye Cycle, centering on a Russian dairyman and his relationship with his daughters.
Letters between America and "back home" were a very important part of the emotional support systems for Yiddish speaking immigrants to America. Of course most immigrants paint a glowing picture of America.
The story is told through two letters, one sent from New York City by Jacob (formerly Yenkl, the Americanizing of his name is a very big matter) to his close friend Yisrulik back in the "old country" and his friend's answer. His friend lives in Russia.. The time period of the letters is in 1905. Sholem Achleim's first readers would have known this from the events described by Yisrulik. (In his very well done introduction Curt Leviant provides us with the background we need.)
Here is the start of the letter from America, notice the American slang expressions such as "blue funk" and "eating our hearts out". "Mr. Krushevan, that damned anti-Semite and president of the Fourth Duma" referred to was a journalist responsible for widely circulating the codicils of the elders of Zion and inciting anti - Jewish violence. He was not in fact ever executed.
"To my dear friend Yisrulik, may you and your wife and children be inscribed for a year of health and happiness, and may God’s blessings come upon all Israel, amen.
We’ve been worried stiff because you haven’t written us any letters. We’ve been walking around in a blue funk ever since that period of revolution, constitution, and pogroms began back home in the old country. We’re literally eating our hearts out. If the papers here in America aren’t bluffing, then those revolutionaries have probably made mincemeat of half the world already.
Every day we get wind of another sensational event. Last night I read a cable that they strung up Mr. Krushevan, that damned anti-Semite and president of the Fourth Duma. Let me know if that isn’t a lot of hot air. And write me about your business. Are you still working for someone or are you on your own? And how’s Khane-Rikl? What’s Hershel doing? And how is my cousin Lipa? And how about Yosl, Henikh’s boy! And Bentsi and Rokhl? Zlatke? Motl? And the rest of the tailors? Are you thinking of coming to America? Fill me in on all the details in your next letter.
Of course he relays the news of his family:
"The only thing we miss is . . . home. We’re homesick something awful. My wife, Jennie (we don’t call her Blume anymore), doesn’t leave me alone for a minute. She keeps nagging me to take a trip back to Russia and visit our beloved, dear ones in the cemetery. You’d never recognize Jennie. She’s a regular lady, rigged out in hat, gloves, and all the trimmings. I’m enclosing a snapshot of her and the rest of the family. What do you say to my oldest boy? That’s Motl. Now he’s called Mike. He’s an “alrightnik.” He works in a factory and earns ten, twelve dollars a week. If only he wouldn’t gamble, he’d be a topnotch alrightnik.
My other boy, Jack, used to work in a factory too. He managed to pick up a bit of English and is now a bookkeeper in a barbershop. My third rascal, Benjamin, is a barroom waiter. He doesn’t get wages, but he brings home between six and eight dollars a week in tips. My fourth boy, the one in the picture wearing a cap, is a loafer. He doesn’t want to go to school but hangs around outside on the street day and night playing ball.
The girls are okay too. They work in shops and have some cash in the bank. The only trouble is that I see neither hide nor hair of them. They step out whenever they like, go wherever they like, and with whomever they like.
America’s a free country. You’re perfectly free to keep opinions to yourself. You can’t even tell your own daughter who to marry".
The letter from the old country is written in a classic fashion readers of Sholem Aleichem will recognize. Start with humour, then relay in a matter of fact way some terrible events, deaths, murders in pograms and then close with humour.
His friend says America sounds like a place he wants nothing to do with.
"An Exchange of Letters Between America and the Old Country" is a miniature master work, readable in under five minutes. It would make a good first work by Sholem Aleichem.