Борис Бурда
Author: Boris Burda
Журналист, писатель, бард. Обладатель «Бриллиантовой совы» интеллектуальной игры «Что? Где? Когда?»
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ROOTS AND WINGS with Boris Burda: Sholem Aleichem from Pereyaslav – one of the founders of modern fiction in Yiddish

ROOTS AND WINGS with Boris Burda: Sholem Aleichem from Pereyaslav - one of the founders of modern fiction in Yiddish
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Any more or less literate person knows more than a hundred Greek words. There are a lot of them among scientific terms. “Barometer” in Greek means “weight meter”, “geography” – “description of the earth”, “erythrocyte” – “red cell”, “hydrophobia” – “fear of water”. It’s simple.

I thought so while traveling in Greece. I went to the stall to buy water, and I said what I remembered, “Hydro!”, “Hyudor!” I remembered the Greek word “water”, even the word “Odessa” came from it, “city by the water”. But the Greek did not understand! I told him in English, “Water, please!” He replied, “Ah-ah, nero” and gave me water. “Hydro” – it turns out in ancient Greek, not in the current one.

That same evening, at a banquet in the hotel, I hardly asked for wine – the word “oino” is already outdated, the wine is now “krasi”. Just now I looked – what does it mean, the “grain” is no longer “sperm”? Well, of course, “kalampoki” is in living Greek, and ancient Greek is a dead language.

Languages, like people, live, but they can die. They rarely die  by natural death – either predatory neighbors, or the resettlement of peoples, or something else, but there was a language – and it doesn’t exist now. Let’s say the Yiddish language, spoken by my grandparents, disappeared from my sight.

Grandmothers were chatting quite cheerfully in Yiddish in the kitchen, my parents understood something, but they themselves didn’t speak, and if I remembered single words, only because they were similar to German (“fleisch” means meat, “fish” – fish, “yingele” – a boy, “maydele”- a girl, and maybe a dozen more).

But even in the last century, before the Holocaust, “doctors’ cases” and other things were in Yiddish, millions spoke this language, and the literature was such that it is still quite in demand in translations. And one of the best Yiddish writers was born in Ukraine and lived here most of his life.




In Odessa, there is a monument to Rabinovich, created by Rezo Gabriadze. Which one? It does not matter – someone, who returns from a business trip or comes to consult with the rabbi. The hero of a Jewish joke is  Rabinovich by definition. You don’t even need to say that you are a Jew.

What surname could have the most famous writer, who created his works in Yiddish? Maybe Abramovich? Sorry, taken – the classic of Yiddish literature Mendele Moikher-Sforim (in translation it means “Mendele-Book carrier”) was just Abramovich according to his passport.

ROOTS AND WINGS with Boris Burda: Sholem Aleichem from Pereyaslav - one of the founders of modern fiction in Yiddish
Famous Jewish writers in Yiddish (from left to right): Mendele Moikher Sforim, Sholem Aleichem, Ben Ami, Chaim Nachman Bialik / chayka.org

So he was Rabinovich, and even with a truly Jewish name Solomon – it was given to him at birth on March 2, 1859 in the provincial, but breathtakingly ancient city of Pereyaslav, in the very city in which Ukraine was annexed to Russia in 1654.

Of course, it was pointless to write and publish under the name Solomon Rabinovich – every Jew has at least ten such acquaintances. Therefore, later he took the pseudonym Sholem Aleichem – if literally, then “Peace be upon you”, and if exactly by the meaning, then simply “Hello!”



The family of the future writer was not so rich – they did not starve, but they lived quite modestly. At his birth – a little better, then they became poorer and counted every penny. It did not apply to the expenses for the education of children – such families jumped through hoops for it.

So kheder, a Jewish elementary school, he graduated safely. Judging by his later works, the place was not very nice – the teachers beat the hell out of students, they deceived the teachers and mocked them. But he received an education.

He created his first work in the kheder – a whole treatise on the Bible with an analysis of Jewish grammar. The teacher, to whom this work was submitted for assessment, honestly said that everything written was bullshit, but the handwriting was beautiful. Later, the writer considered it “the first literary criticism”.

When he was 13 years old, his mother died of cholera, his father remarried, and his stepmother turned out to be angry and quarrelsome. Then he created his second work – all the curses of his stepmother, written in alphabetical order. In any case, my father liked this “masterpiece”.

Here is a quote from it  “Asmodeus, bathhouse attendant, blockhead, tramp, broom, cross, stupid face, beggar, gander in a yarmulke, savage, fool, devil, greedy man, arrogant, sinister, snake, idiot, cabman, bottomless gut, handsome, a piece of bacon, meadowsweet, gourmet, loafing … further in alphabetical order.

He entered the district school, which, despite slight difficulties with the Russian language, graduated with honors three years later. After reading the novel Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe in Russian, he wrote his own version – the novel Jewish Robinson Crusoe. I could not find it on the web, but it’s a pity …




Not wanting to be a burden to his family, he finds a job for himself – a place as a home teacher. He was always attracted to teaching, and he even tried to enter the Zhytomyr Teachers’ Institute, but not such luck – the “fifth column” interfered (does anyone remember that in the Soviet questionnaires such a number had the column “nationality”?). There were no questionnaires then, but the column was already there …

ROOTS AND WINGS with Boris Burda: Sholem Aleichem from Pereyaslav - one of the founders of modern fiction in Yiddish
Sholem Aleichem at the age of 18/wikipedia.org

But for the position of a home teacher in the family of a wealthy tenant Elimelekh Loev, this was not a hindrance – rather, on the contrary. He had to give a decent education to Loev’s children, including his daughter Golda, who was often called simply Olga – depending on where and to whom she was introduced …

Then everything was, as in the well-known poem of Sasha Cherny, who has already become a character in the column Love Is Not A Potato, the situation is quite vital and not very rare.

The poor teacher fell in love with the daughter of a rich employer! However, it was still half the trouble – she was in love with him too, and it was quite a nightmare! In any case, for a rich dad, who had his own ideas about a happy marriage for his beloved daughter. He, after all, was not a screenwriter for a series for housewives – it was just given to such women, pitiful and vital!

Dad got rid of the inappropriate applicant like in the series  – once the poor teacher woke up in a country house and saw that there was noone: no dad, no daughter, no family! Everyone left, leaving on the table an envelope with his fee for two months – we’re even…




It is clear that the grief of the young lover, thrown out of the house of his beloved, knew no bounds. He was left not only without an adored woman, but also without a feeding work. They say for good reason, what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. I will add from myself – it kills, but much later.

He begins to write actively: a little – in the book language of the Bible, Hebrew, some – in Russian, but more and more he turns to Yiddish, the native language of millions of inhabitants of the then Russian Empire (2,000,000 Jews lived only in Belarus, and in Ukraine, obviously not less!).

To feed himself, he found  a job – he became a state rabbi in the town of Lubny. It was a unique position that existed only in the Russian Empire. They did not pray with the state rabbi, did not ask him for advice – it was just a government official who registered births and deaths, managed the affairs of the community, but was not its spiritual mentor.

Already somehow self-made, he in 1883, six years after the separation, met with Olga Loeva, and it turned out that the separation did not destroy, but only strengthened their mutual feelings. They got married against the will of her parents, and they were forced to reconcile, because there was nothing they could do.

And his touching story The Knife about the suffering of a poor child who stole a knife and with fear awaiting retribution in this and the next world, received a positive review from the newspaper to which he sent it. It encouraged him, and he decided that he would continue to write.




In 1885, Elimelech Loev died, and his daughter inherited a very considerable inheritance. The family moved to Kiev, which Sholem Aleichem called Egupets in his works – is this  a hint of Egypt, where the Jews lived under the pharaohs well fed, but without civil rights?

His family life was going well – not the slightest problem, wonderful children (four sons and two daughters – did the parents of Sholem Aleichem himself have the same: just a coincidence or something more?), love, understanding and a prosperous life. It would be nice if it was so with everything else …

In terms of creativity, that’s what happened – he wrote a lot, he was willingly published, he had his own, perfectly recognizable style with an abundance of details, sad humor and an accurate reproduction of the life of small places where it is cramped and hungry, but life went on.

But he clearly did not like money, and they reciprocated. He began to publish the collection Jewish People’s Library, pays good royalties for publications, but the income turned out to be less than the expenses. Good writers were not meant to be successful businessmen.

To fill up the deficit, he himself began to engage in stock speculation, but look above – he wrote too well to be successful on the stock exchange. As a result, he went bankrupt and was so in debt that he was forced to hide abroad from bailiffs for a while.

ROOTS AND WINGS with Boris Burda: Sholem Aleichem from Pereyaslav - one of the founders of modern fiction in Yiddish
From right to left: sitting – the mother-in-law of the writer Rachel Loev, Sholem Aleichem, grandson  Note, daughter  Lyalya; standing – daughters Emma and Marusya, wife Olga (Golda), son Misha, daughter Ernestina and son-in-law Isaac David Berkovich. Lviv, 1906 / kulturologia




His mother-in-law saved him – she eventually reconciled with an unequal marriage and paid off the debts of her problem son-in-law. Sholem Aleichem got the opportunity to return to the Russian Empire without fear of angry creditors, and for a while moves to Odessa – it was useful for those who wrote.

He lived there on Kanatnaya, 28 – close enough to my house, I often pass by. There is a memorial plaque on the house, but repairs would not hurt it – I am afraid that his famous tenant could not rent a better apartment. Moreover, despite the fact that his books are becoming more and more popular.

It seems that the images of “air traders” came to his work from Odessa – small and the smallest stock speculators, unlucky intermediaries, touching dreamers hoping to get on a penny dimes. His character Menachem-Mendel is strait out of it.

ROOTS AND WINGS with Boris Burda: Sholem Aleichem from Pereyaslav - one of the founders of modern fiction in Yiddish
The House where Sholem Aleichem lived in Odessa / mayak.org

At this time, his main works appear: the sentimental novels Stempenu and Yosele the Nightingale (however, the whole of Sholem Aleichem is sentimental, but this does not irritate), as well as his immortal masterpiece, more than once filmed and staged on stage – Tevye The Milkman.




Almost anyone who reads Tevye the Milkman becomes astonishingly captivated by Tevye – wise, eloquent, hardworking and resistant to adversity (he has enough of it …). In form, these are letters from Tevye to Sholem Aleichem, and one letter is sadder than the other one.

His main trouble is the conflict with the generation of his own daughters. One of them, instead of a rich groom, marries a poor man, because it is love; the other daughter is sent into exile with her revolutionary husband, the third one is baptized into Orthodoxy, the fourth daughtrer leaves for America, the fifth one is abandoned by the groom, and she drowns in the river – such  the time was and  such problems were.

But his vitality, optimism and humor still captivate not only readers, but also spectators – both theater and cinema. The performances staged from the book – both the 1938 production in Kharkov, performed by Mikhoels, and Memorial Prayer in Lenkom with the wonderful Evgeny Leonov, and Tevye-Tevel with the inimitable Bogdan Stupka – are still well remembered.

This theme found musical embodiment too. In 1964, the Broadway musical Fiddler on the Roof appeared, which later, in 1971, became a film by Norman Jewison, which was watched all over the world. Also, not to forget, there is a good Soviet TV show Tevye the Milkman of 1985.




But it is difficult for everyone to live a quiet life, for a writer twice, and for a Jew in the Russian Empire three times. In Kiev, to which Sholem Aleichem moved, he becomes a witness (and it is good that not a victim) of the Jewish break-in. And even more terrible Odessa and Chisinau breaks-in horrified him that he decided to leave the country.

It is interesting, but he did not leave Ukraine – he just moved from Kiev to Lvov, then an Austro-Hungarian city. He tried to do what in his power to fight the pogromists, edited the collection “Khilf” in favor of the victims of the break-in, to which he attracted Tolstoy, Chekhov and Gorky.

And then a big misfortune happens to him personally – he was diagnosed with tuberculosis, then an incurable disease. He fights her as best he can – he travels to European resorts, and in order to earn money for this, he speaks a lot to readers – Jews from all over Europe, there were a lot of them then …

At the same time he wrote one of the most important books, the third part of the trilogy about Jewish artists after Stempenu and Yosele the Nightingale – Wandering Stars, a sentimental but touching story about a singer and an actor who met famous, but too late …




The world war found him in a German sanatorium (it was good that the first, not the second), and he, as an enemy subject, had to hastily leave the country. Having kicked around from Copenhagen, the writer decided to move to the States – he had been there more than once, and now he has moved for keeps.

They already knew him there, they called him “the Jewish Mark Twain” (they say that Mark Twain himself, having learned about this, joked that he was the American Sholem Aleichem). But it is always hard for an emigrant to live in almost any country, doubly for the poor, and triple for the seriously ill.

He finishes there a wonderful book about a small child Boy Mottle (as a child I loved her very much), begins to write an autobiographical novel with a very symbolic title From the Fair – he realizes that his life path ends. But he does not have time to finish it.

On May 13, 1916, he died of tuberculosis in New York. At the funeral of Sholem Aleichem at the Old Cemetery in Queens, about one hundred thousand of his admirers came to see him on his last journey. They said that he wanted to be buried in Kiev, where 20 years of his life passed. But I didn’t have a chance …

ROOTS AND WINGS with Boris Burda: Sholem Aleichem from Pereyaslav - one of the founders of modern fiction in Yiddish
Funeral of Sholem Aleichem / wikipedia.org


It is very important for a writer not only to be heard by his contemporaries, but also to say something meaningful to his descendants. And with this, Sholem Aleichem clearly worked out – even with the success of productions and films in our times, one can understand from his books that he is quite in demand.

The six-volume edition of Sholem Aleichem, published in Soviet times, became almost a cult book among Soviet Jews. In my grandfather’s library it was one of the most shabby – always someone asked to read. It is being published quite actively now, and in many languages.

Monuments have been erected to him in Kiev, Moscow and Bila Tserkva. There are streets of Sholem Aleichem in Kharkov, Balti, Vinnitsa, Grodno, Zhitomir, Berdichev, Kiev, Poltava – I don’t remember all of them … Postage stamps in his honor were issued not only in Ukraine and Israel, but even in Gambia!

ROOTS AND WINGS with Boris Burda: Sholem Aleichem from Pereyaslav - one of the founders of modern fiction in Yiddish
Monument in Bila Tserkva / jewishnews.com

And in Odessa there is no Sholem Aleichem street – in 1995, the old name Myasoedovskaya was returned to it. I understand that Myasoedovskaya is sacred for Odessa, but you never know the streets in the new districts? Isn’t it strange that there is a Sholem Aleichem crater on Mercury, but there is no such street in Odessa?

Well, the jubilee coin of Ukraine in 5 hryvnia – it goes without saying … The Kiev Theater and Birobidzhan University bear his name – also nothing surprising. In his homeland, in Pereyaslav, a museum-apartment of the writer was opened, in Kiev too. But he is remembered by millions and so, without these attributes.

And the Yiddish language should not be considered dead in a hurry – and now it is spoken by at least half a million people. Before our eyes, in the last century, at least two dead languages were resurrected – Hebrew, which became the state language of Israel, and Latin, which received the status of a state language in the Vatican. This is how…

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