Tuesday, 30 September 2014

Sholom Aleichem:
The Passover Guest[i]

Sholom Aleichem

He was born in 1859 in Pereyaslav,  Ukraine.   His name is the Yiddish pseudonym of Shalom Rabinowitz, based on the shalom aleichem (peace be unto you) greeting.  Done to avoid offence, especially Hebrew oriented father.  Yiddish was his preferred language for writing, but by many rather despised.  He wrote stories, poetry and drama

His father was a merchant whose business failed and the family fell into poverty.   His mother died of cholera in 1872.   He was thirteen.  Next year he went to the Gymnasium (‘grammar school’) and graduated in 1876.  He began writing in Hebrew.

In 1883 he married  the well-to-do landowner’s daughter, Olga Loeve.  Later he, in a speculation, he lost the money inherited from her father and had to flee from creditors.  

In 1904 after witnessing the pogroms they left for USA, but then went to Geneva to join the rest of his family.  He worked as a lecturer.  In 1908 he collapsed on a train, due to a relapse of a form of TB.   He and his family  supported after this by admirers and friends. 

In 1914 he went to USA again, New York and died 13 May 1918, aged 57.

In his life he pressed for Yiddish to be the national Jewish language and was a Zionist, serving as a Zionist delegate at the Eighth Zionist Congress at the Hague (1888).   He was superstitious about the number 13.   He became enormously popular as a writer.  There were some 100,000 mourners at his funeral.   His play Tevye’s Daughters formed the basis of the film musical Fiddler on the Roof.

The Story:  some thoughts

In one sense a very simple story indeed:  a guest comes, stays the night, and runs off with the silver.

In one way it’s a typical ‘twist in the end’ short story.  We are led by events into a particular interpretation, and then discover things aren’t like that at all.   We are led to see the guest as friendly, interesting and devout,  and so to trust him.   But he is a fake.

The American linguist, Labov,  set out a framework into which stories (tend to) fall.

1    An ordinary routine event of some kind
2    Something out of the ordinary, a crisis, which unbalances the ordinary routine
3    This creates a problem for the main character to solve
4    The problem is pursued until resolved (not necessarily solved)
5     The conclusion is both fitting but also unexpected.

Sholom Aleichem’s story doesn’t fit this framework as straightforwardly as many stories do.   We could summarise the structure as

1   The routine Passover celebrations involving hospitality to strangers
2   The guest is ‘out of the ordinary’ in his identity, as is his homeland as he describes it.         He doesn’t upset, but changes the family Passover celebration
3   The ‘problem’ that follows from 2  does not appear directly.   But in retrospect we see         it as something like having a thief in the house, except no-one realises.  He’s also      a ‘temptation’  to them to devalue the good life they have when presented with a     false (materialistic) alternative.   A spiritual problem.
4   The problem is  not ‘resolved’, by the main character’s doing something.   The main           characters aren’t aware of the problem.  They allow it to be resolved by doing             nothing,  by their misplaced trust and admiration.
5   The conclusion is their realisation their loss of what they had and had almost begun          to disparage, and the boy’s loss of a ‘dream’.   Unexpected, but when we replay it     in our minds and see the guest for what he really is, perfectly fitting.

How we see this structure is affected by how we read.  Do we begin to feel even as he talks that the guest’s tales are not quite genuine?   After all we see it all through the inexperienced eyes of a boy.   If/when we get suspicious, we’re the more aware of the family’s contribution to their own loss.

In retrospect we notice the way the narrator, and the guests eyes, draw attention to such things as the mother’s diamond earrings, and her pearls (p4), and how he includes the maid in his audience -  ‘in such a friendly, such a very friendly way!’ (p5)

Further notes

The Passover.     This celebrates the Jews freedom from slavery.   Do any aspects of this feast work their way into this story?

Orientalism.           A tendency to look at people from different cultures as humanly different,  often in a disparaging way.   Much is made, in the story, of the guest’s difference.    Edward Said wrote about this.[ii]  The narrator (a boy we should note) says in a mixture of folktale and Biblical language:
It is not every day that a person comes from perhaps two thousand miles away, from a land only to be reached across seven seas and a desert, the desert journey alone requiring forty days and nights. (p4)

Sefardim.     From the Hebrew word for Spain.   It refers to Jews who lived in the Iberian Peninsular at the beginning of the 2nd millennium.  They were driven out in the late 15th century by the Catholics.

Levites.   Hebrew ethnic group. According to Wikipedia: ‘the Sons of Levi were the only Israelite tribe that received cities but were not allowed to be landowners "because the Lord the God of Israel Himself is their inheritance" (Deuteronomy 18:2)’.   According to Encyclopaedia Britannica Levites were given a special religious status, conjecturally, for slaughtering idolaters of the golden calf during the time of Moses (Ex. 32:25–29). They thus replaced the firstborn sons of Israel who were “dedicated to the service of the Lord” for having been preserved from death at the time of the first Passover (Ex. 12).

(1)   The narrator switches so often from present to past back to present.  Not sure why.
(2)  He sometimes puts himself very self-consciously into the narrator’s role.                
‘Such was the conversation that took place between my father and the beadle, a day before Passover. . .(p1)

‘The fact is this:  our guest from beyond the desert and the seven seas has disappeared’(p6)

A Paradox

The guest is not rich, but he tempts them with imaginary riches.   Their imaginations are greedy: they have enough.     The guest presents himself as culturally rich, not materialistic.   But he steals materialistically.     
Or does he? Or is there more to this?    In his land with riches everywhere there is a rule that when he leave ‘you cannot take it with you’.   Is he a kind of messenger?   Have they got the message?

He takes their material goods from them, and their  servant (privilege).     Instead of the hope of even more goods, they have  less.    

The boy tells the ‘true’ tale.  It is worth telling because of the ‘false’ tales the guest tells tales within this tale.   But is the guest’s tale false?

[i] It’s on the web at http://www.readbookonline.net/readOnLine/55720/
[ii] As a cultural critic, Said is best known for the 1978 book Orientalism. In it, he analyses the cultural representations that are the basis of Orientalism, a term he redefined to refer to the West's patronizing perceptions and depictions of Middle Eastern, Asian and North African societies—"the East". He contended that Orientalist scholarship was, and remains, inextricably tied to the imperialist societies that produced it, which makes much of the work inherently political, servile to power, and thus intellectually suspect -   Wikipedia