“The Tighter I Held On, the Better He Wrote”

On the 150th anniversary of his birth, his granddaughter reveals Sholom Aleichem

No other grandfather was like mine. No other grandfather was so youthful, funny and full of impish pranks with us children. What other grandfather would conspire with us to mix up the guests’ overshoes in the hall? Or show us how to walk on our hands when the tenant below complained of footsteps from our uncarpeted floor? Or teach us to speak in rhymes? Or invent a secret language — just for us — that the world, which knows him as Sholom Aleichem, the famous writer, does not share?

My cousin Tamara and I were the only grandchildren Papa Sholom Aleichem, as we called him, had in his lifetime, and he adored us. Once, when we were very little, as we were walking with him someplace in Switzerland, each holding on to his hand, he pointed to the distance. “You see that mountain?” he said. “I’ve just given it to Tamarochka. You see that lake? I am giving it to Belochka!”

I treasure a letter from him, written a year before he died in New York to Odessa, where I lived with my parents. “Dorogaya Belochka” — “Dear Belochka,” he wrote, “I am writing you this letter to ask you to hurry and grow up, so that you can learn to write me letters. And in order to grow up, it is necessary to drink milk, eat soup and vegetables, and fewer candies. Regards to your dolls. Your Papa Sholom Aleichem.” I did grow up, I did learn to write — but not in time. It’s difficult to know what is family legend and what is true memory, but one particular scene I remember vividly, although I couldn’t have been more than three. Papa Sholom Aleichem and I are in a zoological garden, in front of a monkey. He takes a piece of paper, folds it into a cone, fills it with water from a nearby fountain and offers it to the monkey to drink. The monkey refuses. Papa bends down to me and says, in Russian, the language we always spoke: “Isporchenaya obezyana!” (A spoiled monkey!) He keeps refilling the paper cone with water and drinking thirstily, again and again. I learned only later that this was two years before he died, when he was plagued by an unquenchable diabetic thirst. But even about this he made a joke. He wrote to my parents: “Now I know I’ll never die of hunger; I’ll die of thirst.”

It was more than a joke; it was the essence of his humor. Thumbing the nose at adversity, turning tables on tragedy, losing everything but winning the argument — it was laughter through tears — Jewish laughter.

Though he was loved and cherished in thousands of homes and read aloud to the sound of laughter, he suffered grave illness, excruciating pain, exile and heartbreak, yet to the end, he wrote humor for others, from his first literary efforts at the age of 14, when he compiled a “Glossary of Stepmother’s Curses,” in which he arranged in alphabetical order the daily curses she lavished upon him, to his last work, left unfinished by his death: “Motl the Cantor’s Son in America.” Of all his stories this is my favorite. When little Motl finds himself in America, he expresses his delight at its marvels. Chewing gum, he explains, is a candy made of rubber, and teachers in America are not allowed to whip their children. “Try not to love such a country!” he exclaims.

Sholom Aleichem died on May 12A (he was superstitious and never numbered his manuscripts pages 13, but 12A), 1916, in a shabby little apartment on Kelly Street in the Bronx, at the age of 57. According to the New York Times over a thousand people accompanied the funeral procession, mourning their beloved writer. He lies buried in the Workmen’s Circle Cemetery in Queens, New York, for in his will he asked to be buried not among the rich and famous, but among the plain people, the workers, the ordinary folk whom he loved and who had loved their folk writer in his lifetime. Also in his will, which is considered a great ethical document, he asked to be remembered on the anniversary of his death with laughter by having family and friends gather together and read his merry stories aloud. This has been an inviolable tradition in our family, never broken to this day.

Many have seen “Fiddler on the Roof,” based on Sholom Aleichem’s Tevye stories, but few know that there was a real dairyman, whose name was Tevye, who delivered dairy products to my grandfather’s family. Not at all like the powerful actors who have played him, he was a small, wizened man with a funny black beard that grew out of his neck, and he had no daughters. Sholom Aleichem used to enjoy talking with him, and subsequently wrote a series of stories about Tevye the Milkman and his seven daughters (“Fiddler” subtracted two). He wrote to my parents how eager he was to have his stories translated into English and his plays produced in America, adding: “My eyes won’t see it; maybe yours will.” Ours did.

It’s awesome to realize that I am now, since Tamara’s death, Sholom Aleichem’s only living descendant who knew him, heard his voice, sat on his lap, and who — as he used to tell me when I was little — helped him write, by holding on tightly to his hand a we walked together. The tighter I held on, the better he wrote.

It was only after I grew up that I understood my grandfather’s gift was a far more valuable one than a make-believe present of a lake in Switzerland. He left a legacy of love and laughter — love for the common people and laughter in the face of adversity. Try not to love such a grandfather!

Bel Kaufman is best known for her 1965 best-selling novel (later a film), Up the Down Staircase, about an idealistic English teacher in an inner-city high school.