Sholom Aleichem, the Yiddish Author Who Flirted With Screenwriting

The Yiddish author had a brief, little-known flirtation with moving pictures when the art form was still new.

Ber Kotlerman
Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Ber Kotlerman

In late December 1913, the writer Sholom Aleichem and his son Misha set out for Paris from Lausanne, Switzerland, where he was living at the time. He had been invited to Paris to give a public reading of his works early in the new year. After their arrival, he, his son and a friend, the writer Shimon Dobin, went to the famous Folies Bergere cabaret.

The following day, December 31, Sholom Aleichem - whose given name was Solomon Rabinovich - wrote to his son-in-law Yitzhak-Dov Berkowitz, "Yesterday, the three of us went to the Folies Bergere. I held on until 10 P.M., but then could no longer take it. They stayed to enjoy the dreary nuisance that I found it to be." The show that evening had been a music-hall style revue. The roster included the singer-comedian Louis Maurel, but the droll songs of the chansonnier were apparently not to Sholom Aleichem's liking.

Sholom Aleichem

He walked out of the Folies Bergere and headed over to the broad boulevards and the "cinema theaters" that lined them. That evening, the motion-picture auditoriums were open late, as it was nearly New Year's Eve. The modernist Yiddish-language weekly in Paris, "Der Nayer Zhurnal" (the new newspaper), described the scene thus: "Standing at the entrances to the dozens of cinema halls ... were tall, strong young men, wearing red or blue coats with large gold buttons, shouting: 'Entre! Entre!' They called out to passersby, bidding them to come inside."

Sholom Aleichem apparently walked into one of these places, as may be concluded from the rest of his letter to Berkowitz: "In my humble opinion, the cinema is much more interesting [than the Folies Bergere]!"

During Hanukkah of 1913, Der Amerikaner (the Yiddish weekly published in New York) published the writer's first (and last ) screenplay, "Di Velt Geyt Tsurik" (The World Is Going Backward). Sholom Aleichem described this work as "cinema fantasy." He also submitted the screenplay to the editor of the Der Nayer Zhurnal, a young poet from Poland named Avrom Reyzen. Der Nayer Zhurnal seems to have been the only Yiddish publication suited to the screenplay. It was among the first to address motion pictures, which had triggered a "depression in the French theater world." Reyzen published the screenplay immediately.

The text, published simultaneously in New York and Paris, was very short. It is not what we would now consider a screenplay, but rather a synopsis with an ideological message. It comprises four segments linked by one common idea: The lighting of Hanukkah candles by three generations of the Veyrakh family, a wealthy Russian-Jewish clan. The family's name means incense, which further contrasts the Hanukkah candle-lighting ceremony to the Christian holidays.

The writer and his son-in-law Yitzhak-Dov Berkowitz.

In the first part, the candles are lit by the patriarch, Abraham Veyrakh; in the second it is his son Yitzhak; and in the fourth, his grandson Yashenka (Yaakov). These scenes are set in the living room of the same house.

The third part takes place in the children's bedroom, where a Christian nanny prevents little Yashenka from entering the living room. The boy wants to participate in the candle lighting, but his mother tells the nanny not to let him. The meaning is that the assimilating parents are lighting the candles only for the elderly grandfather, and they don't want their young son to be contaminated by this superstition.

Sholom Aleichem emphasizes that an ornamented Christmas tree is standing in the children's room. Nevertheless, in the final part, Yashenka, now a university student, returns to his grandfather's tradition. His shocked mother (whose name is Kleopatra Davidovna) laments: "The world is going backward! Who knows where we will find ourselves in the future?"

Intuitive change

Sholom Aleichem had no experience with "cinema," but intuitively felt the change brought by motion pictures, and wanted to internalize this new relationship between the written word and the on-screen image. He used minimal text, such as characters named for biblical patriarchs, and filled the space as much as possible with the "spirit of a nation." The antique silver Hanukkah menorah provides the common thread between the generations.

In the Abraham Veyrakh period, the house is decidedly old-fashioned and full of Jewish objects: old wine cups among the gold and silver vessels, a dried myrtle branch from Sukkot, portraits of rabbis on the walls. Alongside them are portraits of Napoleon and Czar Nicholas II, as evidence of progress and patriotism. Yitzhak, then a child, is wearing a skullcap, and in the background the viewer sees a hasidic teacher in silk kapoteh (caftan) and shtreimel (fur hat).

In the second segment, the rabbis' portraits have been replaced by modernist paintings. Yitzhak, an adult, is now called Isaac Abramowitz.

Sholom Aleichem conceived the idea of the screenplay while in Berlin, when he learned that the Beilis affair in Kiev had ended. The trial of Mendel Beilis, accused of the ritual murder of a Christian boy, had been a cause for great concern to Jews in Russia and elsewhere for two years. On November 10, 1913, he was acquitted.

According to Berkowitz's memoirs, the event was celebrated at the Des Westens cafe in Berlin, a regular meeting place for Jewish immigrants from Russia, including Sholom Aleichem. That day, Yiddishists and Hebraists sat together. Sholom Aleichem, who was sitting at the head of the table, broke down in tears. He proposed sending a telegram to the head defense attorney, Oscar (Yisrael) Gruzenberg. He also sent Beilis a set of his books.

Four days later, he wrote to an acquaintance about his idea of writing a motion-picture screenplay. "My debut will be by means of a wonderful new thing. I intend something that has not yet been in my literary writing," he wrote.

While the screenplay does not mention the Beilis affair, it is an indirect presence. From his letter to Der Amerikaner, we learn that at the last moment Sholom Aleichem sought to make some slight corrections to the "film," including an intriguing correction to one of the subtitles: "It says in big letters, 'Beilis is guilty.' This should be replaced with 'Yasha recites the blessing over the Hanukkah candles.'" Later on in the screenplay, Yashenka's parents' guests exclaim: "Hey, this kid of the Veyrakhs is a Zionist!"

Sholom Aleichem preferred to avoid any parallels to the Beilis affair, which had ended well, perhaps in order to keep some distance from the public din (Yiddish newspapers in America had already derisively called the over-attention "katsnyomer" - yowling of cats). But it seems more reasonable that because Sholom Aleichem considered the Beilis affair to have wielded enormous influence over the mood of Jews in Russia, he decided that depicting this influence was more important than mentioning the affair itself. Enough with the sacrifice ritual: candle lighting on Hanukkah is the alternative to the Christmas tree. In this metaphorical way, Sholom Aleichem sought to present the national awakening among Jewish youth.

Educational Jewish films

Sholom Aleichem imagined Jewish motion pictures would play an educational role, based on the authentic codes of national identity. He already believed wholeheartedly that he would carve out a world name for himself in this field, Berkowitz wrote.

On the other hand, it doesn't seem like the screenplay for "Di Velt Geyt Tsurik" was written with the expectation that it would be filmed. When it was published, Sholom Aleichem had already backed away from its heavy-handed, pathos-fueled style, which had intended to knit the symbols into a convoluted visual continuum. He already intuitively figured out that in the motion-picture business, it would be more natural for him to go back to the protagonists of Kasrilevke, the setting of many of his stories. It was not an easy task, considering his "vernacular" writing style heavy with details, as the scholar Meir Wiener pointed out, not necessarily in visual terms but in verbal terms.

Sholom Aleichem did not write down his thoughts about what direction he might take in the motion-picture world, and one can only draw conclusions about it indirectly. When he was in Paris, he told Berkowitz what was happening there, including a planned visit by the newly released Beilis.

"Perhaps he is already in Paris, drinking tea with Rothschild. There are now three celebrities in Paris: Beilis, La Gioconda and myself," he said.

Following his return to Lausanne, he related in a letter to his granddaughter Tamara, Berkowitz's daughter, how the "comical pictures" in Paris made him laugh until his sides ached. He did not say a single word about what these pictures entailed, but did describe the following scene: "While I was in Paris, I came across a girl with a small monkey. Both of them had colds, both were shaking and begging for a little slice of bread. I nearly cried out of compassion." The filming of this picture was not incidental: Sholom Aleichem was already seeking a path of his own into this new and wondrous art form.

A little more than six months later, World War I broke out. It wholly altered the face of Europe, and forced Sholom Aleichem to emigrate to the United States, even before getting a chance to see his heroes on the screen.