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December 10, 2016 / 10 Kislev, 5777

Posts Tagged ‘Sholom Aleichem’

The Other Side of the Story — Reflections on the Social Experience in School

Monday, November 7th, 2011

Sara is pulling straight A’s in all of her classes.  She scores high grades on most of her exams and tests.  You would think that she and her parents would be thrilled with her progress.  But Sara is struggling in school despite her academic excellence.  Socially, she is a wreck.  While all the other girls easily group together during recess she has few friends, little social contact, and she is generally reclusive and shy around classmates and teachers.

Aaron is a completely different story.  He’s not much of a student at all.  He barely gets by in his schoolwork and his Rebbeim are disappointed in his grades.  Aaron’s social status is also suffering, but in a completely different way than Sara’s.  He is aggressive with his peers and disruptive in class.  He calls out at all the wrong times and he speaks in a very loud voice.  Aaron’s classmates are uncomfortable around him, and generally avoid him during recess.  Like Sara, he doesn’t have many friends.

Sara and Aaron are two very different children who are dealing with completely different issues.  Yet, they both need help developing their social skills.  Parents of children who are socially inept are frustrated and often feel guilty.  Perhaps if they would have spent more time with the child, if they would have set up play-dates more often, if they would have organized social activities early on, none of this would have happened.  But the truth is that it’s nobody’s fault and nobody should be feeling guilty.  Children are basically born with social skills, or they’re not.  It’s part of their nature.  The same way that Sara was born “gifted” in academics, she was born “inept” in social skills.  She may even have a twin sister who is a social butterfly or a brother who’s the most popular kid in class.  But Sara herself needs help in this area.

What can we do to help children like Sara and Aaron?  First the problem needs to be identified.  This is not easy, because parents are reluctant to admit that a social problem exists and there’s plenty of denial in this area.  Yet those who are honest with themselves and their children will recognize the warning signals.  Here are some of the things parents of children like Sara should look out for:

1.  Weak greeting skills — If a child has trouble responding to a simple “Sholom Aleichem” or “How are you?” this can signify weak social skills.

2.  Social discomfort — Is the child noticeably uncomfortable with peers?  Is he or she nervous or inhibited at parties and social gatherings?

3.  Weak requesting skills — Is the child afraid to ask for something he needs?  Does she avoid asking a question in class or asking the clerk in a store for change?

Children like Aaron may present other socially inept patterns such as:

1. Problematic conflict resolution — Does the child have trouble settling minor social disputes?  Do these disputes often result in aggression?  Will this child pick a fight over something trivial like where to sit on the school bus?

2. Poorly regulated humor — Is the child using the wrong kind of humor in the wrong place at the wrong time?  Will he make an offensive joke in front of a person of authority?  Does he try to be a clown during serious moments in class?

3. Poor social memory — Does the child have trouble learning from past social experiences?  Is he repeating negative behaviors even though they have offended people in the past?

Rifka Schonfeld

The Blowing Of The Shofar In Sholom Aleichem And The Dybbuk

Wednesday, October 5th, 2011

The World of Sholom Aleichem and The Dybbuk

Released on DVD: September 27, 2011

Archive of American Television



The blast of the shofar ends one of the most dramatic scenes in “The Dybbuk,” directed by Sidney Lumet, in which a rabbinical court excommunicates a dybbuk, while the same sound of the shofar opens the “Sholom Aleichem” story of Bontche Schweig, announcing the Job-like character’s arrival in heaven.


“The Dybbuk,” which was broadcast in 1960 on David Susskind’s syndicated TV series “The Play of the Week,” and “Bontche Schweig,” which along with Sholom Aleichem’s “Tale of Chelm” and “The High School” aired on the same show in 1959, have recently been released on DVD on eOne Home Video, just in time for the High Holidays.


Each DVD runs about two hours, and if one purchases both, one should be forewarned that it’s so hard to tear oneself away that one might as well block out four hours to watch both. In between the static lines of the old broadcasts, which lend both DVDs an authentic and antique aura, all four tales have elements of humor intertwined with sobering messages. (Perhaps the Chelm tales touch less on serious subjects than the others, but while one laughs at the Chelmites, it’s hard not to feel protective of them too.)



At the core of “The Dybbuk” is the often blurry boundary between the worlds of the living and the dead. Particularly in the High Holiday period leading up to the Yizkor memorial service for loved ones who have passed away, it’s easy to identify with Leah, daughter of the wealthy Sender, who flees from her bridegroom (who might just have wandered off the Chelm set) to the cemetery to conjure her lost love, the kabbalist and recently deceased Channon.


Whether it is Channon’s dybbuk which enters Leah or whether she herself invites her beloved’s memory into herself, Leah causes such a disturbance shunning her bridegroom that she is marched to the rabbi of a neighboring village to be exorcised. William Friedkin’s “The Exorcist” (1973) has Georgetown as its backdrop-particularly that ominous flight of stairs, which has become such a pilgrimage site to fans-but the Dybbuk’s setting is far less glamorous. This is the shtetl, where old wives share bubba meises galore. But the rabbinic court is serious business, and the consulted rabbi even enlists the help of his own rabbi.


Many tallitot, black candles, white shrouds and Torah scrolls later, Channon is ordered to depart.  As the shofar is blown several times, Channon-possessed-Leah squirms and then seems to have a full-blown seizure. This shofar blowing has nothing to do with calling anyone to repentance; it’s an all-out battle cry summoning the angels of the heavens to lay siege to the dybbuk threatening Leah.


The shofars that herald the arrival of Bontche Schweig in heaven-in grand Shakespearean fashion, we are told early and often about the grand hero long before he actually arrives on set-are far more celebratory than those in dybbuk. (Though, it’s worth noting, both have at least one tekiyah gedola, as well as the other usual notes.)


Although the word on the heavenly street is that Bontche is so grand that even the forefather Avraham needs to be summoned to greet him, the recently deceased Bontche (we never know what brought about his end) turns out to be a kopek-a-dozen kind of guy, rather than the larger than life hero who had been announced. Bontche is dressed like a beggar, but the defending angel soon reveals that he has not said a word in his entire life, despite having suffered far greater troubles than even Iyov.


The prosecuting angel gets a few objections in-the divine court, it turns out, doesn’t allow similes, metaphors or rhetoric, just facts-but one pitiful look from Bontche silences him, and he offers no rebuttal to the defense angel’s opening remarks. This spectacle makes a deep impression on the court, and Bontche is offered not only eternal life, but also any prize he desires. All of the heavens are his, the court tells him, and all he must do is name what his heart desires. After living his entire life mute, Bontche finally opens his mouth, and his request is quite surprising, to say the least.


The shofar is hardly more than a prop in the Bontche Schweig story, and it’s not a huge part of “The Dybbuk,” but the two broadcasts highlight two different sides of the shofar.


The shofar is all about the symbolism of transitions from beginnings to endings. The shofar marks the beginning of Bontche’s life after death (so it’s simultaneously a beginning and an end for him), and it plays an integral part in Channon’s death after death. It also marks a major change in Leah, who struggles with the paralyzing choice of joining her beloved in death or lingering without him among the living.


Both performances do well to couch the shofar in veils of both gravity and humor. The sound of the shofar has often been said to resemble the wailing of a child. Of course context is a vital factor. Someone else’s child crying beside you on a plane is hardly joyful, while one responds more tenderly to the cries of one’s relations (even if they can be annoying). In the hands of Sholom Aleichem, the shofar embodies a wide range of feelings: anticipation, promise, irony, humor, devastation and tragedy. Food for thought when we hear the blowing of the shofar this High Holiday period.


Menachem Wecker, who blogs on faith and art for the Houston Chronicle at http://blog.chron.com/iconia, welcomes comments at mwecker@gmail.com.

Menachem Wecker

Saying Hello Once Again, To Sholom Aleichem: Theodore Bikel Revives Tevye

Wednesday, January 7th, 2009

Sholom Aleichem: Laughter through TearsBy Theodore Bikel; Derek Goldman, director; Tamara Brooks and Merima Ključo, musicThrough January 18, 2009Theater J, the Washington DC JCC1529 Sixteenth Street, NW, Washingtonhttp://www.theaterj.org


Generally, sequels are best avoided. It should not have taken three remakes to prove that the first “Planet of the Apes” was more than enough, and the movie-going public would have been far better off without repeats of films like “Legally Blonde” and “Weekend at Bernie’s.” Therefore, seeing “Fiddler on the Roof Returns” or “Sholom Aleichem Strikes Back” on the shelf at your local movie rental shop should not inspire excitement – but in the capable hands of award-winning actor Theodore Bikel, Tevye’s return is anything but redundant. Bikel’s one-man production at the Washington DC JCC’s Theater J is so successful, because it not only looks back to the Eastern European shtetls but it finds timeless tales and lessons that still apply today.

Bikel’s world premiere of “Sholom Aleichem: Laughter through Tears,” which seamlessly blends his skills as a storyteller, dancer, singer, and actor, could have been a flop. The actor, 84, has played Tevye the milkman more than 2,000 times, and he could be easily be forgiven for developing a multiple personality disorder and believing he was Sholem Naumovich Rabinovich (1859-1916), who went by the pen name Sholom Aleichem. “In my work I deal in many things: in the memories of yesterday, the realities of today, the dreams of tomorrow,” Bikel notes at the beginning of the play. “My task is not to pretend to be someone else; it is to become that someone else. Harder to do when you portray an actual person, living or dead.”




Growing up, Bikel’s father used to read him Sholom Aleichem stories and plays in Yiddish every Tuesday night after dinner, so playing Tevye when he grew up was like “simply taking an old garment out of the closet, something I had not worn for a long time and, wonder of wonders, it was still a perfect fit.” Not only does the old garment fit Bikel perfectly, but Sholom Aleichem’s writing – however dated the statements are in their cultural and political references, like: “Tevye is not a woman, Tevye can restrain himself”- still rings true.

“I came to America because I thought this is the one place where Jews can have a life. But I was not prepared for what I found,” says Bikel as Sholom Aleichem. Instead of flowing milk and honey and streets paved with gold, Sholom Aleichem found tenements, diseases, and poverty when he arrived in New York. “Not much different from the old country you might think, but there is a big difference. Over there the oppressors were always the ‘Others,’ the nobles, and the Czar’s people. Here in America Jews are scrambling to make a meager living and most of the people who oppress – the landlords, the owners of shirt factories – are Jews, that’s the difference.” As headlines about Bernard Madoff continue to dominate the news, it is clear that a lack of Jewish loyalty in the new world remains a problem, even a century later.




Sholom Aleichem himself, one can imagine, would be thrilled with Bikel’s oscillation between sobering stories and observations and humorous tales. “Believe me, if you spent just one day in kheder, you would never forget,” Bikel declares before launching into a story about the teacher – a rabbi “whose only function is to teach children and whose only educational technique consists of whipping.” To a businessman who has just seen an important deal fall through, Bikel jokes, “What are you so worried about? Relax, G-d will help. And if he doesn’t, you have an uncle in America.” And perhaps the mama of all one-liners: “I guarantee you, go through world music, Russian, French, German, Greek – nowhere except in a Jewish song will you ever hear a mention of hemorrhoids.”

Beyond the jokes and the Yiddish songs, the early part of the play is a tease. The viewer knows Tevye is coming, but he makes a very late appearance, perhaps because of his “miserable excuse for a horse,” a “wretched beast” who moves when Tevye wants to pray and won’t budge when he bids it go. “When troubles descend on Tevye, they never come singly,” Bikel announces as Tevye, as he updates the audience on Tevye’s new troubles – more poverty, an apparent suicide, a profitable shidduch that goes bankrupt. Bikel cannot resist a bit of postmodern humor. “Maybe other people, too, will one day try their hand at giving my milkman a place on the stage. They might even make Tevye sing and dance, G-d forbid. No, they wouldn’t do that, would they?” he asks. “That would reduce Anatevka, paint it smaller, make it less than I intended. I would then become like the man whose leg was cut off and who keeps feeling for it in the place where the leg used to be.”



Theodore Bikel premieres his one-man show at Theater J.  All photos by Stan Barouh.

The question whether Broadway versions of “Fiddler on the Roof,” with their distinctly American flavor of nostalgia, trivialize shtetl life, is obviously subject to debate. Tevye has perhaps become the Jewish everyman that Willy Loman always wanted to be; attention has been paid. But the irony of the man who has all but become Tevye, impersonating the man who conceived Tevye, while calling into question the theatrical portrayal of Tevye, makes Bikel’s play is a must-see not only for what the actor has to say about Tevye, but for the mark Tevye has made on the actor.

Bikel tells of Sholom Aleichem’s meeting with Mark Twain – “Neither of us uses his real name; my nom de plume means hello, and his measures the depth of a river” – in which Sholom Aleichem told Twain, “some people have the temerity – our word for it is chutzpah – to call me the Yiddish Mark Twain!” Twain replied, “They are wrong,” he said. “I am the American Sholom Aleichem!” Hopefully Bikel will forgive the chutzpah in the not inappropriate comparison of the poignancy and brilliance of “Sholom Aleichem: Laughter through Tears” to another actor who is in his 80s and who has become Mark Twain in his own plays, Harold Rowe “Hal” Holbrook, Jr.

For more information about Theodore Bikel, visit his website at http://www.bikel.com/.

Menachem Wecker welcomes comments at mwecker@gmail.com. He is a painter and writer, and resides in Washington, D.C.

Menachem Wecker

Printed from: http://www.jewishpress.com/sections/arts//2009/01/07/

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