I just saw a wonderful documentary called Sholem aleichem: Laughing in the Darkness. It traces the life and work of the great humorist, who’s been called “The Yiddish Mark Twain.” His short stories inspired the fabulous musical and film Fiddler on the Roof.
What struck me most about Sholem’s Life? Three things: First, his endless wellspring of creativity and stories: He would write constantly — at home, while walking, standing on line. Apparently, he always had a pencil and paper with him, just in case. Second, his alchemist’s the gift for transforming everyday events and experiences into heart-warming tales with universal appeal. And finally, his courageous decision to stay true to his roots and to write in Yiddish instead of Hebrew or Russian.
By writing in his first, less formal language, Sholem singlehandedly gave birth to a rich, yeasty new literature. It also enabled him to blend humor and heartbreak in a way that made many of his tales unforgettable. I wonder if Frank McCourt had any of these stories in mind when he penned Angela’s Ashes? For me it’s this same unique mix of tragedy and comedy that made his memoir so powerful. Who knows? Perhaps he borrowed a leaf from the Yiddish master!
So often, we’re tempted to abandon our roots and take flight. Yet it’s those very roots that give us wings. How can we find ways to stay connected to our earliest longings and experiences without sacrificing everything we’ve learned along the way? Maybe Sholem and Frank have something to teach us.