Sholem Aleichem’s living legacy

Ken Kaufman scans through the many volumes of his great-grandfather Sholem Aleichem’s works that can be found in the Ohr Kodesh Congregation’s Salzberg Library. Photo by Suzanne Pollak
Ken Kaufman scans through the many volumes of his great-grandfather Sholem Aleichem’s works that can be found in the Ohr Kodesh Congregation’s Salzberg Library.
Photo by Suzanne Pollak

The fruit from Sholem Aleichem’s family tree continue to make serious contributions to the world of the arts, with writers of books, songs, magazine articles, comedy sketches and even a copyright lawyer who deals with creative writers.

The great Yiddish writer and storyteller, most famous for his short stories featuring Tevye the dairyman, is like the gift that keeps on giving as his stories continue to be read and performed. A 2011 documentary, Sholem Aleichem: Laughing in the Darkness, by Joseph Dorman, will be shown Saturday night at Ohr Kodesh Congregation in Chevy Chase, which just happens to boast as one of its members Aleichem’s great-grandson.

Ken Kaufman doesn’t remember his prolific ancestor. After all, his father was not even born until four years after the 1916 death of Aleichem. But his great-grandfather’s legacy lives on, thanks to Kaufman and other relatives, including his 102-year-old aunt Bel Kaufman, author of Up the Down Staircase.

“It’s a heritage and a legacy I think everyone in the family is very proud of.”

Kaufman, an attorney at Mannatt, Phelps & Phelps in D.C., represents writers, song writers and others involved in the television and photography industry. He recently took over the family role of producing Aleichem’s yahrzeit. In his will, Aleichem requested that each year on the anniversary of his death, his 10-paragraph will be read aloud along with one of his stories, preferably a merry one.

The family has happily complied, but in the beginning, the readings took place before a relatively small group of family members and friends. About a dozen years ago, the ceremony was moved to The Brotherhood Synagogue in New York and took on a more theatrical approach. At that time, Kaufman’s father and his Aunt Bel took charge. For the past three or four years, Kaufman and a cousin have taken over.

“We have been blessed by the most talented people,” Kaufman said, noting that in this year’s ceremony six months ago, actor Theodore Bikel, who portrayed Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof for many years, read the will aloud in Yiddish. Several other famous people, including Curt Leviant, who translated many of Aleichem’s stories from Yiddish to English, also read.

While more than 300 people attended the most recent yahrzeit, Kaufman said it remains an invitation-only private event. “We do want to keep it a family event.”

Kaufman has been caught by the family’s creativity bug. He described himself as “a composer on the side.” His father also is a songwriter.

Kaufman’s two children also are creative. “They both feel very connected to their great-great grandfather,” he said of his children who are graduates of The Jewish Primary Day School. His son, David, is a freshman at Harvard and is involved in comedy writing and storytelling. His daughter, Kara, attended Brown University and currently works for an environmental nonprofit, where she does a great deal of writing.

Kaufman explained that while Aleichem is known as a Yiddish writer, that was not his native language. He was born in Pereyaslav, in what is now Ukraine, and spoke Russian. He went on to master six more languages during his life. But Aleicheim chose to write in Yiddish. “He wanted universal appeal. He decided to write in Yiddish to communicate with the people of the shtetl of Eastern Europe,” Kaufman says.

Alechem’s first story was published in 1883 when he was 23 years old. He went on to publish “over 40 volumes, novels, stories, plays. My father and aunt have many, many volumes of his work in many different languages,” he said. Besides Aleichem’s writing, some of it in his own handwriting, Kaufman’s father also has the metal pen Aleichem wrote with. “It was something you had to dip into ink.”

Kaufman clearly cherishes Aleichem’s stories and can summarize so many of them off the top of his head. As a child, “We read them from time to time, but it wasn’t like every night,” he explained.

“His stories expressed themes that are sometimes very poignant or touching or sad, through humor. His characters were poor, full of hardships, but his stories make you laugh,” Kaufman said.

He pointed to one story in which the characters discuss types of funerals — including the “gold-plated one with stallions.” That was the best funeral. Of another type, Kaufman recalled, “It’s pouring rain. You have an old mule that can barely walk.”

That was a typical story, according to Kaufman, in that it reflected a reality that most of the people who read his stories could barely afford a funeral, yet it wasn’t a sad story. “He touches a common nerve. They are very funny, but they reflect the reality,” Kaufman said of his great-grandfather’s tales.

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