KPBS AIRDATE: December 16, 1992
Sholem Aleichem means “Peace be with You.” But it also means Solomon Rabinowitz. Sholem Aleichem was the pen name for one of the most literate, humorous and revered of Jewish poets and writers. Born in 1859 near Kiev in Russia , he died in New York in 1916. The name Sholem Aleichem may sound foreign, but you’re probably more familiar with him than you think; he’s the one who gave us the wonderful character Tevye, who inspired “Fiddler on the Roof.”
Tevye makes an appearance in Nehemiah Persoff’s wonderful one-man show. It isn’t the story of Tevye’s daughters and the matchmaker; it’s about how he got to be a dairyman.
This is one of five delightful tales that make up a warm-hearted — heimish, as they say in the old country — evening of storytelling called, simply, “Sholem Aleichem.” In a basic setting of stately chair and samovar of tea, Persoff regales us with timeless tales of the poor Jews of Czarist Russia.
There’s the humorous one about the Mayers and the Shnayers, a set of twins no one can tell apart. They get along famously until their father dies and leaves just one coveted seat in the synagogue, over which the twins fight until crisis — and the Rabbi — intervenes.
Then there’s the one about an 1800-ruble theft in the synagogue on Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the year, when no one carries money, of course.
After the Tevye scene, two short pieces follow the intermission. “My Son the Lottery Ticket” is reminiscent of an episode in “Fiddler,” when the youngest daughter, Chava, falls in love with a Russian. Here, too, a child strays from the fold, and a family grieves as if he is dead. It’s the most gut-wrenching piece in the show.
The last segment is the weakest, and it leaves us anti-climactically. It’s not quite funny, or touching or enlightening. Any one of the other stories would have made a stronger ending.
There are some problems with the structure of the whole show, which was edited and adapted by Mr. Persoff. At first, you think he is Sholem Aleichem. He turns out to be merely a narrator who tells us about Sholem Aleichem. But not much. This is more the stories than the man, although a combination of the two would make an even more staisfying theatrical event.
Where Persoff excels, shines, is luminous, is in skipping animatedly from character to character, setting up the imaginary village of Kasirilivka, and introducing us to its lively, colorful inhabitants, who drift in and out of the various pieces.
This material, these characters, this culture, was bred in the bone for Persoff. He wears it as comfortably as an old prayer shawl, capturing the nuance, the rhythm, the “tam” or taste of an era and a people. You don’t need to understand Yiddish to appreciate it, no more than you did in “Fiddler.” But if you do, it makes the experience that much more rich and nourishing.
Amid the vast smorgasbord of Christmas goodies, “Sholem Aleichem” is like a sweet little platter of rugelach. A change of pace and place. It would make a delicious Chanamas present.
I’m Pat Launer, for KPBS radio.
©1992 Patté Productions Inc.