Limmud FSU Celebrates Sholem Aleichem’s 150th Birthday

Limmud FSU Kicks-Off the ‘Year of Sholem Aleichem’ with Events in Ukraine, Tel Aviv and New York

sa-ukr-photo-3-2-09Elegant, humble, and gracious, 97-year-old Bel Kaufman regaled congregants at New York Synagogue this week with poignant stories and remembrances of her grandfather, Sholem Aleichem, famed Russian-Jewish humorist and author of Yiddish literature.

“I remember him with humor and warmth,” she said of her grandfather, 150 years after his birth. “He wanted us to enjoy life despite his own difficulties. He taught us to walk on our hands. He played games, and he made us laugh.”

At the special Shabbat event March 7 honoring Aleichem, universally known as the “Jewish Mark Twain,” Congressman Jerrold Nadler paid special tribute. He explained that Sholem Aleichem stories were part of his childhood. “My father read them to me. They taught me about the world of Eastern Europe, the world of my grandparents, a civilization that no loner exists. These stories set the standard for Yiddish literature,” he said.

Aleichem’s novels, short stories, and plays have been widely translated around the world. His Tevye the Milkman was the first commercially successful English-language play about Eastern European Jewish life, and the 1964 musical Fiddler on the Roof was loosely based on his stories.

Kaufman, herself a distinguished writer, accepted a federal proclamation honoring Sholem Aleichem and a proclamation from New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, presented by Sandra F. Cahn, co-founder of Limmud FSU. The event was part of a special Limmud FSU International Tribute celebrating Sholem Aleichem, his life and his literary contributions and accomplishments.

The 150th birthday celebrations were launched outside of Kiev, in Pereyaslav- Khmelnitsky, the birthplace of Sholem Aleichem. The occasion was also marked in Tel Aviv before concluding in New York. Limmud FSU, which organizes events of Jewish learning for Russian-speaking Jews in the former Soviet Union and in Israel, chose Sholem Aleichem and his legacy as the central theme for its 2009 events, including Limmud FSU Moscova in April, mega Limmud FSU conference in Jerusalem in July, and a conference in Ukraine in November. “The New York Synagogue was greatly honored to host such a momentous occasion and to be part of this international celebration culminating in the very city where Sholom Aleichem spent the last years of his life,” explained Rabbi Marc Schneier.

Limmud FSU’s Sholem Aleichem tribute events began March 2, when Limmud FSU convened 50 young activists from the Kiev Jewish community to mark the 150th birthday of the writer who is considered the father of Jewish humor. The group celebrated the event with a birthday cake with 150 candles and visited the Sholem Aleichem museum in Pereyaslav-Khmelnitsky.

“Sholem Aleichem was an important figure in world literature and a central part of the Jewish literary heritage,” said Chaim Chesler, founder of Limmud FSU. “As the father of Jewish humor, he influenced many later writers and continues to be a source of inspiration for Jewish humorists today. That’s why we have decided to devote our educational events over the coming year to his works.”

Chesler also said that through learning about the works of Sholem Aleichem, Russian-speaking Jews in Israel and the FSU would be able to connect to the rich Jewish cultural tradition his works represent.

Limmud FSU also held an event March 5 in Beit Shalom Aleichem in Tel Aviv with Mayor Ron Huldai. The writer’s birthday was celebrated with approximately 200 Limmud FSU volunteers from all over Israel, including a large group of young Russian-speaking Jews from Ashkelon, the coastal city often the target of terrorist missile fire. Shmulik Atzmon, founder of the Yiddishshpiel Theater, accompanied by his daughter Anat Atzmon, presented selected pieces from Sholem Aleichem’s work.

“Limmud FSU is made up of the young Russian-speaking Jewish volunteers who exude so much energy,” Limmud FSU Chair Matthew Bronfman said at the Tel Aviv event. “The events that Limmud FSU holds are not the actual goal. The idea is to light a spark that is preserved by the lasting connections with and among the activists, so that spark will become a genuine flame. Limmud FSU connects people from different backgrounds and age groups. That’s the most important and most wonderful thing about this organization – the pluralism that each and every one can connect to. I am grateful for the opportunity to be part of this wonderful organization.”

Limmud FSU organizes gatherings of Jewish pluralistic learning to empower young Jewish adults who are revitalizing the Jewish communities and culture in the former Soviet Union and Israel. In addition, Limmud FSU seeks to enable Russian-speaking Jews in Israel to reconnect with their Jewish heritage and traditions through events of Jewish learning.

Limmud FSU relies on an active body of volunteers who are the leaders and participants in its activities in Israel and the FSU.

image: Sholem Aleichem’s birthplace in Pereyaslav- Khmelnitsky, outside of Kiev.

Marcia P. Neeley, a strategic communications advisor, is the former Executive Director of Marketing & Communications, UJA-Federation of New York, responsible for shaping the public profile of the organization and presenting its complex and diverse programs and projects to multiple audiences, through broad-based media and communications initiatives locally and internationally, including the former Soviet Union, Argentina, and Israel. Marcia previously contibuted a series of articles to us on last fall’s Limmud in Yalta.