The Return of Menachem Mendel

Sholem Aleichem’s Stock Rises Again

By Joel Schechter

Published December 31, 2008, issue of January 09, 2009.
  • Print
  • Share Share

In a period of economic hardship, such as the one our country has entered, I find myself turning to Sholom Aleichem for consolation. His characters, particularly Tevye the Dairyman and hapless stock investor Menachem Mendel, suffer serious financial losses in Sholom Aleichem’s stories. But the author responds to their condition with great humor, and provides readers with a sense that this, too — the losses and trials of hard times — will pass, although right now they have returned in new form.

LAUGHTER IS THE BEST MEDICINE: Doctors may prescribe it, according to Sholem Aleichem, but bankers are yet to be convinced.
LAUGHTER IS THE BEST MEDICINE: Doctors may prescribe it, according to Sholem Aleichem, but bankers are yet to be convinced.

The comic Yiddish stories that Sholom Aleichem wrote a century ago reflected his own response to the suffering that Jews and others endured in Eastern Europe and then as immigrants in the United States, where he lived some of his later years. Born 150 years ago in Ukraine, he died in New York in 1916, where he was honored by tens of thousands attending his funeral procession.

As various bankers and corporate executives secure billions of dollars in loans from Washington, D.C., I can’t help but recall some of the language Sholom Aleichem’s Menachem Mendel employs when he loses his small fortune in the stock exchange. Current reports are not quite as graphic as Mendel’s description (from “The Letters of Menakhem-Mendel and Sheyne-Sheyndl,” translated by Hillel Halkin):

… The market has crashed just as futures, God help us, were being called. I’ll see the Messiah before I see my money again. Bismarck, they say, caught a cold and all politics went into panic. No one knows what tomorrow will bring… I should have made my move a day earlier. But go be a prophet! The dealers run around like chickens without their heads, you’ve never seen such pandemonium.

Not all the suffering Sholom Aleichem describes results from antisemitism, persecution or poverty. In the cases of both Menachem Mendel and Tevye (after Mendel talks the dairyman into investing 100 rubles with him), some of the losses are self-inflicted, a consequence of reckless financial decisions. The waywardness of men at the stock market, not just the ways of God, influences the outcome of business deals in these stories.

Menachem Mendel, in particular, has a knack for losing money on the stock exchange in Sholom Aleichem’s stories and plays. Although best known for the play “Fiddler on the Roof,” based on stories about Tevye, Sholom Aleichem also wrote a play about a stock market scandal that includes investor Mendel. Dreaming of great wealth, buying shares of stocks that bear such names as “London” and “Yaknehoz,” both in the play and stories Menachem Mendel loses far more than he gains. He loses not only money, but also his home life, as he travels from one exchange to another, from Odessa to Warsaw, and hears from his wife, Sheyne-Sheyndl, through only her letters. At one point, she declares that her foolish husband’s initials (M.M.) stand for “Market Maniac.” Sheyne-Sheyndl’s comic misunderstanding of the stock exchange leads the woman to refer to its “stockings” and “portfolderols,” in Hillel Halkin’s fine translation of the comedy. She may have the terms wrong, but at least she has the sense (that her husband lacks) to recognize the unreliability of the market.

The promised riches of which Mendel and Tevye dream turn out to be “false profits,” to use a pun from the lamentation of loss in another story. Sholom Aleichem depicts a few worshippers of these false profits, comic figures who misplace their faith in stockbrokers. The brokers, it turns out, are not prophets. No doubt the bittersweet comedy reflects Sholom Aleichem’s own experience of great financial loss from investments. He lost all he owned in an 1890 market crash. If there is a lesson in his stock exchange stories, it is that the free market is not risk free, and not the messiah. (If you are like Mendel, you’ll see the messiah before you get your money back again.)

Today we may need a contemporary Sholom Aleichem around to chronicle current financial debacles, but we also can go back to his original stories. The times have not completely changed. In a concluding letter to Sheyne-Sheyndl, Menachem Mendel reports: “I’m off to America, my dear wife! A whole crowd is travelling with me…. Everyone says that in America, God willing, I’ll be a big hit.” Mendel still may be alive in America, or else his descendents are, trying to find those elusive streets paved with gold.

Joel Schechter is professor of theater arts at San Francisco State University, and author of a book about American Yiddish theater, “Messiahs of 1933: How American Yiddish Theatre Survived Adversity Through Satire” (Temple University Press, 2008).


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • What the foolish rabbi of Chelm teaches us about Israel and the Palestinian unity deal:
  • Mazel tov to Idina Menzel on making Variety "Power of Women" cover! http://jd.fo/f3Mms
  • "How much should I expect him and/or ask him to participate? Is it enough to have one parent reciting the prayers and observing the holidays?" What do you think?
  • New York and Montreal have been at odds for far too long. Stop the bagel wars, sign our bagel peace treaty!
  • Really, can you blame them?
  • “How I Stopped Hating Women of the Wall and Started Talking to My Mother.” Will you see it?
  • Taglit-Birthright Israel is redefining who they consider "Jewish" after a 17% drop in registration from 2011-2013. Is the "propaganda tag" keeping young people away?
  • Happy birthday William Shakespeare! Turns out, the Bard knew quite a bit about Jews.
  • Would you get to know racists on a first-name basis if you thought it might help you prevent them from going on rampages, like the recent shooting in Kansas City?
  • "You wouldn’t send someone for a math test without teaching them math." Why is sex ed still so taboo among religious Jews?
  • Russia's playing the "Jew card"...again.
  • "Israel should deal with this discrimination against Americans on its own merits... not simply as a bargaining chip for easy entry to the U.S." Do you agree?
  • For Moroccan Jews, the end of Passover means Mimouna. Terbhou ou Tse'dou! (good luck) How do you celebrate?
  • Calling all Marx Brothers fans!
  • What's it like to run the Palestine International Marathon as a Jew?
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.