On May 4, a crowd of nearly 200 packed into the community hall of the Brotherhood Synagogue, located on the posh, southern edge of New York’s Gramercy Park. A young-looking man with closely cropped black hair, a matching goatee and black-rimmed glasses stepped to the bima, in front of the holy ark, and welcomed the assembled to the yahrzeit of his great-grandfather — the legendary Yiddish writer Sholom Aleichem.
Robert Waife, a Shelter Island boat-builder and dancer of the Argentinean tango, acknowledged the other members of his family in attendance — from the doyenne Bel Kaufman, herself the author of the noted novel “Up the Down Staircase,” to 18-year-old Brad Rothenberg, a Connecticut high-school senior. Then he introduced the lineup of actors who, for the next hour, regaled the mostly white-haired audience with humorous selections from the Sholom Aleichem canon. All this with his great-grandfather’s approval.
On the day after his funeral in 1916, Sholom Aleichem’s will appeared in the pages of The New York Times and was read into the congressional record. Called “one of the greatest ethical wills in history,” it contained burial directives, charges to his children and specific instructions as to the commemoration of the anniversary of his death. He told his friends and family to gather, “read my will, and also select one of my stories, one of the very merry ones, and recite it in whatever language is most intelligible to you.” “Let my name be recalled with laughter,” he added, “or not at all.”
The annual commemoration began as a parlor affair, celebrated in the home of the writer’s widow with a coterie of friends. Mitchell Waife, Robert’s father and Sholom Aleichem’s grandson, who has been attending these yahrzeits since his infancy, recalls the smaller gatherings of the early years. “It actually wasn’t for the general public,” he said. “It was mainly for Yiddish writers and the family. Since it was in someone’s house, you couldn’t have huge crowds.” He remembered the presence of Yiddish literary figures such as David Pinsky and H. Leivick, as well as an appearance by Marc Chagall during the war years. He noted that as the event has moved from living rooms to public halls, the audience has “gotten larger, and become more of a cosmopolitan and universal group.”
This year’s audience sat in rows of molded-plastic chairs in the Brotherhood Synagogue community hall, in front of folding tables overlaid with paper tablecloths and covered with a feast of cookies and cream soda. They listened to “Three Calendars” and “Shmulik the Orphan,” tales of blue-postcard peddlers and buried treasure respectively, told alternately in English and Yiddish. Eleanor Reissa, actress and former artistic director of the Folksbiene Theatre, read from an English translation of “No Luck,” her brash characterization of a luckless diamond merchant eliciting peals of laughter from the crowd. David Rogow, a celebrated actor first of the Vilna stage and then of the Folksbiene, performing in his 34th yahrzeit, read a summary of “The Advice” in faltering English, then launched into a rapid-fire Yiddish recitation. The assembly seemed to appreciate the tonal music of his voice, even if the words themselves were lost on many.
“There’s a little bit of a debate in the family about how much Yiddish there should be,” said Robert Waife. “Even though people don’t understand it, it’s still good for them to hear. I’m looking for ways to make it more accessible, maybe a handout of the story, a translation of transliteration.”
Over the past five years, Robert Waife and his cousin Kenneth Kaufman have taken over the leadership of the festivities. Crediting the publicity skills of Bel Kaufman for the blossoming of the event into a full-blown happening, they considered how to shepherd this gathering of “the oldest living crowd in New York” into the new millennium. Robert Waife is confident. “I think the future of the event is pretty well assured,” he said. “I think people, as they get older, ask themselves: ‘Where am I from? How did I get here?’ If you’re Jewish and your grandparents or great-grandparents are from Eastern Europe, Sholom Aleichem is the answer to that question.”
Already, the next generation is stepping forward. Audrey Marcus, 29, is a great-great-granddaughter of Sholom Aleichem. Formerly the museum educator for public programs at the Museum of Jewish Heritage–A Living Memorial to the Holocaust and now a rabbinical student in Philadelphia, Marcus appreciates the significance of the yahrzeit both as a familial bequest and a cultural event. “It’s very moving to think that it has been going on for 87 years, every single year, according to his wishes,” she said. “I think it’s very moving that it draws a significant number of people each year.” Marcus hopes to be involved in assuring the continuity of the gathering. “Robert and I,” she said, “have talked about how to get the younger generations involved and attending the event. I want to be taking on more of a role, as a representative of the youngest generation that there is right now.”
As the crowd enjoyed a noisy nosh at the folding tables, Mitchell Waife reflected on his son Robert’s efforts on behalf of the Sholom Aleichem legacy, which have included the pro bono handling of reprints, reissues and the family Web site. “It’s in good hands,” he said. “Not too many authors can say the same.” And Bel Kaufman waxed rhapsodic, the low, proud, poised voice of the grand dame cutting through the chatter of the room. “Lately I passed the torch to the younger generation,” she said, “and they’re doing beautifully. And Sholom Aleichem remains. Whoever does the reading, the stories remain as a grand tribute to him. And the laughter of the audience justifies this. That’s what he wanted. We are remembering him with laughter, aren’t we?”
Benjamin Weiner is a writer and rabbinical student at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College.