As we read the many lighthearted stories of Sholem Aleichem today, it’s easy to see them partly as historical documentation of the adversity and social ostracism faced by Eastern European Jews around the turn of the 20th-century. So, why would a 21st-century Jew want to go back there?
It’s because Kasrilevke wasn’t just a canvas on which to paint the suffering of a people. Sholem Aleichem created his fictional shtetl and its unceasingly vibrant residents —including Tevye, whom you might remember from “Fiddler on the Roof” — with a huge heart, and an eye for everything beautiful that can exist within darkness. In the Pale of Settlement everyone had a story to tell, but the problem was that they had no voice. Sholem Aleichem, the Jewish Mark Twain, gave that voice back to them, and he never stopped celebrating the genuine joy of living. In Kasrilevke, I’d probably eat a little bread and soup, drink some wine, never have enough money, and struggle to make it through each day — but I’d never stop laughing about it.