The Kiev of Sholem Aleichem

July 26 2019

In the fictional works of Sholem Aleichem, the Ukrainian city where he lived for much of his adult life appears frequently under the name Yehupets. Allan Arkush, reflecting on his grandparents’ occasional reminiscences of life in Kiev’s environs, sums up the history of the city’s Jewish community:

There had been a small Jewish community in Kiev in the early 19th century, . . . but it had been exiled in 1835 when the city was officially excluded from the Pale of Settlement. Reforms introduced by Tsar Alexander II reopened the city to limited Jewish settlement in 1859, and from then on Jews from all over the Pale strove incessantly to make their way, legally or not, into the newly burgeoning economic center. Some, like the famous sugar magnate Lazar Brodsky, prospered mightily; others just managed to hang on.

The community’s leaders constructed hospitals, synagogues, and schools, and they acculturated quite rapidly. The Jews’ increasingly visible presence in the city led to accusations that they were attempting to dominate it, which fed into the pogroms of 1881 and 1905. Just how many Jews lived in Kiev by 1914 is difficult to say since so many of them were there illegally, but there may have been as many as 75,000, a number that would have made them one-sixth of the total population.

But the city was not exactly a literary capital. “[I]n 1890, it had only 38 bookstores compared to Moscow’s 205, Warsaw’s 137, and Odessa’s 68. Even [the shtetl of] Saratov had more bookshops than Kiev!” [states one history]. In a letter to the Yiddish and Hebrew writer Mendele Mokher Sforim, Sholem Aleichem sought to explain the obliviousness of the city’s Jews to the latter’s works: “You have forgotten that Yehupets is not Odessa. In Yehupets, even if someone bursts, he will die a cruel death trying to find a copy of [your novels] Fishke the Lame and The Nag—they are not to be found. This hole which is Yehupets, may it go up in flames!”

Three years after Sholem Aleichem wrote this letter, in the revolutionary year of 1905, things did indeed go up in flames, and he himself fled to New York. But bad as 1905 was, it was nothing compared with what was yet to come.

Read more at Jewish Review of Books

More about: Kiev, Mendele Mokher Seforim, Russian Jewry, Sholem Aleichem, Yiddish literature


When It Comes to Peace with Israel, Many Saudis Have Religious Concerns

Sept. 22 2023

While roughly a third of Saudis are willing to cooperate with the Jewish state in matters of technology and commerce, far fewer are willing to allow Israeli teams to compete within the kingdom—let alone support diplomatic normalization. These are just a few results of a recent, detailed, and professional opinion survey—a rarity in Saudi Arabia—that has much bearing on current negotiations involving Washington, Jerusalem, and Riyadh. David Pollock notes some others:

When asked about possible factors “in considering whether or not Saudi Arabia should establish official relations with Israel,” the Saudi public opts first for an Islamic—rather than a specifically Saudi—agenda: almost half (46 percent) say it would be “important” to obtain “new Israeli guarantees of Muslim rights at al-Aqsa Mosque and al-Haram al-Sharif [i.e., the Temple Mount] in Jerusalem.” Prioritizing this issue is significantly more popular than any other option offered. . . .

This popular focus on religion is in line with responses to other controversial questions in the survey. Exactly the same percentage, for example, feel “strongly” that “our country should cut off all relations with any other country where anybody hurts the Quran.”

By comparison, Palestinian aspirations come in second place in Saudi popular perceptions of a deal with Israel. Thirty-six percent of the Saudi public say it would be “important” to obtain “new steps toward political rights and better economic opportunities for the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza.” Far behind these drivers in popular attitudes, surprisingly, are hypothetical American contributions to a Saudi-Israel deal—even though these have reportedly been under heavy discussion at the official level in recent months.

Therefore, based on this analysis of these new survey findings, all three governments involved in a possible trilateral U.S.-Saudi-Israel deal would be well advised to pay at least as much attention to its religious dimension as to its political, security, and economic ones.

Read more at Washington Institute for Near East Policy

More about: Islam, Israel-Arab relations, Saudi Arabia, Temple Mount