The Kiev of Sholem Aleichem

July 26, 2019 | Allan Arkush
About the author: Allan Arkush is the senior contributing editor of the Jewish Review of Books and professor of Judaic studies and history at Binghamton University.

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.

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