5: Autobiographical novel excerpt, Sholem Aleichem’s "Back from the Fair: Descriptions of Life," 1915, Yiddish with translation.
Sholem Aleichem, the Yiddish author most well-known for his Tevye stories, reminisces about the lax attitudes of the kheyder students and the corporal punishments they regularly received, in this excerpt from his novel Funem yarid, inspired by his own life. Such memories of pain and punishment in kheyder are common in Yiddish literature, whose authors, though they would be the harbingers of a modern Jewish secular culture, were often raised in a traditional environment and received schooling in Torah and Talmud.
Suggested activity: Ask students to compare their experiences in Hebrew or Jewish day school (or any religious school) with those described in such reminiscences of kheyder. Did their first exposure to Torah or traditional religious learning interest them or bore them? Do they remember instances of unfair treatment from their teachers? How did they feel about this education in the moment, and how has their reflection on it changed since then? It may be amusing to note that “kheyder,” as an allusion to the grueling, morning-to-evening routine of the classroom, is also Yiddish slang for “prison.”
Source: Source: Sholem Aleichem, Funem yarid: lebns-bashraybungen (Back from the Fair: Descriptions of Life) (New York: Nyu-yorker arbeter ring- mitlshul [New York Workmen’s Circle High School], 1940), 35-36, trans. Michael Yashinsky, 2016. Yiddish original digitized by the Yiddish Book Center as part of its Steven Spielberg Digital Yiddish Library, accessed December 10, 2015, https://archive.org/details/nybc210436.