The idea of “laughing through tears” has been central to Sholem Aleichem’s reputation for more than a century. Motl is no exception. From its opening pages, weeping and eyes play important symbolic roles. His father dies on the holiday of Shavuos when, as Motl’s brother reminds the family, they are not allowed to cry. This doesn’t stop their mother. She is crying when readers first encounter her, and continues to cry across the two volumes, alternately moving, annoying, and worrying her family. As they prepare to leave for America, the state of her eyes, swollen and red from weeping, becomes a focal point because they know that United States immigration officials check eye health. (The immigration officials looked for signs of trachoma, a bacterial eye disease.) These symbols also give us access to another key aspect of Sholem Aleichem’s style, his engagement with traditional Jewish texts, interpreting and misinterpreting them for both comic effect and to make ethical points. When Motl’s mother weeps, she recalls two other Jewish mothers known for their eyes and tears: the biblical matriarchs Rachel and Leah. These resources allow students to create a dialogue among Motl, the narrative of Genesis, the prophecies of Jeremiah, and two rabbinic sources—the medieval French commentator Rashi (1040–1105) and Joseph Hertz (1872–1946), Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom from 1913 until 1946.
Suggested Activities: Your use of these resources can be structured in three ways: around the figure of Leah, around the figure of Rachel, or comparing both.
Option 1 (Leah-centered): Read the text from Genesis 29 as a class, in groups or in pairs. Provide students with background on Rachel and Leah, if necessary. Ask students what distinguishes the two sisters in this passage. Zero in on Leah’s “weak eyes.” What do students think this means? What do we learn about Leah from this description? How does this compare with the attitudes of Motl and his brother toward their mother’s “weak eyes”—her constant weeping? If her tears echo Leah’s “weak eyes,” what does this add to her character?
Now ask students to look at the glosses offered by Rashi and the Targum Onkelos. How do they understand Leah’s “weak eyes”? Are they a positive or negative attribute? What might motivate them to read Leah’s “weak eyes” in this way? Does this context affect your understanding of Motl’s mother’s tears?
Option 2 (Rachel-centered): This passage comes from the book of Jeremiah, a prophet writing in the wake of the destruction of the First Temple and the Babylonian Exile (c. 586 BCE). Here, he imagines the biblical matriarch Rachel looking on at the destruction of his own time.
Ask students to read Jeremiah 31:15. Why is Rachel weeping? How would you describe her tears? How does this compare with the tears shed by Motl’s mother—in intensity, duration, or cause? Is Sholem Aleichem making a comparison between the history of ancient Israel and early twentieth century European Jews? Now ask students to read Jeremiah 31:16–17. Why should Rachel stop weeping? Does this affect our understanding of any historical comparisons between Jeremiah’s time and Motl’s?
Option 3 (comparative focus): Have students read and discuss the sources as above. (You may wish to abbreviate this discussion for the sake of time by being selective about texts and questions.) Pose an important comparative question to your students: Who is Motl’s mother, a Leah or a Rachel? Do we understand the nature of tears differently depending on her biblical model? What has Sholem Aleichem added to her character by connecting her to these figures from Jewish tradition?