The first live theatre I recall attending was a performance of “The World of Sholem Aleichem,” nearly 65 years ago. I was absolutely mesmerized by what was transpiring on stage, and fell in love with both his characters and the actors – especially Zero Mostel, Jack Gilford, Sam Levene and Lee Grant – who brought his “world” to life. I remember returning home and heading straight for our library, only to discover that -Eureka! – we actually had a copy of the book upon which the play was based.
Over the years, I read just about everything Sholem Aleichem (Solomon Rabinowitz) had written, and eventually began developing a one-man show in which I portrayed “the Jewish Mark Twain” to the best of my tragicomic ability. Before too long, I found myself performing a couple of times a month, always tweaking and (hopefully) improving my one-man show.
By the early 1980s, I had appeared as Sholem Aleichem a couple of hundred times everywhere from California and Mississippi to Sydney, Tel Aviv and London. Then, one day, shortly after relocating to South Florida, I appeared in Plantation. After the show, an elegant, wonderfully turned-out woman of about 75 came up to me and told me how much she had enjoyed the performance. I smiled, thanked her, and started to return to the green room.
“How long have you been performing as Sholem Aleichem?” she asked.
“Oh, about 12 or 13 years,” I answered.
“And how many performances would you say you’ve done in all that time?” she queried.
“Ah!” I thought, “perhaps she wants to hire me.” I was about to hand her my agent’s card when she then asked, “And, on average, how much do you get for a performance – minus travel expenses?”
Doing a quick bit of mental math, I came up with a figure that even impressed me ever so slightly. I awaited her next question, which I assumed would be about future availability.
Boy, was I ever wrong. For what she said next almost caused me to drop dead on the spot from myocardial infarction:
“It seems to me that you owe me (and here she named a price well beyond my means) for use of the name and image of Sholem Aleichem.” She looked serious. I felt a pounding in my chest.
“How is that possible?” I asked weakly.
“You never asked my permission!”
Then, it dawned on me: the women I was talking to had to be Sholem Aleichem’s sole surviving heir, the writer Bel Kaufman. She must have read my mind and recognized when I figured out who she was, because at precisely that moment, she got an elfin twinkle in her eye.
“Ms. Kaufman, I presume?”
“Indeed!” she said. “I really had you going, didn’t I?”
“You almost killed me,” I said.
“How would you like to help spend zayde’s gelt (Yiddish for “grandpa’s money”)?
“I thought he was broke when he died,” I responded.
“He was,” Bel said. “But in the more than 60 years since his death, he’s become a millionaire due to royalties. Would you like to join the advisory board of the Sholem Aleichem Foundation and help spend it?”
I couldn’t answer “Of Course!” quickly enough. Bel and I went out to lunch . . . then dinner . . . then lunch the next day. And when she got back to New York, she had the Foundation stationary remade . . . it now included my name.
Bel died a mere three years ago . . . at age 103. She was the last person who actually knew Sholem Aleichem in life . . . and saved me – her father’s imitator – from suffering a severe cardiac event.
Oh, how I miss Bel . . .
Kurt F. Stone, D.D.
An Evening with Sholem Aleichem: A One-Man Performance
Tuesday, January 16, 2018, 7 – 9 p.m.
To register, click here.