Mordicai Gerstein, 1935-2019

Sholom’s Treasure – Erica Silverman and Mordicai Gerstein,
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2005

sholomcover

The Sholom of Sholom’s Treasure is the great Yiddish writer Sholom Aleichem (1859-1916), best known in the English-speaking world as the author of stories about Tevye the Dairyman that would become the basis for Fiddler on the Roof. Gerstein both wrote and illustrated many books, on both Jewish and non-Jewish themes, including his Caldecott-winning The Man Who Walked Between the Towers. In celebrating his life and career, I would like to focus on his biography of Sholom Aleichem as a young boy who used his fertile imagination to interpret the world, much as Gerstein would grow up to do.

Erica Silverman describes the adversities of Sholom Rabinovitch‘s (Sholom Aleichem) childhood in a poor Jewish community in Ukraine.  He reveres his father, and recognizes how reading, singing, and religious observance elevate him over the cares of his difficult life: “And when Father was happy, Sholom was happy.”  Gerstein portrays the boy holding on to the balustrade of a staircase, looking down at his father, full of hope.  When he begins kheyder, school, his idealism crashes into reality, in a typical experience for a sensitive and creative child. We see him looking into the door of the schoolroom and observing the chaos within, as a frowning teacher twists one boy’s ear, while other students mock one another and cause as much disruption as possible within the severe confines of their “learning” environment. Gerstein’s image of Jewish life in late nineteenth century Europe is not romanticized.

Sholom adapts; what choice does he have?  He and a friend hear about a secret treasure allegedly buried in their village. Sholom is convinced he can end his family’s poverty and anguish, but the treasure never materializes and the family moves to another town.

sholomfaces

Gerstein’s rendition of their trip in a horse-pulled wagon, in shades of grey and black, captures the bleakness of their existence, but his pictures soon return to the antic humor, tinged with desperation, as Sholom tries to survive a new class in a new but equally dismal school. A series of pictures show his facial expressions as he entertains the class, with the darkness of Goya or Hogarth. The beautiful full-page picture of Sholom’s bar mitzva adds deep red to the earth colors; it is a moment of pride and accomplishment for him, although his grandmother has warned him that he is now a man and “it was time to stop his clowning.”

sholom writing

Like Sholom Aleichem himself, that moment never came for Gerstein.  The young author learns over time that his intelligence, wit, and literary talent will become the treasure which he never found hidden under the hills.  Gerstein’s pictures in Sholom’s Treasure show people who are kind, determined, demonic, and cruel. All of his books confront the full complexities of the world in a way which is accessible to both young readers and adults.  Silverman’s “Author’s Note” characterizes the Yiddish author as “a cultural hero.”  Mordicai Gerstein will certainly be remembered the same way.

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