Did My Uncle Try To Swindle Sholem Aleichem – Roger Keizerstein

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Sometime in 1914 my great-uncle, David Keizerstein, met with Sholem Aleichem in an Upper West Side apartment in Manhattan. Sholem Aleichem was by then a world-renown Yiddish writer of stories that sympathetically and comically depicted the lives of ordinary Jews living in Eastern Europe during the latter part of the nineteenth century. My uncle David and Sholem Aleichem were both Jews from the Kiev area of Ukraine. Unfortunately, that is where their similarities began and ended.

My uncle David emigrated to the United States with his wife and four children in 1905 and became a United States citizen in 1912. Sholem Aleichem traveled to the U.S. in 1914, as the First World War broke out, seeking even more fame and fortune. Aleichem desperately wanted to have his stories and plays made into movies, silent movies. After being rejected by the top movie studio heads, most of whom were Jewish, he was introduced to my uncle, who had already established himself in the movie business in New York.

They must have been quite a pair. Aleichem was a tall, bespectacled intellectual with long wavy hair, dark and primly dressed, still practicing Orthodox Judaism. While uncle Dave, also tallish, was elegantly attired, softly spoken with impeccable manners, his English tempered and clear. David was the picture of the quickly Americanized, highly successful assimilated Jewish man. David traveled to the U.S. in first class and had a substantial amount of money with him. Although Aleichem arrived at New York harbor to hordes of newspaper reporters and cheering crowds, he was virtually broke. Unlike David, whose family was stable, bland and ran a lucrative ale business in the Ukraine before they came to the U.S., Aleichem was from an unstable, although colorful, family of way too many mouths to feed. He was a reckless risk taker and a poor manager of money, often borrowing to keep his family financially afloat.

Despite Aleichem’s suspicion that my uncle might be a shady businessman on the make, he did turn a few of his stories into scripts for him to broker to “higher ups” in the movie business chain. My uncle, similar to the movie studio heads that had rejected Aleichem’s story proposals months before, did not want to see scripts that were sympathetic to the Jewish cause in Europe or alluded to Zionistic ambitions. Topics like these would not go over well with the American public—especially while a War raged in Europe, with all its ugly antisemitic undertones. It also might be a wasted effort, because it might fail to pass government censorship. Uncle David wanted comedies from Aleichem. Thus, from a Lakewood, New Jersey cottage Aleichem transcribed Little Motl Goes to America for uncle David.

Meanwhile, Aleichem’s brother Ber Rabinowitz, a successful kid gloves manufacturer who had been living in Newark, New Jersey for many years, was tasked with investigating uncle David’s financial profile. It turned out that David’s company, Consumers Film Company, although valued in today’s dollars at around $250,000, was a distributor of films, not a producer. This further fueled Aleichem’s suspicion that uncle David was up to no good. And when after reading the script, David offered to go partners with Aleichem, the possibility of a business deal dissolved.

What is odd about this is that David’s family, the Keizerstein’s and the family he married into, were hard working, successful entrepreneur’s in the Ukraine, succeeding under extremely difficult circumstances for Jews in Eastern Europe. The story of how David and his wife Sofie met in their late teens is truly romantic. David’s family was in the ale business and produced and distributed various types of liquor. Sofie’s family operated a large country inn and provided alcohol beverages to its customers, mostly gentiles. While making a delivery to Sofie’s family country inn, David was introduced to Sofie. They married in 1899 and proceeded to have five children in seven years. Why didn’t Aleichem and his brother attempt to look into David’s background in the Ukraine? A couple of telegrams could have served to provide him with all the information he would have needed to determine that David was a decent and honest man. David’s offer of a business partnership was a way of sharing risk, not an attempt to swindle a writer from the old country.

It would have seemed as if the relationship between Sholem Aleichem and my uncle David would have come to an end at this juncture since they were unable to come to a mutually acceptable “business” arrangement. But not so for Sholem Aleichem. He was so angered by what he thought was my uncle’s desire to deceive him, that he used David and his business partner Aaron Binkow as villainous prototypes for characters in his next play, The Lottery.

In The Lottery, the main character Shimele Saroker wins a $200,000 prize, but his riches, similar to Kimo in John Steinbeck’s novel The Pearl, brought him much stress and unhappiness. In the third act of the play, Shimele is swindled out of his newfound fortune by two unscrupulous Jewish businessmen, Vigdorchuk and Rubinchik, who, coincidently, persuade him to “invest” in the theater business and make off with all his money.

According to Ber Kolterman, scholar and historian of Jewish History and author of “Disenchanted Tailor in “Illusion,” recent additions to Sholem Aleichem’s archives attest to his dislike of my uncle David. Professor Kolterman believes that part of Aleichem’s dislike of David extended beyond his mistrust of him. Aleichem lumped David in with other Jews in the movie business who turned a blind eye to the plight of European Jewry and through their quick and complete assimilation into American (Christian) culture had in essence turned away from their own.

Aleichem was partly right.

In the decade succeeding his meetings with Aleichem, David went on to become a successful owner of several movie theaters across the tristate area and his second company, Superior Films, continued to distribute films to many large U.S. cities. By the late 1920’s he had become a property owner and wealthy man. But when his much younger brothers, my uncle Myron and grandfather Abe, arrived in this country in 1920, he did little to help them and looked down on their gruff and unpolished ways and the Orthodox rituals that they brought with them and continued to practice in the New World. (Myron went onto build a chain of bakeries in Hartford, Connecticut in the Post War Era. In 1961, he baked President Kennedy’s birthday cake to great fanfare, particularly in the Jewish community.)

I only met uncle David once in the fall of 1964. My father had taken me to see A Hard Day’s Night in a Brooklyn movie theater that David once owed. I expected David to look and speak like my uncle Myron and grandfather Abe: short, rough handed, broken English Yiddish accents, cheaply dressed, particularly my grandfather. I was stunned by David’s appearance. He was tall, elegantly dressed in a dark suit, white shirt and light blue tie, wearing cufflinks, his feet snug and comfortable in polished round toed Floureshine shoes. He spoke softly, patiently, and his large brown eyes carefully considered and took in the breadth of you. I was bedazzled by his mere presence and how it contrasted so sharply to his brothers. At 85-year-old David still had game. He died three years later in Los Angeles.

I am clearly biased here, defending my uncle David’s honor 104 years after his encounters with the great master of Yiddish literature. But I think Sholem Aleichem’s mistrust and dislike of David had less to do with David than with the psychic wounds he suffered in childhood and the geographic dislocations they caused. According to Jeremy Dauber, author of The Worlds of Sholem Aleichem: The Remarkable Life and Afterlife of the Man Who Created Tevye, Aleichem’s father was swindled by his business partner out of a substantial income; and so was Aleichem as an adult by unscrupulous stockbrokers to the tune of $200,000, $5,000,000 in today’s dollars. These sudden and painful losses caused great hardship for his family as a child and for Aleichem’s family when he was an adult. Despite becoming the most beloved Jewish writer of his generation and his prodigious literary output, these childhood wounds ceased to heal, and financial insecurity seemed to follow him everywhere he went.

To paraphrase that great philosopher, Tevye the milkman, may the great creator, whomever he or she might be, bless both these men’s souls.

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