Tal Cohen's Bookshelf: A Collection of Personal Opinions about Books
The Bloody Hoax / Sholom Aleichem
Reviewed by Tal Cohen Tuesday, 23 February 1999
About a hundred years ago, in New York, Sholom Aleichem was introduced to Mark Twain as “the Jewish Mark Twain”, already famous for his timeless stories of European life, by then considered classics. “I wanted to meet you,” Mark Twain said, “because I’m told that I’m the American Sholom Aleichem.” There are many interesting similarities between these two authors — from their witty writing style to the fact they both used pseudonyms.

On the surface, it would seem that The Bloody Hoax is a trans-culturization of Twain’s The Prince and the Pauper. Here, too, a nobleman and a pauper switch roles, each discovering the advantages and disadvantages of the other’s situation. But while the basic premise of Aleichem’s work was unquestionably influenced by Twain’s, The Bloody Hoax is a comedy of mistakes with a message, targeted clearly at an adult audience — unlike The Prince and the Pauper, which was subtitled “a story for young people of all ages”.

At the beginning of the twentieth century, in Russia, a group of students graduated from their highschool studies, far away from home. In their graduation party, Grigori Popov (from the Russian “pop”, or priest), the son of a Russian nobleman, declares that he envies Hersh Rabinovitch (from the Hebrew “rabbi”), his good Jewish friend — because the latter is a “medalist” (meaning he had won a medal for his excellent grades) and thus will have no problem being accepted into whichever university he chooses. Hersh corrects him, stating that he will have a problem — and a large one, namely, that he is a Jew. Grigori refuses to accept this, and (being slightly drunk) suggests that they switch places. Each will take the other’s papers, and identity, for a year.

Unlike Prince Edward of England and young Tom Canty in Twain’s work, Hersh and Grigori do not look even remotely similar. However, neither of them is heading home; each is going to a different university to pursue his studies, in a town where nobody knows him. And when the (pictureless) papers are the only means of identification, none will have a problem pretending to be the other.

Well, almost. Popov quickly finds out that it’s not so easy to impersonate a Jew when you can’t speak a word of Yiddish (at least not in early 20th century Russia), let alone when you’re a complete ignorant in even the most basic Jewish traditions. But he manages to pull through, and lives his life for a few months as a Jew in a small Jewish community. As his friend Hersh predicted, his medal did not help him into his university of choice, because of a racist clerk. But he fell in love with the daughter of his friendly landlord, and was accepted as a member of the family (where everyone believed the marriage is only a matter of time). He slowly studies Jewish tradition, and learns of the hardships Jews at the time were faced with.

Meanwhile, under the name Grigori Popov, Hersh Rabinovitch enjoys his life as an excellent student in a remote city. But his pastoral joy of life is shattered when he learns that he — that is, Popov, under his name — was arrested and is accused of murdering a child in order to obtain Christian blood for Passover. Knowing this to be nothing but a blood libel, Hersh has to take drastic measures to try and save his friend’s life.

While being one of his best, The Bloody Hoax is also one of Aleichem’s lesser-known works. This is because it was never included in most of the “Complete Works” editions, even those in Yiddish. For many years, it was believed that The Bloody Hoax was the basis of Aleichem’s play It’s Hard to be a Jew. Recent research, however, shows that the play was, for the most part, not written by Aleichem, and even more clearly, it is only very, very loosely based on the novel.

Besides being a good, well-written comedy, The Bloody Hoax also presents Aleichem’s view of the meaning of being a Jew: Judaism, he claims, is not only a religion — it is also a nationality. And while many will file this excellent work under “Jewish literature”, of interest to Jews or Judaica researchers only, I think it will appeal to a much larger audience; namely, anyone who can enjoy a good Mark Twain-style comedy.

Note: The book was originally written in Yiddish. I have read the excellent Hebrew translation, by Arie Aharony, but I understand that the English translation by Aliza Shevrin (1991) is also very good.

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