The Yiddish Book Center's

Wexler Oral History Project

A growing collection of in-depth interviews with people of all ages and backgrounds, whose stories about the legacy and changing nature of Yiddish language and culture offer a rich and complex chronicle of Jewish identity.

Sherwin Kaufman's Oral History

Sherwin Kaufman, grandson of Yiddish writer Sholem Aleichem, was interviewed by Christa Whitney on April 1st, 2014 in New York City. Sherwin was born in Odessa, Ukraine in 1920. He left to come to the United States at age two and has no memories of his life in Odessa. His family settled in Newark, New Jersey and spoke Russian at home. His father was a general practitioner. His mother (Sholem Aleichem's daughter) wrote short stories; he recalls his father translating some of them from Russian to Yiddish to send to Yiddish newspapers. Sherwin did not recall his parents having a circle of friends, mainly due to his mother's difficulty with English. He tells a story about bringing his mother as a witness to his application for a passport and how her misunderstanding of the questions jeopardized his success. Sherwin began piano lessons at age four or five; he had talent and at eleven won a statewide medal. He was a good student and recommended for a scholarship to Columbia University but believes that antisemitism led to the offer being withdrawn. He did attend Columbia, however, starting as a music major and then switching to pre-med studies, eventually attending Cornell Medical College. At Columbia he accompanied the Glee Club and did solo performances and he continued playing in varsity shows at Cornell. He believes that his love of music came from his grandfather, who wrote lyrics for many songs. He is proud to have accompanied Eleanor Reissa at Carnegie Recital Hall singing his grandfather's words to a famous lullaby. Sherwin was very young when his grandfather died, and he does not know much about his childhood or his family history. He has read books such as "The Old Country" in translation and finds his grandfather's stories very human, funny, and poignant. He appreciates how the sad stories always have a comic element as well. At the time of the interview, it was ninety-eight years since the death of Sholem Aleichem. For many years people, including famous actors and writers, have gathered to read Sholem Aleichem's stories on his yortsayt (anniversary of his death). They begin by reading the writer's will which expresses his wish for such an event to take place. Sherwin recalls two stories read at those events: "Restaurants" and "In America." At this point one of Sherwin's sons is running the yortsayt events; that son's children have also become interested in Yiddish culture. When asked about how he relates to his Jewishness today, Sherwin pauses and concludes "I am what I am." He is a songwriter and mentions a Chanukah song he wrote, but most of his songs have no relationship to Jewish themes. He also writes humorous poems and can see the connection to his famous ancestor in them. Sherwin believes that his grandfather's writing is still relevant today and is proud that two or three-hundred people attend the yortsayt event every year. He ends the interview talking about Sholem Aleichem's legacy: his humor and his deep understanding of the human spirit.

This interview was conducted in English.

Sherwin Kaufman was born in Odessa, Ukraine in 1920. Sherwin died in 2019.