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HISTORY OF SHOLOM ALEICHEM CLUB

Updated April 17, 2009

On May 2, 2004 the Sholom Aleichem Club celebrated its 50th anniversary of promoting and preserving Secular Jewish culture in the Philadelphia area and beyond with a banquet for members and guests. As with Secular Humanistic Jews worldwide, Club members base their Jewish identity on culture, literature, history, ethics and a dedication to Tikkun Olam - repairing the world.

During the five decades since its founding, members have been active in various committees, through which they have found a way to contribute to Club programming, to be politically active with other Jewish and non-Jewish organizations, to engage in Yiddish reading, and to provide support for each other as they grow older. They have found friendships, an organization in which to share their values and express their Jewishness, and ways to observe Jewish holidays in a non-religious way.

Among the committees of the Club during the years have been Book Publications, Continuing Education, Coalition, Newsletter, Peace & Social Action, World Jewry, Book Discussion, Yiddish Reading, Bereavement, and, perhaps one of the more innovative, the Dynamics of Growing Older (D-GO). The D-GO groups were started more than 20 years ago as support groups, where members could discuss personal problems or common concerns, and often get help in clarifying the problems of growing older.

Club members have much to kvell (brim with pride) about themselves. The Clubs impact and influence have gone beyond its own membership and the Delaware Valley. Locally, members of the Club helped to establish the Jewish Childrens Folkshul, a still-thriving Secular Jewish Sunday School. Over the years members have participated in, and supported the school as parents, teachers, directors, advisors and contributors. Club members created a number of original musical programs. One, Di Goldene Pave (The Golden Peacock), a program of Yiddish poetry and song, was later performed in various venues in Philadelphia. Programs by professional artists, presented for the community-at-large have included: Belle Kauffman, author and granddaughter of Sholom Aleichem; actor Howard DiSilva; humorist/actor Feivish Finkel; actor/singer Avi Hoffman (for the 45th anniversary), the New England Conservatory Band and actor John Randolph. The Club was an affiliate of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Philadelphia, had a long relationship with the Church of the Advocate and the late Father Paul Washington, and has been active in Action Alliance of Senior Citizens and voter registration drives. Internationally, Club members helped to establish the Congress of Secular Jewish Organizations of North America, and the International Federation of Secular Humanistic Jews.

In recent years, along with the Kehilla of Secular Jews of Greater Philadelphia --The Jewish Childrens Folkshul, The Jewish Childrens Folkshul Adult Community, Philadelphia Secular Jewish Organization, Shir Shalom, Workmens Circle and Secular Jews of South Jersey -- they plan special programs for Passover, Rosh Hashonah and Yom Kippur.

The Sholom Aleichem Clubs publications have brought the group national and international recognition. In 1967, the Sholom Aleichem Club Press published its first book, A Union for Shabbos: Stories of Jewish Life in America, edited and translated from the Yiddish by Max Rosenfeld, one of the Clubs founders and long time leaders. (This book was later retitled Pushcarts and Dreamers.) In 1995, the Club and the Congress of Secular Jewish Organizations jointly published more of Rosenfelds translations in New Yorkish and other American Yiddish Stories. These two books have been widely adopted for instructions in colleges, universities and adult education classes around the United States and Canada and are available in book stores in those countries.

The prized publication of the Club is its Haggadah for a Secular Celebration of Pesach, first published in 1975. Now in its fifth edition, the Haggadah has sold more than 20,000 copies worldwide, and has received awards, among them the 1975 Neographics Award for Softbound Books in the categories of design, production, and illustration and calligraphy. It is written in English, Yiddish and Hebrew. Elements of the Passover story are included consistent with Secular Jewish philosophy with an emphasis on peoples role in building a better world; there are songs of peace, resistance and joy; other historic events that can be related to the liberation story are included.

The Haggadah was praised by actor/singer Theodore Bikel, who indicated he had used it at a Seder. It has been sold in Canada, Australia, Mexico, and Israel. At the request of people in the former Soviet Union, it was translated into Russian, but the Club does not know if it was ever printed. A companion tape of the songs included in the Haggadah is now available, sung by members Fran Kleiner (Elkins Park), Sherman Labovitz (Center City), the late Ruth Marks, Larry and Jane Schofer (Mt. Airy), and late Jack Rosenfeld.

In 1997, shortly before Max Rosenfelds death, the Club published a collection of his essays and articles entitled Festivals, Folklore & Philosophy: A Secularist Revisits Jewish Traditions.

The latest product of the Clubs Publications Committee, in a response to the growing interest in Yiddish culture, is a CD/cassette, Mayn Oytser-My Treasure: Sherm Labovitz Sings Gems of Yiddish Art and Folk Songs. Long-time Club member Sherm Labovitz sings 23 carefully selected songs, drawn from familiar and unfamiliar sources - traditional folk songs, songs from the Soviet Union, songs from Second Avenue (NY) theaters, songs written recently.

All the publications and recordings are available through the publications page of this web site, although are now mostly sold through the Congress of Secular Jewish Organizations of North America.

The Sholom Aleichem Club has come a long way since first meeting in homes in 1954. It took the name of one of the foremost Jewish writers, whose Tevye stories were the basis for Fiddler on the Roof, and which means peace in Yiddish and Hebrew. The Club has met the second weekend of every month from September through June. Venues have included a Mt. Airy synagogue (now a church), Temple Judea in East Oak Lane, Germantown Jewish Centre in Mt. Airy, Gratz College in Melrose Park and recently at the Bala Cynwyd Library.

There have been close to 500 monthly meetings whose subjects reflect the broad-ranging interests of the Club. Programs have dealt with dealing with Jewish Life, Jewish Culture, holidays, Secular Jewishness, Anti-Semitism and the Holocaust, Israel and the Middle East, World Jewry, Civil Rights and Civil Liberties, Black/Jewish Relations, War and Peace, and Local, National and International issues. In the 1970s-80s, membership reached 250 people and members have come from the five-county Philadelphia area and South Jersey. The Club publishes a monthly newsletter, News & Comment, which not only announces upcoming meetings and recaps the previous months program, but also acts as a forum of poetry, essays, political opinion and actions, and includes a column, News of the Mishpocha (family), The May 2004 edition of this newsletter was its 500th.

The Club has also financially supported ???organizations which reflect our interest in Jewish national and cultural affairs, social justice, and alleviating the plight of the poor??? such as the National Yiddish Book Center, YIVO (Yiddish language resource and research center), Ethiopian Jewry in Israel, ACLU and the Jewish Studies program at Penn.

WHY SHOLOM ALEICHEM?

[From SHOLOM ALEICHEM NEWS, March 1959. Written by Max Rosenfeld (1911-1997)
An article as valuable today as the day it was written by one of our founders,
a man who will always be remembered and whose contributions to Jewish Secular life will always
be treasured.]

By Max Rosenfeld

The Editor has asked me to write something on the theme; Why do we call our organization the Sholom Aleichem Club?

If I wanted to be a wise-guy my whole article would be composed of two words: Why not? Seriously, though, the why not? is in place. Sholom Aleichem was one of the greatest geniuses the Jewish people have produced. It is common practice among all peoples to name institutions and organizations after their great men and women. Someone once raised the objection that the words "Sholom Aleichem" are unfamiliar to most Americans, that they are hard to say, and that, therefore, an American Jewish organization would do better not to use that name.

My answer to that is that it is a PERFECT name for a Jewish organization because (1) it immediately identifies it as Jewish; (2) it introduces a world-renowned Jewish figure into Americas consciousness; and (3) it has a double function: besides being the name of a man it has a wonderful meaning: Peace be with you.

You could come back at me, however, with another question: What is it that makes Sholom Aleichem so great and what particular significance does he have for our organization as such? To which I would reply as follows:

The literary legacy of Sholom Aleichem is a main-stay of the modern, humanist Jewish culture which our Club strives to uphold. It signifies closeness to the people and faith in the future good society.

Sholom Aleichem, without ever saying so in his work, used his pen to protest against the evils of society, to defend the poor, the insulted, and the degraded. His seemingly funny stories fight against backwardness and ignorance; they helped in the cultural and social rebirth of his people. His eyes saw everything; his ears heard everything.

He wrote it all down without covering up the blemishes, in a way designed to correct them, not to point a finger of scorn. He dispelled illusions; he did not create them. He wrote about Jewish communities in turmoil, in drastic upheaval and movement from place to place, from one kind of life to another; and he tried to help his people adapt themselves to their new life. He did this not by preaching, but by a self-critical humor filled with love and understanding. He could do this because he was one of the family.

It is no accident that many of Sholom Aleichems heroes ??? his characters of nobility and greatness ??? are often women and children, who bore the brunt of a hard life. His deep understanding of the Jewish woman and the Jewish child has been unsurpassed in Jewish literature, and perhaps in most of world literature.

A knowledge of Sholom Aleichem's work will give the reader a rich background in the life and times and tradition of our parent generations. There are many, of course, who do not know that Sholom Aleichem was the name of a Jewish writer, but even many of these people know that Sholom Aleichem means peace be with you.

What better name can a Jewish organization have in a world of uncertainty and anxieties? There is something exalting in the exchange of those age-old greetings: SHOLOM ALEICHEM! ALEICHEM SHOLOM!

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