The Epitaph

In the aftermath of the horrific 1905 pogroms, a prolonged wave of violence aimed at the Jews living in the Russian empire, Sholem Aleichem was so deeply shaken by the tragic events —the harshest rebuttal to his decades of optimistic hopes for a transformed Russian society, that for the next week his family was concerned he would fall ill. And just think, he wrote his daughter, after seeing the pogrom as the “ruination of Russian Judaism”: “This is an optimist speaking to you. Can you imagine what the skeptics say?” Thoughts of mortality haunted him: and during this brief period, which he called the “dark days,” he wrote a draft of Yiddish verses that would eventually be engraved on his tombstone at Mount Carmel Cemetery in Queens, NY.

Below is an English translation, and Yiddish transliteration, of this humble and moving epitaph.

Do ligt a yid a posheter
Geshriben Yidish-Taytsh far vayber
Un far’n prosten folk hot er
Geven a humorist, a shrayber

Dos gantse lebn oysgelakht
Geshlogn mit der velt kapores
De gantse velt hot gut gemakht
Un er–oy vey–geven af tsoris.

Un davke demolt ven der oylem hot
Gelakht, geklatsht un fleg zikh freyen
Hot er gekrenkt–dos veyst nor Got
B’sod, az keyner zol nit zeyn.

Here lies a plain and simple Jew
Who wrote in plain and simple prose;
Wrote humor for the common folk
To help them forget their woes.

He scoffed at life and mocked the world,
At all its foibles he pocked fun
The world went on its merry way,
And left him stricken and undone.

And while his grateful readers laughed,
Forgetting troubles of their own,
Midst their applause – God only knows –
He wept in secret and alone.

-English translation by Bel Kaufman