The Pocket Watch

In 1911, Sholem Aleichem wrote the story Gitl Purishkevitch.  Gitl, an agent for Wissotsky’s tea who, as she repeatedly asserts, “owes everything she is to God and then Wissotsky,” is distraught beyond measure over her only son, her future source of support in her old age, having been taken for the draft when a local rich man’s grandsons have all been mysteriously rejected. Working her way up the bureaucratic ladder—armed only with her tea to deliver, her demand for justice, and her gratitude to God and Wissotsky—she manages to wrangle an invitation to the proceedings of the Duma, the Russian parliament, in St. Petersburg. Gitl gets the justice she wants: Moishe, who shouldn’t have been drafted in the first place, is released, and the local draft board is indicted for taking bribes.

The free advertising Sholem had given Wissotsky’s tea was rewarded the same year. He returned home from the 10th Zionist conference in Basel with a gift from Wissotsky, a pocket watch with Hebrew letters instead of numbers engraved on the dial. Sholem loved it, especially the loud, chiming noise it made.

The gift is a strange epilogue to the story of Gitl Purishkevtich. On one hand, Gitl’s tale is a rousing expression of populist rage, deepening the impression Sholem Aleichem was on the people’s side, expressing the sentiment of the common people. Yet at the same time, the story was huge payday for the Wissotsky company, who saw an upswing in demand for their teas. Readers for years afterwards would ask Sholem how much he had been paid for the product placement.  The gift underscores the tension between Sholem the commercially-minded grafter—most comfortable in the lacquered shoes of the gentleman—and Sholem the cultural hero, writing underground tracts for leftist causes, with a deep understanding of the plight of the common Jew.

–Excerpt from The Worlds of Sholem Aleichem by Jeremy Dauber