YIDDISH THEATRE 101 > THE YIDDISH PLAYS > THE PLAY IN HISTORY  >  IT'S HARD TO BE A JEW                                                 

IT'S HARD TO BE A JEW1, by Sholem Aleichem

(Yiddish: Shver tsu zayn a yid)


He has often been called the Mark Twain of the Jewish people (and Mark Twain, on one occasion, bestowed upon himself the title of “The American Sholem Aleichem”), yet the manner in which Sholem Aleichem deals with problems can find no adequate analogies.

He is truly racial – truly Jewish; and though is wit and humor is scintillating, yet there is a poignancy and tragedy underlying it, which in his sympathetic portrayal of Jewish life, even approaches the realm of propaganda. Such is the case in his comedy, 'It’s Hard to Be a Jew'. Beneath the humor of the situation of a Jew and a Gentile changing identities, and the risible situations which arise from this change, there is the undercurrent of tragedy which stalks through the life of the Russian Jew; the oppressions, pogroms, and prejudices with which he has to contend. Ivanov, the gentile, becomes more than convinced that it is hard to be a Jew."1

“There is, perhaps, no other writer in the Yiddish language who has so endeared himself in the hearts of the Jewish people as Sholem Aleichem (the pen name of Sholom Rabinowitz). Though the humorist, Sholem Aleichem, is loved mainly for his wit and his deftly drawn humorous characterizations, yet there is a far deeper purpose in his work.

photo: Maurice Schwartz as "David Shapiro in Sholem Aleichem's "Hard to Be a Jew". Courtesy of the Museum of the City of New York.

The Yiddish Art Theatre staged this play a number of times, the first being on 1 October 1920. "Hard to be a Jew" is a play in three acts by Sholem Aleichem. Direction: Maurice Schwartz. Second Avenue, New York, N.Y. In this production the cast included: Abraham Fishkind, Misha German, Berta Gersten, Jacob Goldstein, Solomon Krause, M. B. Samuiloff, Saltche (Sally) Schorr, Maurice Schwartz, Louis Shapiro and Moony Weisenfreund (later known as Paul Muni.)

The play was also revived by them in December 1949 in N.Y., and it also was staged on the road, e.g. in Los Angeles, a few years later (as well as in 1929).

Place of Action: A City in Czarist Russia where Jews were not permitted to reside. Time--about 1913.

Scene from First Act of "Hard to be a Jew" (1920 Yiddish Art Theatre production).

So, here is the synopsis of Sholem Aleichem's "Hard to be a Jew"1. The name of the actor or actress who portrayed the particular role in the 1920 production is listed in parentheses):



Ivanov (Moony Weisenfreund) and a group of his Mohilev gentile students are making merry in a cafe following his graduation from gymnasia for the university. Schnyrson (Misa German) a Jewish student, who is stilling apart, is asked by Ivanov to dome and join them. Schnyrson declines, saying that he does not belong to the group, being a Jew. Ivanov pooh-poohs the idea, but Schnyrson tells him that he does not now what it means to be a Jew, and that to be a Jew for even one year is very hard. Ivanov, in a sporting spirit, takes him up on it, and they finally agree to change identities for one year.


Ivanov, now posing as Schnyrson, has come to enter the university and enters the Shapiro home in search of lodging. He is taken for a gentile at first, but when he doesn't mind being overcharged, agrees to coach young Siomke Shapiro (Louis Shapiro) free of charge, tells him that his grandmother, of whom he is the only heir, is worth two hundred thousand, and to top it all, that he is a Jew, Mrs. Shapiro's (Saltshe Schorr) admiration is unbounded. David Shapiro (Maurice Schwartz) gives him his first object lesson in the life of a Jew, telling him that his gold medal will be no help in getting him in the university -- that it is done by drawing lots among the Jewish applicants. He is also told that he must immediately get a certificate of permission to allow him to remain in the city, and to do so must arrange with a dentist and register himself as the dentist's assistant. Though they accept him as a Jew, yet they are appalled at his ignorance of Jewish life. He is forced to telephone the real Schnyrson to come and help him out, introducing him to the Shapiros as Ivanov. Schnyrson impresses the family as a gentile who knows much about Jewish life -- more than his supposed Jewish chum. Ivanov is smitten with Betty's (Berta Gerstin), but Schnyrson warns him to be careful how he acts and talks before her, for, after all, he is a gentile and she is a Jewish daughter.


Sarah Shapiro is indignant over her daughter having accepted a present of a bracelet from Ivanov, telling her that the engagement comes first. When Schnyrson comes to see his chum, Sarah comes to glean what information she can from him regarding Ivanov. Schnyrson realizes that Ivanov has made some approaches to Betty and tries to find out more about it, but Sarah is evasive. David is angry when he learns of Betty having accepted the bracelet. He has been running around with Ivanov still having to arrange a Jew's permit for him. While Ivanov and Schnyrson are talking things over together, Schnyrson is very gay. David tells him that he may have cause to be merry, but if he were a Jew for only a year, he would find that life is not so easy. This strikes the two boys as being coincidentally funny and they laugh heartily. David tells them of a threatened pogrom due to accusations of a ritual murder. An argument follows in which Schnyrson takes the Jewish side, while Ivanov, not understanding correctly, takes the gentile side. This strikes the family as being a very queer outlook for both the boys to have. Guests arrive to celebrate Betty's nineteenth birthday. A discussion follows in which Ivanov tries to obtain Betty's opinion of a Jewish girl marrying a gentile. It seems that the opinion is not much in his favor. Ketzele (Abraham Fishkind) enters and tells them that as the Schnyrsons were always considered very pious Jews, the police are searching for a Schnyrson on whom to avenge the ritual murder. When the guests leave the room, Ivanov and Schnyrson argue over Betty. Schnyrson tells his chum that he can never marry her, and when Ivanov leaves angrily, Betty enters to find out what is wrong. Schnyrson tells Betty that he loves her, but she, thinking him a gentile repulses him. He hints to her that everything will come out well for his benefit and hers. 


David comes home and tells Sarah about Ivanov visiting the rabbi with the intention of becoming a Jew. She blames Betty for having instigated it, but the latter swears she knew nothing about it. When Schnyrson enters, Betty blames him for having gone to the rabbi. He denies it and at first does not understand. Then it dawns on him that the real Ivanov wishes to become an actual Jew for Betty's sake. When Ivanov comes in, he and Schnyrson quarrel about Betty, and they both declare themselves in open battle for her hand. In the middle of the Passover feast, which follows the police arriving to search for Schnyrson. Ivanov gives himself up, as Schnyrson [is] heaping abuse on the ignorance of the police and the Russian people in general for their medieval prejudices. Schnyrson, unable to keep the secret longer, finally divulges their true identities, and tells the story of the bet. The bewildered police take them both. The Shapiros are dumbfounded but feel assured that the boys will get off. Schnyrson and Betty bid farewell to Ivanov who has cheerfully lost Betty to his friend, but has learned much of the Jewish people. David tells Ivanov to tell everyone that no matter what they say about the Jews, their lives are not easy. In fact -- it's hard to be a Jew.

1 -- Playbill of a Los Angeles production of the Yiddish Art Theatre (perhaps at the Mayan Theatre) of "Hard to be a Jew", Circa 1929. Synopsis by Jacob Cooper. Courtesy of YIVO. 





Photograph courtesy of the Museum of the City of New York.

Copyright © Museum of the Yiddish Theatre.  All rights reserved.