On yikhes (legacy), Mitchell Waife, and Sholem Aleichem

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It’s not often I get to witness such a tangible representation of yikhes (legacy) as I did when I interviewed Mitchell Waife at his home in Florida in the spring of 2013. An oral history interview is usually an intimate affair; part of its success lies in the sustained, deep listening of one person to another. While the main goal is to document stories for the historical record, my hope is that the person I interview and their children, families, and friends will enjoy the interview. However, I rarely have the luxury to get to know a narrator’s community first-hand. The interview is often the only time I will ever see the narrator.

This time, though, my visit just happened to coincide with Mitchell’s 89th birthday, so many members of his family were there, too. After my interview and before they all headed out to dinner in celebration, I managed to take this photograph. In the displayed frame is a well-known portrait of Mitchell’s grandfather, the famous Yiddish writer Sholem Aleichem (Shalom Rabinovitz; 1859–1916) surrounded by his family. (Mitchell would be born some odd years later, so is not pictured.) Next to the photograph, Mitchell is likewise surrounded by his wife and descendants. Sholem Aleichem is more than a literal fixture of family lore. Mitchell passed down an interest in Sholem Aleichem and Yiddish literature to his son, Robert, who took it upon himself to learn Yiddish. Robert now heads the Sholom Aleichem Network, the newest form of the Sholom Aleichem Memorial Foundation, committed to educating future generations about the great writer.  Surely, Sholem Aleichem would be shepn nakhes (deriving great pride and satisfaction) from the way his descendants have connected to their yikhes. Mitchell passed away on January 6th – may his memory be a blessing.

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