The ‘Fiddler on the Roof’ story describes Kyiv under Moscow’s occupation

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The ‘Fiddler on the Roof‘ can help one to get a sense of what it was like to live in the Pale of Settlement, (although reading the original Sholem Aleichem’s ‘Tevye the Dairyman‘ would still be better). Not many people realize that it is in Ukraine that the story takes place, and it is Kyiv and its neighboring city of Borodyanka is the central stage of the plot. The reason why the readers do not see the name Kyiv is that Aleichem in almost all his works referred to Kyiv as Yehupets. Scholars think that the word ‘Yehupets‘ derives from the Ukrainian word for Egypt and most likely for Sholem Aleichem the atmosphere in Kyiv resembled the time of Jewish slavery in Egypt. But how did Kyiv become the place where the Jews were not allowed to live? Who is to blame for this racial segregation? Initially, Kyiv was within the Pale of Settlement and the Jews lived in it freely, but in 1835, tsar Nicholas I excluded Kyiv from the Pale, and the Jews were expelled from their homes. Since then, living in Kyiv was illegal for Jews, but some of them secretly returned or moved to it. One episode in the ‘Tevye’ shows the dangers for the Jews who dared secretly live in the city:

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“..My dear Menachem-Mendl, what brings you to, of all places, Yehupetz?”
“What do you mean? I’ve been here for a year and a half.”
“Is that so? Are you a native? A Yehupetzer?”
“Sshhh,” he said, looking around.
“Don’t shout so loudly, Reb Tevye. I am living here, but it must remain between us.”
I stared at him as if he were crazy. “You’re here illegally,” I said, “and you’re out in the open in the Yehupetz market square?”
“Don’t ask, Reb Tevye,” he said. “That’s the way it is. You obviously aren’t acquainted with Yehupetz regulations. Come, I’ll tell you, and you’ll understand what it means to be a resident and not a resident.” And he gave me a long, drawn-out account of how you go crazy trying to get a permit to live there.”

Sholom Aleichem Museum in Kyiv has the following little-known information about the author’s attitude toward the city:

“… Kyiv played an important role in the writer’s life: this is where he was shaped and developed, both as an individual and as a writer. This is where he longed to be as a young man and as a well-known writer living outside of the borders of the Russian Empire, this is where he expressed the will to be buried, next to his father, as he lay sick in New York.

“Kyiv is my city. Staying away from it makes me sad.”

Sholom Aleichem’s response to a greetings telegram from Kyiv on the occasion of the 25th anniversary of his literary work. Italy, 1908.

Monument to Sholom Aleichem in Bila Tserkva, the city where the author lived and worked for several years

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