Note: the W.E.B. Du Bois excerpt used in this resource contains a racial slur—the n-word—and we have reprinted it here as it was in the original.
The environment in which Sholem Aleichem’s protagonist finds himself is saturated with discomfort and fear. At one point in the story, Sholem Shachnah fears that a man with whom he shares a bench in the waiting room of a provincial train station could be an important Russian official and perhaps “even Purishkevitch himself, the famous anti-Semite, may his name perish.” To boot, the train station is located in the fictional town of Zolodievka, which translates approximately from the Russian as Evil Town. Now, Sholem Shachnah’s fellow passenger is most certainly not Vladimir Purishkevitch (1870-1920)—a right-wing politician in imperial Russia who was well known for his nationalist, anti-Semitic views. But at the same time, the fact that the hero of “On Account of a Hat” thinks that this might be Purishkevitch betrays the fear and anxiety that would have haunted someone like Sholem Shachnah traveling among non-Jews at the time the story was first published.
The story came out in 1913 around the time of the trial, in Kyiv, of a Jewish man named Mendel Beilis. Beilis’s arrest two years earlier on the made-up charges of ritual murder of a young Christian boy and his subsequent trial attracted large-scale attention and was widely covered by the press both in the Russian Empire and around the world, including in the New York Times. Beilis was acquitted of all charges by a jury in a ruling that did, nonetheless, leave intact the anti-Semitic myth—known as the blood libel—that Jews killed Christian children for ritual purposes. Since the Middle Ages, accusations of blood libel tended to circulate in Europe right around the time of Passover: central to the accusation was the charge that Jews killed Christian children so as to use their blood for baking Passover matzo.
It is, then, hardly a surprise that Sholem Shachnah, traveling right around Passover and with the Beilis case in the public eye, would suspect that the non-Jews surrounding him on the journey were anti-Semites who were out to get him. Fears of being surrounded by hostile forces permeate his experience as a fictionalized member of the Jewish minority in imperial Russia.
In “On Account of a Hat,” Sholem Schachnah is portrayed as a cultural and racial “other,” who experienced the fear of being discriminated against while outside the confines of his familiar surroundings; in fact, his experience as a member of a persecuted minority is so ingrained as to dominate his perception of the world around him.
Writing just a few years later about traveling in the South of the United States during the era of racial segregation known as Jim Crow, the writer and historian W.E.B. Du Bois vividly described the discrimination and venom Black Americans experienced in train stations and on trains. According to Du Bois, the experience was so awful that many preferred to shun travel altogether.
Suggested Activity: Read the excerpt from W.E.B. Du Bois’s Darkwater and pay attention to how the author describes the encounter of Black Americans with different aspects of train travel, from purchasing a ticket to waiting for the train to finding their seats in the train compartment. Compare these descriptions to Sholem Shachnah’s narration of his own experience waiting for and getting on the train that was going to take him home for Passover in “On Account of a Hat.” In both of these accounts, the experiences of travel are determined by the traveler’s contextual/historical circumstances, and by their perception of those circumstances. What insights about the experiences of “traveling while Black” in the United States during the Jim Crow era do you take away from Du Bois’s excerpt? What light, if any, do those insights shed on Sholem Shachnah’s experience of traveling as a member of a persecuted minority in the Russian Empire? How is his experience similar? How is it different? How does Sholem Shachnah articulate his own individual travails with an eye toward the larger context in which he finds himself?