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The Life, Times, and Legacy of Sholem Aleichem

Bennett Muraskin
May 7, 2016

For His 100th Yortsayt, May 13th

by Bennett Muraskin

Warsa-1905-smallSHOLEM ALEICHEM (1859-1915) is best remembered as the author of the stories about Tevye the dairyman, which were adapted in our time into the hugely popular Broadway play and Hollywood movie, Fiddler on the Roof. He is most often been depicted as “writer of the people,” a folk-writer, whose work captured the vanishing world of traditional Jewish life in the Russian shtetl with pathos and humor. For Americans who know little about him, he is often described as the “Jewish Mark Twain.” But there is far more to his career and legacy than conveyed in those tag-lines.

Sholem Aleichem was born Sholem Rabinowitz in 1859 in the Ukraine, within tsarist Russia. His father was well-to-do, but the lost his money and became an innkeeper. Sholem, who lost his mother as a boy, knew both wealth and poverty, and was subjected to the whims of an unpleasant stepmother, whom he entertained by alphabetizing her repertoire of curses. He was also an incurable mimic.

Although religious, his father gave his son both a traditional and modern education, so that by his teen years, Sholem was fluent not only in his native Yiddish but in Russian, and literate in Hebrew. From an early age, he loved books. Along with the Bible and other traditional religious literature, he read the Russian classic writers Gogol, Turgenev, Chekov, and Gorky in the original, as well as Charles Dickens in Russian translation. In other words, he was no country bumpkin.

SHOLEM MET his wife Olga in a peculiar way. He was hired to tutor her in Russian. When his future father-in-law, a wealthy estate manager, found out about the budding romance, he fired Sholem. For over two years, he worked as a “crown rabbi,” a thankless position created by the tsarist authorities to handle official business like recording births and deaths and to serve as a liaison between the Jewish community and the state.

Eventually love found its way and Sholem and Olga married. Sholem went into the family business, and when his father-in-law died in 1887, Sholem inherited the entire estate. Now a wealthy man himself, he moved to the big city of Kiev with his wife and two children. He rarely visited a shtetl again.

As a budding writer, he adopted the pen name Sholem Aleichem (Yiddish for “hello” or “how do you do?”). Chances are he meant it to be humorous and to convey the feeling that he was a folkshrayber, a Yiddish storyteller for the common people. Since Yiddish was still considered a disreputable “jargon,” however, and Yiddish literature consisted largely of pulp fiction, Sholem Aleichem was determined to raise its reputation. Using his inheritance, in 1889, he published and edited a literary anthology that included writings of Mendele Moykher Sforim (pen name of Sholem Abramowitz), the first Yiddish writer worthy of the name, I.L. Peretz, an emerging writer of great talent, and his own first novel Stempenyu, a story about a Jewish musician who tries to seduce a married woman. With Mendele, he formed a lasting friendship; with Peretz, it was the beginning of a lifelong literary feud. Although the three names have been irrevocably joined in studies of Yiddish literature, two out of the three classic Yiddish writers were not on good terms with one another.

Sholem Aleichem also published a second anthology of Yiddish literature, and was planning a third when disaster struck. In 1890, he lost his entire fortune in the Kiev stock market. He tried to get back into the game without success and did not give up until 1898. He was, in fact, a failed capitalist. Olga’s mother sold some of her possessions to help settle his debts.

By then he and Olga had five children, who were left with Olga’s mother while Olga went to school to become a dentist. This was by no means the only time that Olga sacrificed to help their family and her husband’s career. They had a strong marriage, and Sholem Aleichem was a good father to their children, who ultimately numbered six. Ironically, the language spoken at home was Russian, not Yiddish, although Yiddish came in a close second. The kids learned other languages as well, because Sholem Aleichem and family became wandering Jews.

sholem_aleichem_100313_620pxHIS FINANCIAL WOES inspired the creation of his first great literary character, Menachem Mendel, in 1891. Menachem Mendel was a luftmentsh, a man who scrambles to make a living by wheeling and dealing, never letting failure get in the way of his next get-rich-quick scheme. Sholem Aleichem constructed his story through letters between Menachem Mendel, who was frequently out of town, and his long-suffering wife who, knowing that he is a shlemil, constantly pleads with him to return home.

While on a summer vacation in 1894, Sholem Aleichem met a talkative dairyman named Tevye and began writing stories about a fictionalized version, a dairyman with a wife and an indeterminate number of daughters. He wrote additional chapters in 1899, 1904, 1906 and 1909. In 1911, he published them in book form as Tevye the Dairyman. In 1914, he added the final chapter. The stories are written as a continuing monologue by the Tevye character relating his life story to his friend and confidante Sholem Aleichem as it unfolds. Tevye is the archetype of the poor, long-suffering but resilient shtetl Jew in tsarist Russia, coping with family crises, social transformation, and, ultimately, expulsion.

Many chapters did not make it into Fiddler on the Roof. Tevye allows his wife’s cousin, Menachem Mendel, for example, to invest a few rubles he has managed to save — with predictable results. His two youngest daughters, who barely appear in the Broadway play, lead unhappy lives: One commits suicide over a failed romance, another marries a shallow rich man who then loses his money and brings her to the America, where they live in poverty. In addition, Tevye’s wife Golde dies in Sholem Aleichem’s book. Then he plans to leave for Palestine, but the death from tuberculosis of Motl, his son-in-law, forces him to remain. At the end, when all Jews in the region are expelled by tsarist decree, it is not even clear where Tevye and his diminished family will end up. This is a much darker story than the one conveyed by Fiddler.

ChessStampIsrael154Apart from Yiddish literature, the cause that most attracted Sholem Aleichem was Zionism. He gave speeches, raised money, attended conferences, and even wrote a collection of essays Why Do The Jews Need A Land of Their Own? When Herzl died in 1904, Sholem Aleichem wrote a memorial.

Revolution erupted in Russia in 1904-05 against the tsarist regime. Sholem Aleichem briefly lent his support to the socialist cause, but his enthusiasm faded in the teeth of repression. In 1905, as the revolution was crushed, he and his family were lucky to escape a pogrom. For their safety and for financially reasons, Sholem Aleichem decided it was time to get out of Russia and seek his fortune in America as a playwright. Fame he had already achieved. He now looked to the Yiddish theater in New York as his ticket to fortune.

After a successful speaking tour in European capitals including Vienna, Paris, and London, Sholem Aleichem arrived in New York City in 1906 to a hero’s welcome. He was wined and dined by the giants of the Yiddish theater, Jacob Adler and Boris Tomashevsky, but they initially rejected his plays. He nevertheless managed to get them produced within the year, but two opened on the same night, diluting their audience.

Unfortunately, they were flops. Instead, Sholem Aleichem eked out a meager living writing for two Yiddish newspapers. His harshest critics came from the socialist and anarchist Yiddish press. Abe Cahan, the formidable editor of the socialist daily the Forverts, by far the largest Yiddish newspaper, declared Sholem Aleichem passé. Although this characterization was grossly unfair, Sholem Aleichem was, in fact, a mediocre playwright.

Angry at his treatment by the makhers of the Yiddish theater and press, Sholem Aleichem packed his bags and returned to Russia. He formed an enduring negative impression of America as a land of boors and swindlers.

HE MUCH PREFERRED the heavily Jewish cities of the tsarist Pale of Settlement in Poland, the Baltic provinces and Ukraine, where he went on the lecture circuit. However, in 1908, he became ill with tuberculosis and spent the most of the next four years convalescing in northern Italy, Switzerland, and Germany. Sholem Aleichem carried a notepad wherever he went, writing constantly. (One of his quirks was to write standing up.)

Throughout this period, Sholem Aleichem was supported by royalties from his Yiddish stories as well as two volumes of Russian translations. A series of stories set in third-class railroad cars peopled by loquacious Jewish travelers are among his best. One of them, The Man from Buenos Aires, would have been understood as referring to the “white slave trade” in Jewish young women from Poland to Argentina, where they were forced into prostitution. Another, The Miracle of Hoshana Rabba, tells the story of Jew and an Russian Orthodox priest on a runaway locomotive debating the meaning of life and death. It is a comic gem. In his most serious novel, The Bloody Hoax (1912), inspired by Mark Twain’s The Prince and the Pauper, a Jewish and Gentile man change places. It is a literary commentary on the famous “ritual murder” trial of Mendel Beilis, accused of murdered a Christian child in Kiev to use his blood for the baking of Passover matzo. When Beilis was acquitted in 1913, Sholem Aleichem was so relieved that he sent Beilis a set of his collected works as a present.

Restored to health in 1913, Sholem Aleichem planned to remain in Europe, but World War I intervened. Because he and his family were Russian subjects living in Germany, they were in danger of being detained as an “enemy aliens.” Rather than return to Russia, he had the foresight to escape to Copenhagen and then book passage to America. It took some time for most of his family to join him. The death of a son left behind in Denmark was one of the most devastating events of his life.

Sholem Aleichem’s return to New York was not an artistic decision. Once again, he survived by writing for the non-socialist Yiddish press, income that he supplemented with speaking tours. His last effort as a playwright, a comedy, was rejected by Yiddish theater producers.

During his two final years in America, Sholem Aleichem began his memoirs, Funim Yarid (From the Fair), which covers only his early years, and continued to work on Motl Peyseh Dem Khazins (Motl the Cantor’s Son), a novel about the experiences and adventures of a family and friends who emigrate from Russia to Americam seen through the eyes of a mischievous 9-year-old boy. It is, in my opinion, his best work, yet he died before completing it. He did, however, live to see chapters from Motl and a few short stories translated and printed in the New York World, a mass circulation newspaper. This was the beginning of Sholem Aleichem’s presence on the American literary scene.

Sholem Aleichem died of tuberculosis and diabetes in May 13, 1916 at the young age of 57. His funeral was legendary. Yossele Rosenblatt, the most famous cantor of his time, sang the traditional liturgical song El Mole Rachamim. The procession traveled from the Bronx through the Lower East Side of Manhattan to a cemetery in Brooklyn, attracting 150,000-200,000 mourners. Speakers at ceremonies at the Educational Alliance and the gravesite, and two weeks later at a Carnegie Hall memorial, included leaders of both uptown German Jewish and downtown East European Jewish communities, including philanthropist Jacob Schiff, Rabbi Judah Magnes, and Yiddish intellectuals and literary figures from Chaim Zhitlovsky to Sholem Asch to Avrom Reisen. The New York City Yiddish and English press sung Sholem Aleichem’s praises. His will was printed in the New York Times and read into the Congressional Record by a gentile Congressman. Sholem Aleichem’s negative attitude toward America was conveniently overlooked — and the legend began.

In 1921, Sholem Aleichem’s body was moved to Mount Carmel cemetery in Queens to a section owned by the Workmen’ s Circle, where it lies among many prominent Yiddish writers and labor leaders. His epitaph engraved on his gravestone (translated from the Yiddish) reads:

Here lies a plain and simple Jew, who wrote in plain and simple prose;

Wrote humor for the common folk to help them forget their woes.

He scoffed at life and mocked the world, at all its foibles he poked fun.

The world went on its merry way and left him stricken and undone.

And while his grateful readers laughed, forgetting troubles of their own,

Midst their applause---God knows, he wept in secret and alone.

IN A SENSE, Sholem Aleichem helped create his own legend, because he was actually a cosmopolitan Jew who worked hard at his craft, appealed to readers of all classes, and although he had his share of tragedies, he was surrounded by a loving family and many friends.

Over time, his novels and short stories have been widely translated into English and many other languages, including Chinese. Along with Sholem Asch and I.B. Singer, he is among the best-known Yiddish writers in the non-Jewish world. Comparing the three, he had a kinder view of human nature than Singer or Asch, and excelled at the short story. He also had a special gift for children’s stories.

Sholem Aleichem’s will included a special request to honor his memory on the occasion of his yortsayt to read his will and “select one of my stories, one of the very merry ones, and recite it in whatever language is most intelligible to you... Let my name be recalled with laughter or not at all.”

Bennett Muraskin is a contributing writer to Jewish Currents and the author of The Association of Jewish Libraries Guide to Yiddish Short Stories, Let Justice Well Up Like Water: Progressive Jews from Hillel to Helen Suzman, and Humanist Readings in Jewish Folklore, among other books.

Bennett Muraskin, a contributing writer for Jewish Currents, is author of The Association of Jewish Libraries Guide to Yiddish Short Stories, Let Justice Well Up Like Water: Progressive Jews from Hillel to Helen Suzman,and Humanist Readings in Jewish Folklore, among other books.