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Centennial yahrtzeit
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Centennial yahrtzeit

The life and times of Sholem Aleichem

Sholem Aleichem in Warsaw, 1905
Sholem Aleichem in Warsaw, 1905

The 100th yahrtzeit of Sholem Aleichem — best remembered as the author of the Tevye the dairyman stories that served as the basis for Fiddler on the Roof — is being observed this month. 

Sholem Aleichem has most often been depicted as a man of the people whose writings captured the vanishing world of traditional Jewish life in the shtetl with pathos and humor. But there was more to him than that.

Born Sholem Rabinowitz in 1859 in Ukraine, Sholem Aleichem as a boy knew both wealth and poverty. Although his father was religious, Sholem received both a traditional and a modern education, so that by his teens, he was fluent not only in Yiddish but in Russian and Hebrew. From an early age, he loved books. Along with the Bible and other traditional texts, he read the Russian classics as well as Charles Dickens in translation.

After he married, Sholem joined his wealthy father-in-law in business. He inherited his entire estate in 1887 and moved to Kiev with his wife, Olga, and their two children; he rarely visited the shtetl again. 

As a budding writer, he adopted his pen name — most likely to convey the feeling that he was a folkshrayber, a Yiddish story-teller for the common people — but also wrote in Russian and Hebrew.

Yiddish was still considered a disreputable “jargon,” and Sholem Aleichem was determined to raise its reputation. In 1889, he published and edited a literary anthology including writings of Mendele Moykher Sforim (pen name of Sholem Abramowitz), the first major Yiddish writer; I.L. Peretz, an emerging talent; and his own first novel Stempenyu

Sholem Aleichem was planning his third anthology of Yiddish literature, when, in 1890, he lost his entire fortune. 

His financial woes inspired the creation in 1891 of his first great literary character, Menachem Mendel, a “luftmentsch” who never lets failure get in the way of his next get-rich-quick scheme. 

Recalled with laughter

While on a vacation in 1894, Sholem Aleichem met a talkative dairyman named Tevye. That same year, he began writing stories about a fictionalized Tevye, a dairyman with a wife and an indeterminate number of daughters; they were published in book form as Tevye the Dairyman in 1911. 

Tevye is the archetype of the poor, long-suffering, but resilient shtetl Jew coping with family crises, social transformation, and ultimately expulsion. 

Many chapters did not make it into the show. Tevye’s two youngest daughters lead unhappy lives, one committing suicide over a failed romance. Another marries a shallow rich man; after the couple lose their money, they live in poverty in America. Tevye’s wife, Golde, dies. He plans to leave for Palestine, but the death of his son-in-law forces him to remain. At the end, when all Jews in the region are expelled, it is unclear where Tevye and his diminished family will end up. In short, a much darker story than conveyed by Fiddler

Sholem Aleichem’s other great cause was Zionism. He gave speeches, raised money, and wrote an essay collection, Why Do the Jews Need a Land of Their Own? 

After revolution erupted in Russia in 1904-05, for the safety of his family and for financial reasons, Sholem Aleichem, already famous, decided to seek his fortune as a playwright for the Yiddish theater in New York. 

He arrived in 1906 in New York City, where he was wined and dined by the giants of the Yiddish theater. Within a year, he managed to get his plays produced; they were flops. Instead, he eked out a meager living writing for two Yiddish newspapers. His harshest criticism came from the socialist and anarchist Yiddish press. 

Angry at his treatment by the machers of the Yiddish press, Sholem Aleichem returned to Russia; his lasting impression of America was as a land of boors and swindlers. 

In 1908, he became ill with tuberculosis and spent the next years convalescing, writing constantly, including a series of wonderful stories set in third-class railroad cars peopled by loquacious Jewish travelers. “The Miracle of Hoshana Rabba,” about a Jew and a Russian Orthodox priest debating the meaning of life and death, is a comic gem. His novel The Bloody Hoax (1912), about a Jew and a gentile who change places, was inspired by Mark Twain’s The Prince and the Pauper and is a literary commentary on the infamous “blood libel” trial of Mendel Beilis. 

After the outbreak of World War I, a now healthy Sholem Aleichem returned to America. It took some time for most of his family to join him. The death of a son — one of his six children — left behind in Europe was one of the most devastating events of his life. 

During his two final years in America, Sholem Aleichem began his memoirs, Funim Yarid (From the Fair), and worked on the novel Motl Peyseh Dem Khazins (Motl the Cantor’s Son). Left incomplete at his death, it is, in my opinion, his best work. He did, however, live to see chapters from Motl and a few short stories printed in a mass circulation newspaper — the beginning of his presence on the American literary scene. 

Sholem Aleichem died on May 13, 1916, at age 57. His funeral was legendary. The famous cantor Yossele Rosenblatt sang. The procession — from the Bronx through Manhattan to a Brooklyn cemetery — attracted 150,000-200,000 mourners. Speakers at the funeral and at a Carnegie Hall memorial included philanthropist Jacob Schiff, Rabbi Judah Magnes, and Yiddish intellectuals and literary figures. The New York City Yiddish and English press sang his praises. Sholem Aleichem’s negative attitude toward America was conveniently overlooked — and the legend began. 

In 1921, his body was moved to the Workmen’s Circle section of the Mount Carmel cemetery in Queens, where it lies among many prominent Yiddish writers and labor leaders. 

In a sense, Sholem Aleichem helped create his own legend. He was a cosmopolitan Jew who worked hard at his craft, appealed to readers of all classes, and though he had his share of tragedies, he was surrounded by a loving family and many friends.

Over time, Sholem Aleichem’s works have been widely translated into many languages and he is among the best-known Yiddish writers in the non-Jewish world. 

Sholem Aleichem’s will included a request that on his yahrtzeit, his will and one of his stories — “one of the very merry ones” — be recited “in whatever language is most intelligible to you…. Let my name be recalled with laughter or not at all.” 

This request has been carried out yearly at the Gramercy Park Synagogue in mid-Manhattan — this year on Sunday, May 22, at 8 p.m. 

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