Rabbi Dr. Robert E. Fierstien said it is unfortunate that today’s audiences know virtually nothing of Sholem Aleichem other than that his stories inspired the musical Fiddler on the Roof.
“There is no doubt that the stories about Tevye the milkman are among his greatest creations,” Fierstien acknowledged, “but to reduce the life and work of so varied an author to a single adaptation is an injustice not only to him but to the reading public, which is missing out on the richness of his output.”
Fierstien, adjunct professor of Jewish studies at Stockton University in Galloway, hopes to help correct this injustice when he delivers a talk on the great Yiddish author at the Jewish Heritage Museum of Monmouth County in Freehold on Wednesday, Nov. 18, at 1:30 p.m.
The timing is right, said Fierstien, noting that 2016 marks the 100th anniversary of the author’s death.
Fierstien credits his mother with sparking his interest in Jewish literature generally and Sholem Aleichem in particular.
He also has two glancing personal connections to the author.
“One of my high school classmates was a boy named Raphael Mostel, whose uncle was Zero Mostel, the actor who originated the role of Tevye on Broadway,” said Fierstien. Raphael is now a composer, producer, and director of stage productions.
“Later, when I was at the Jewish Theological Seminary, I was friendly with a woman named Shayna Rabinowitz. She was a cousin of Sholem Aleichem, whose real name was Solomon Rabinovich,” Fierstien said. The cousins never met, however, since the author died in 1916.
In his talk, Fierstien plans to introduce the audience to the full breadth of Sholem Aleichem’s career, as well as to his ability to educate as well as entertain.
In addition to the short stories about Tevye and another well-known recurring character, Menachem-Mendl, Sholem Aleichem produced novels, plays, articles, essays, and an autobiography.
“Like Mark Twain, with whom he is sometimes compared, he wrote for both children and adults,” said Fierstien. (In fact, when Mark Twain heard of the writer called “the Jewish Mark Twain,” he is said to have replied, “Please tell him that I am the American Sholem Aleichem.”)
“He had encompassing vision and understanding. Although some people think of him as old-fashioned and focusing only on poor people, he saw beyond that. Tevye, while poor, delivers dairy products to wealthy clients, and they are Jews, too. Sholem Aleichem shows us the variety of Jewish life that existed in the world of the late 19th century,” Fierstien said.
Noting that this period is his own specialty as a historian, Fierstien said this was a tumultuous time, the point when the modern era began.
“One of my favorite Sholem Aleichem stories is ‘The Pair.’ A male and female are taken captive and placed on display for the community. Slowly they begin to realize that they are not like the people looking at them, but are birds being fattened for the Pesach meal. The story offers a wry commentary on human behavior and attitudes, and it is one of Sholem Aleichem’s best,” said Fierstien.
A native of Passaic and a graduate of New York University, Fierstien earned a rabbinic doctorate from JTS. Now semi-retired, he is the former rabbi of Temple Beth Or in Brick and currently lives in Lakewood.
He is the author of A Different Spirit, about the creation and early years (1886-1902) of JTS, and also edited two books, A Century of Commitment: One Hundred Years of the Rabbinical Assembly and Solomon Schechter in America: A Centennial Tribute.