The Life and Times of Sholem Aleichem: By Bennett Muraskin
Sholem Aleichem is best remembered as the author of the stories about Tevye the dairyman, the basis for the widely popular Broadway play and Hollywood movie, Fiddler on the Roof. Some may recall that he was called the "Jewish Mark Twain" which really does not do justice to either author. He has most often been depicted as man of the people whose writings captured the vanishing world of traditional Jewish life in the Russian shtetl with pathos and humor. But there was a lot more to him than that. Sholem Aleichem was born Sholem Rabinowitz in 1859 in the Ukraine within Czarist Russia. His father was well-to-do, but lost his money and became an innkeeper. Orphaned as a boy, Sholem knew both wealth and poverty and was subject to the whims of an unpleasant step mother, who he entertained by alphabetizing her repertoire of curses. He was also an incurable mimic.
Although religious, his father was enlightened and gave his son both a traditional and modern education, so that by his teens, Sholem was fluent not only in his native Yiddish but also in Russian and literate in Hebrew. From an early age, Sholem loved books. Along with the Bible and other traditional literature, Sholem 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 position created by the Czarist authorities to handle official business like recording births and deaths and to serve as a liaison between the Jewish community and the state. It was a thankless job.
Eventually love found its way and Sholem and Olga married. Sholem went into the family business. When his father in law died in 1887, he inherited the entire estate. Now a wealthy man himself, Sholem moved to the big city of Kiev with his wife and two children. He never so much as 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 story-teller for the common people.
Since Yiddish was still considered a disreputable "jargon" whose literature consisted of pulp fiction, Sholem Aleichem was determined to raise its reputation. Using his inheritance, In 1889, he published and edited a literary anthology including 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 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.
Sholem Aleichem 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.
By now he and Olga had five children, who they left with her mother in law while she 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 six children. Ironically, the language spoken at home was Russian, not Yiddish, although Yiddish came in a close second. They learned other languages as well, because Sholem Aleichem and family became wandering Jews.
Sholem Aleichem's financial woes inspired the creation of his first great literary character, Menachem Mendel, in 1891. He 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 the novel through letters between Menachem Mendel, who was frequently out of town, and his long suffering wife who, knowing that he is a schlemiel, constantly pleads with him to return home.
While on a summer vacation in 1894, Sholem Aleichem met a talkative dairyman named Tevye. Sholem Aleichem began writing stories about a fictionalized Tevye, a dairyman with a wife and an indeterminate number of daughters in 1894. 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. Tevye became the archetype of the poor, long suffering but resilient shtetl Jew in Czarist Russia coping with family crises, social transformation and persecution.
Many chapters did not make it into the movie. Tevye allows his wife's cousin, Menachem Mendel, 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 lives in poverty in America. Tevye's wife Golde dies. He plans to leave for Palestine, but the death of his son-in-law from tuberculosis forces him to remain. At the end, when all Jews in the region are expelled by Czarist decree, it is not even clear where Tevye and his diminished family will end up. This is a much darker story than conveyed by Fiddler.
Apart 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 called Why Do The Jews Need A Land of Their Own? When Herzl's died in 1904, he wrote a memorial.
Revolution erupted in Russia in 1904-05 against the Czarist regime. Sholem Aleichem briefly lent his support to the socialist cause, but his enthusiasm faded in the teeth of the Czarist repression. In 1905, as the revolution was crushed, he and his family were lucky to escape a pogrom.
For the safety his family 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 already achieved. He 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. Sholem Aleichem was wined and dined by feted by the giants of the Yiddish theater, Jacob Adler and Boris Tomachevsky, but they initially rejected his plays. Within a year, he managed to get them produced. Unfortunately they were flops. Instead, he 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 Forvertz, 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 a negative impression of America as a land of boors and swindlers that would never change. This is yet another revelation that shatters the popular image of Sholem Aleichem.
Sholem Aleichem much preferred the heavily Jewish cities of the Czarist "Pale of Settlement" in Poland, the Baltic provinces and Ukraine, where he went on the lecture circuit. However, he became ill with tuberculosis and spent the most of the next four years convalescing in northern Italy, Switzerland and Germany.
Throughout this period, Sholem Aleichem continued to write, 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 commerce in Jewish young women from Poland to Argentina where they were forced to become prostitutes; aka "the white slave trade." 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 One 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 supplemented by income from 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 a memoir, Funim Yarid (From the Fair,) which covers only his early years, and continued to work on Motl the Cantor's Son, a novel about the experiences of a family and friends who immigrate from Russia to America seen through the eyes of a mischievous nine 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 other stories translated and printed in the New York World, an English language 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 January 1916 at the young age of 57. His funeral was legendary. The procession traveled from the Bronx through the Lower East Side of Manhattan and parts of Brooklyn to the Mount Carmel cemetery in Queens, attracting 150,000-200,000 mourners. Yosele Rosenblatt, the most famous cantor of his time sang the traditional El Mole Rachamim. 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 such as philanthropist Jacob Schiff, Rabbi Judah Magnes and Yiddish intellectuals and literary figures from Chaim Zhitlovsky to Sholem Asch and Avrom Reisen. The New York City Yiddish and English press sung Sholem Aleichem's praises and his will was read into the Congressional Record by a Gentile Congressman. Sholem Aleichem's negative attitude toward America was conveniently overlooked
The legend began, promoted by Sholem Aleichem himself as can been seen from his epitaph (translated from the Yiddish):
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 pocked 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 fact, Sholem Aleichem was an educated cosmopolitan Jew, his prose was carefully crafted; he wrote for a broad audience and not just to help them forget their woes and although he had his share of tsuris, he had a strong family and many admirers.
Of all the Yiddish writers whose works have been translated into English, Sholem Aleichem is one of three who has made the greatest impact. The others are Sholem Asch and Isaac Bashevis Singer. Asch is not read much anymore. Between Sholem Aleichem and Singer, there is a philosophical gulf. Both saw the flaws in humanity, but Sholem Aleichem embraced the possibility of a world based on human decency, whereas Singer was convinced that people would always be ruled by their basest instincts. The major works of all three available in major public libraries.
There is also a new biography of Sholem Aleichem by Jeremy Dauber that is my primary source for this essay and well worth reading.
The rest is up to you.