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‘Think of Me With Joy’

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Billboard advertises Fiddler on the Roof in Warsaw, 1984

Poland’s first billboard advertises Jerzy Gruza’s production of Fiddler on the Roof in Warsaw, 1984

The Worlds of Sholem Aleichem
The Remarkable Life and Afterlife of the Man Who Created Tevye.
By Jeremy Dauber.
Buy this book

Wonder of Wonders
A Cultural History of “Fiddler on the Roof.”
By Alisa Solomon.
Buy this book

Dauber’s biography borrows in formal terms from both the eighteenth-century picaresque novel and the stage. He divides the book, and thus Sholem Aleichem’s life, into five acts, followed by an epilogue designated “An Afterlife in Ten Scenes.” With chapter titles like “In Which Our Hero Has Joyous Meetings and Tragic Partings, and Seeks a Buried Treasure (1907–1908)” and “In Which Our Hero Fights Back Against Libels of a Frivolous and Tragic Nature, and Encounters His Alternate Selves (1911–1913),” he analogizes Sholem Aleichem’s wanderings to those of an adventure-seeking picaresque hero, while leavening his descriptions with postmodern irony.

Dauber’s opening claim doubles as an example of his lively prose style: 

If you’re an American, Jew or no, of a certain generational span—born, say, between the time Sid Caesar first mugged for a television camera and the premiere of Seinfeld—there’s no talking about Sholem Aleichem without talking about Fiddler on the Roof, the stage and screen adaptation of his greatest creation, Tevye the dairyman. Forget Sholem Aleichem: there’s no talking about Yiddish, his language of art, without talking about Fiddler

The life clearly informed the work, from its locales to its obsession with themes such as lost treasure. But Dauber emphasizes that Sholem Aleichem should not be identified too literally with his colorful characters. He was, the biographer says, “a first-class intellect and brilliant writer, who translated the momentous events of the day for an audience looking for nuance wrapped in simplicity.” Dauber describes Sholem Aleichem’s own life, highly peripatetic and striated with disasters, as “Jewish modernity writ small.”

Sholem Aleichem is not just a pen name, one of several the writer adopted early in his career; he is also a character, the man to whom Tevye addresses his famous monologues. The first Tevye story—in the Butwin translation, “Tevye Wins a Fortune”—ends with this admonition to the fictive Sholem Aleichem: “One thing I beg of you. Don’t put me into one of your books, and if you do put me in, at least don’t tell them my real name.” The admonition, obviously not heeded in full, raises questions about the nature of fiction and the complicated, layered relationship between narrator and storyteller.

In any case, Sholem Aleichem, the man, needed the money. In Dauber’s account, Rabinovich was born into a middle-class family that suffered financial reverses. He was raised near Kiev, in the small village of Voronkov. It was there, Dauber writes, that “he amassed the raw stuff of small-town Eastern European Jewish life that he would later transmute into the image of the shtetl, often by removing its Christian presence and proximity.”

In Voronkov, too, the writer’s father was “ruined” in large part by “an unscrupulous business partner,” introducing his son to the vagaries of fortune. That spurred a family move back to his birthplace, Pereyaslav, where Sholem’s parents “would lock the bread away in a cupboard so the starving children wouldn’t get into it”—a horrifying image of dire poverty. His mother died of cholera in 1872, and his father was remarried to a woman who, for years, acted the part of the wicked stepmother.

Already writing prolifically, Sholem Aleichem escaped to become a tutor and stumbled into a Harlequin romance. Leveraging a shared love of literature, he won the heart of his employer’s daughter, Olga, and over strong parental objections finally wed her. “Undoubtedly, there are echoes of [Olga’s] behavior in the portrait Sholem Aleichem would craft of Tevye’s strong-willed daughters,” Dauber tells us. More immediately, though, for his first published Yiddish-language story, he fashioned a melodramatic tale of an impoverished tutor who woos the daughter of a wealthy businessman. The ending is a variation on Romeo and Juliet, with both lovers committing suicide.

In reality, Sholem Aleichem and his bride were happily married and eventually had six children. In 1885, his father-in-law died a freakish early death, and Olga (and therefore, under law, her husband) inherited the equivalent of more than $2.6 million in 2010 dollars. That transformed “the former starving student…into one of the wealthiest Jews in Eastern Europe,” Dauber writes—yet another spectacular reversal of fortune.

Sholem Aleichem began to live lavishly. He also used his resources to promote Yiddish, the lingua franca of East European Jews, previously dismissed as mere “jargon.” In 1889, he published an anthology of Yiddish writing whose supplement would include his novel, Stempenyu, about a married woman who ultimately resists her adulterous attraction to a musician.

By 1890, though, he was broke and hiding from creditors in Paris. Dauber can’t specify exactly what happened to all that money. But, probing Sholem Aleichem’s fiction for clues, he diagnoses the problems as “overconfidence, insufficient hedging against risk, excessive borrowing, and false and ignorant friends who occasionally lured the tyro businessman into disastrous deals.”

One of the recurrent themes of the biography is just how hard Sholem Aleichem, his growing fame notwithstanding, had to fight for a living—both for newspaper gigs and the money due from them. With a family to support, he was frequently penurious. He moved back and forth between Europe and America, wooing new publics, switching publishers, never quite satisfied and in declining health. Early on, he was desperate enough to relinquish his copyrights, but supporters eventually helped buy them back. With his own rock-concert-like benefit appearances, Dauber writes, Sholem Aleichem became “a figure that hovered between reality and fantasy.”

In Boyarke, outside Kiev, in 1894, Sholem Aleichem encountered the man on whom he would model Tevye. “But the original Tevye’s relationship to his literary counterpart was probably akin to what Kenny Kramer’s was to the Seinfeld character: an inspirational canvas on which creators of genius sketch their own comic imaginings,” Dauber writes.

The Tevye stories, focusing on the increasingly wayward marital aspirations of the dairyman’s daughters, were published over a twenty-year period. Despite the buffetings of fortune, Tevye remained “a character who stood for something like hope,” one to whom the author returned periodically for sustenance. After Sholem Aleichem’s first disastrous sojourn in America, Dauber writes, Tevye served for the author as “his resilience, his persistence in the face of adversity.”

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