Deciphering the cultural significance of the writings of Sholem Aleichem (1859–1916) is akin to opening a set of Russian nesting dolls: inside one set of meanings invariably lies another. The puzzle begins with the author’s name. Meaning both “How do you do?” and “Peace be unto you” in Yiddish, Sholem Aleichem was the pen name adopted by Sholem Rabinovich, the scion of a Ukrainian merchant. Fluent in Russian and Hebrew, he would leave his mark as a leader of the fin de siècle Yiddish literary revival. He married into money, lost it, then struggled financially despite his international renown as a short-story writer and novelist. As a playwright, he was mostly a failure, scorned by New York’s thriving Yiddish theater. The irony is that today he is most widely remembered for the adaptation of his Tevye stories into Fiddler on the Roof, with its sentimental, tragicomic view of Eastern European shtetl life.
Exploring the shifts in Sholem Aleichem’s reception, creative output and roller-coaster fortunes is a dizzying pursuit. Tracing the various cultural representations of just one of his characters—the loquacious, Old Testament–quoting milkman, caught between traditional imperatives and the modern world—is not much simpler. In both cases, the investigation necessarily ricochets between past and present, Europe and America, the tragedy of the pogroms and the greater tragedy of the Holocaust.
Two new books, complementary in their aims and conclusions, manage these daunting tasks with aplomb, even if they’re nowhere near as much fun as reading the writer himself. In The Worlds of Sholem Aleichem, Jeremy Dauber, professor of Yiddish literature at Columbia University, offers a sometimes irreverent—but also deeply serious—literary biography that attempts to channel his subject’s antic spirit. Episodic in feel, it is most effective as a work of criticism that identifies Sholem Aleichem’s affinities with literary modernism and postmodernism—a perspective that undermines the popular notion of his work as sophisticated folklore.
Dauber also conveys a congenial picture of the man himself: devoted to his family, alternately competitive and collaborative with other writers, a committed wanderer perennially in search of cash and recognition. Without lapsing into long-winded historical digressions, he situates Sholem Aleichem in a sociocultural context that included violent Russian anti-Semitism, European war and the alluring but fragmentary promise of America. In his final pages, Dauber takes on what he calls Sholem Aleichem’s “afterlife,” including the development of Fiddler on the Roof, the focus of Alisa Solomon’s Wonder of Wonders.
Solomon begins with a thumbnail sketch of Sholem Aleichem’s frayed relationship with the American Yiddish stage, as well as the success of Tevye der Milkhiker, an early play based on his Tevye stories. She finds her footing with the wonderfully gossipy creation tale of the long-running Broadway musical, a labor of love plagued by animosity between its temperamental director-choreographer and its rebellious star. She concludes with reporting on select instances of Fiddler’s staging and reception around the world, attesting to the show’s continuing power and relevance.
Dauber’s biography, involving close analysis of individual works, has the salutary effect of sending the reader back to the originals. For those of us not literate in Yiddish, that means English-language translations that struggle to capture Sholem Aleichem’s signature humor and wordplay. In The Old Country, the first English-language collection of his stories, Frances Butwin (co-translator with her husband, Julius) addresses some of the challenges of the translator’s art: “Often what was entirely right and simple and flavorsome in Yiddish completely missed fire when translated literally.” In the case of Tevye, she adds, “some of the pungency and flavor of this most delightful and most completely realized of all of Sholom Aleichem’s characters was lost in translation.”