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.”
Both the title, The Old Country¸ and the publication date, 1946, are nonetheless resonant, evoking a world not just forsaken but destroyed. To postwar American Jews with only a Jungian collective memory of the shtetl, Sholem Aleichem signifies as the chronicler of all that fell victim not just to modernity and assimilation, the Cossacks and compulsory military service, emigration and escape, but to the Nazis and (in Ukraine) their murderously efficient Einsatzgruppen. Both Dauber and Solomon cite Ben Hecht’s review in The New York Times to this effect: “It is the epitaph of a vanished world and an almost vanished people,” Hecht wrote of The Old Country.
As Dauber notes, associating Sholem Aleichem with the ravages of the Holocaust is an entirely anachronistic reading of stories written in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. But Sholem Aleichem did witness the pogroms that served as both symbol and warning of worse to come. Seeing his work through this prism is in part a reverential act by second- and third-generation American Jews, who may be unable even to name the cities or towns abandoned by their émigré forebears. (I know the precise geographic origins of only one of my four grandparents, and even that was a recent discovery.)
Some of the symbols Sholem Aleichem used, and that Fiddler on the Roof emblazoned in popular consciousness, serve as reminders of the links between the Old World and the New. The tailor Motel Kamzoil’s beloved sewing machine evolved into the garment industry of the Lower East Side, where my paternal grandfather worked as a dressmaker. Tevye’s itinerant dairy business had its mid-twentieth-century equivalent in my maternal grandparents’ Brighton Beach appetizing store, renowned for its smoked fish. “That store,” my cousin Bernie once told me enviously, “was a gold mine.” He might have been mimicking a character in a Sholem Aleichem story.
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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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This is the role that Tevye has continued to play for a prodigious public, as Alisa Solomon’s admiring account of Fiddler on the Roof suggests. “The show,” she writes in Wonder of Wonders, “is a global touchstone for an astonishing range of concerns: Jewish identity, American immigrant narratives, generational conflict, communal cohesion, ethnic authenticity, and interracial bridge building, among them.” She adds, persuasively, that the musical “solidified the origin story of American Jews as flight from persecution in East European shtetls—never mind the actual origins of those from urban centers or from Sephardic or Middle Eastern backgrounds.”
From the start, Fiddler has had its critics, who have taken it to task for its overly sentimental view of the old country, for its alleged misrepresentation of Sholem Aleichem’s sensibility, or even for its apparent endorsement of intermarriage. Solomon quotes the Yiddish literary critic Ruth Wisse, who wrote: “If a Jewish work can only enter American culture by forfeiting its moral authority and its commitment to group survival, one has to wonder about the bargain that destroys the Jews with its applause.” The theater critic Robert Brustein issued a broader indictment, chiding Fiddler for ”falsifying the world of Sholem Aleichem, not to mention the character of the East European Jew.” But however influential Wisse and Brustein were in the cultural discourse, their views remained minority ones. And Solomon argues that, for the most part, the musical’s creators got it right.
It is intriguing to ponder just how close Fiddler came to being a Rodgers and Hammerstein project. In 1949, Solomon tells us, the team secured an option to a libretto by Irving Elman based on the Tevye stories. Would Rodgers and Hammerstein have given the show a more triumphalist cast? Would they have added an anthem about the follies of prejudice? We’ll never know. They were at the time thoroughly immersed in creating The King and I and ultimately relinquished their rights. Michael Todd was next in line, but his plans, too, went nowhere.
Meanwhile, the blacklisted writer Arnold Perl and the blacklisted actor Howard Da Silva staged two successful plays, The World of Sholom Aleichem and Tevya and His Daughters. The productions, which served as clarion calls against injustice, “demonstrated that old Yiddish stories could find a sizable contemporary audience and make it happy,” Solomon writes. Together with an earlier dance production by the choreographer Sophie Maslow, they provoked a secondhand longing among American Jews, what Solomon calls “nostalgia for a place one had never actually been.” The creative team for Fiddler on the Roof would include the director-choreographer Jerome Robbins, already famous for West Side Story and Gypsy; lyricist Sheldon Harnick and composer Jerry Bock, who had collaborated on Fiorello!; and librettist Joseph Stein. Harold Prince would become the principal producer. All were Jewish, though from varied backgrounds, and the creative process for Fiddler would send them back to their roots, prospecting for nuggets of authenticity.
Stein’s main challenge, as Solomon describes it, was to knit the separate stories, narrated by Tevye, into a coherent narrative. Robbins “labored mightily to burn away the schmaltz that for two decades had encased the world of the shtetl like amber,” Solomon writes. Seeking to wed the particular with the universal, he tried to persuade Marc Chagall to join the design team; scenic designer Boris Aronson signed on instead. To everyone he enlisted, Robbins assigned homework that included Sholem Aleichem’s stories, archival photos and obscure historical films.
One great coup was the casting of Zero Mostel, another blacklisted actor of outsized talent. “Mostel and Robbins had worked together briefly before and did not like each other,” Solomon writes. It hardly helped that Robbins had been on the opposite side of the Cold War divide, having named names before the House Un-American Activities Committee. In rehearsal, the two would clash frequently, in part because of their opposing temperaments: “Mostel was confident and free as an actor could be, Robbins a sack of insecurity as a director,” Solomon notes.
After out-of-town tryouts in Detroit and Washington, Fiddler opened triumphantly in New York on September 22, 1964. And despite mixed reviews, the audiences kept coming, making it the longest-running musical of its era. Fiddler’s story of generational conflict intersected with the looming challenges of 1960s America, Solomon asserts, “capturing the sensibility—the anxiety”—of a country on the threshold of enormous social change. The final portion of Solomon’s densely reported book describes the making of the 1971 Norman Jewison film and some of the uses to which Fiddler has been put around the world. In Israel, she writes, the show “brought audiences close to the Old World without collapsing the distance that national self-definition still required.” In Brooklyn’s Brownsville section, a middle school production with an African-American cast became a “vehicle…for the assertion and agency that community control aspired to give the whole city.” And in one Polish community, an open-air production that enlisted props from local households stirred up memories, possibly bittersweet, of “the Jews who once shared their town.”
Sholem Aleichem’s own 1916 funeral, a huge cultural event, prefigured the mythic qualities that would adhere to his creations. More than 100 Yiddish writers watched over his body in fine ceremonial fashion. As many as 250,000 people thronged the streets of New York City to witness his funeral procession.
His will, released after the funeral, enhanced his mystique. It asked that he be placed “among plain Jewish laborers, among the people itself.” And it entreated his family and others “not to weep after me, on the contrary, to think of me with joy.” Both Wonder of Wonders and The Worlds of Sholem Aleichem heed that parting admonition.