Commentary Magazine

The Jewish Sholem Aleichem

Let’s talk about something more cheerful. Have you any news of the cholera in Odessa?

-Sholem Aleichem

On his first trip to America in 1906, Sholem Aleichem was introduced to Mark Twain by a New York judge named Samuel Greenbaum. By way of introduction, Greenbaum remarked that Aleichem was “the Jewish Mark Twain.” Twain graciously responded, “Tell him I am the American Sholem Aleichem.” Whether Mark Twain and Sholem Aleichem ever read each other is unclear, but they had a fair amount in common.

 Both had wide public recognition; each was beloved by his readers.  They were also both money writers, in constant need of funds to finance their rather grand styles of living. Twain married the daughter of a wealthy coal dealer and forever after struggled to keep her in the manner to which she had been brought up.

Money was never for long out of Mark Twain’s mind. Nor was it out of Sholem Aleichem’s. He was born Sholem Rabinovich in 1859, son of a moderately successful trader and shopkeeper. His father was traditionalist in his religion yet modern in his intellectual outlook. Cheated by a partner, he went bust; not long after, his wife died of cholera when her son, the future writer, was 13. 

After three years in a Russian secular school, Sholem left home at 17 to go out on his own. He worked briefly as an assistant to a lawyer, then as a tutor in Russian to the children of well-to-do Jewish families. He would later be employed as a “crown rabbi,” a job that entailed gathering statistics on the births, deaths, and conscriptions of small-town Jews for the Russian government. He assumed the pen name “Sholem Aleichem” not long after he began writing in 1883.

That year, he married, much against her father’s wishes, a girl he had earlier tutored named Olga Loyeff, the daughter of a successful estate manager. Two years later, the father-in-law died, leaving his daughter the equivalent in current dollars of $2.6 million. At 26, Sholem Rabinovich found himself a wealthy man.

He and his wife, Olga, with the first two of what would eventually be their six children, moved into a plush apartment in the city of Kiev (the Yehupetz of so many of his stories). Technically, they lived there illegally, for the Jewish populations of Russian cities, under the laws of the Pale of Settlement, were held to strict quotas. The same was true of quotas in St. Petersburg and Moscow.

In these, his newly rich days, Sholem Aleichem devoted quite as much time to business as to writing. He founded a company speculating in commodities; he played heavily on the Jewish version of the bourse in Kiev. He never had a seat on the Kiev exchange but was a kind of day trader avant la lettre. Like his fictional character Menakhem-Mendl, the ever hopeful loser, Sholem Aleichem tapped out, and before long dissipated his father-in-law’s inheritance. His mother-in-law paid off his debts; and though she lived with him, she never spoke to him again.

While still flush, Sholem Aleichem published a large anthology of Yiddish writing. He paid his contributors handsomely and put considerable energy into the editing of their work. He felt that he had a stake in Yiddish as a literary language, and wanted a hand in helping to direct its future. Yiddish literature may have been his only sound investment.

All this and a great deal more I learned from Jeremy Dauber’s excellent new biography. The Worlds of Sholem Aleichem is chiefly a biography of the day-to-day life of a writer and an examination of the meaning of his works. Dauber, a professor of Yiddish literature at Columbia, recounts Sholem Aleichem’s complicated relations with editors and publishers, his travels, his literary ambitions, the origins and meaning and fate of his writing. The Worlds of Sholem Aleichem expends little space on tracing out its subject’s neuroses or delving into scandalous behavior. Sholem Aleichem devoted so much of his relatively short life to work that there was scarcely time for either.

“Sholem Aleichem’s rueful realism provided ironic counterbalance to his rampant optimism,” Dauber writes. The optimism is less easily explained than the realism, which came from his having lived and been brought up as a Jew in Russia. From czars to commissars, the Russians have always treated their people as if they were a conquered nation. They seemed, however, to take especial pleasure in making life hard for the Jews.

One of the dirty little secrets of art is that sometimes the worst social and political conditions prove the most fertile ground for its growth. Think of the Italian Renaissance, with its many despots, its taste for vendette and other manifold cruelties, out of which derived the greatest visual art the Western world has known. Think of 19th-century Russia, until 1862 still a slave-holding country, barbarous in so many other ways, which in Gogol, Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Turgenev, and Chekhov produced the greatest writers of fiction in all of literature. 

Sholem Aleichem came of age at a time when the Jews in Russia and Eastern Europe generally were oppressed from without and riven from within. Yet these conditions were richly promising for the right artist. Sholem Aleichem, the right artist, was a man who loved his fellow Jews, experienced firsthand the despotism tormenting them, and strongly felt the conflicts dividing them.

Everything possible was done to stop Jews from maintaining lives of dignity and calm in the Russia of Sholem Aleichem’s time. From the early 1880s on, after the assassination of Czar Alexander II, the government incited pogroms in Kiev, Rostov-on-Don, Nizhny-Novgorod, Kishinev, Odessa, and elsewhere. Strict Jewish quotas were set for Jews entering secular Russian schools. Many towns in the Pale of Settlement were reclassified as villages, which forced Jews to evacuate them, while at the same time Jews were expelled from Moscow and St. Petersburg. The Black Hundreds, with the complicity of the Czarist police, incited peasants to maraud through Jewish neighborhoods and towns without fear of punishment. In 1905, with the outbreak of the Russo-Japanese war, Jews were conscripted into the Russian army in vastly disproportionate numbers; it had earlier, under Czar Nicholas I, been the practice to draft them for 25 years, during which time they generally either died or gave up their religion and lost all connection with their families.

In Sholem Aleichem’s story called “Eighteen from Pereshchepena,” a character asks: “How can anyone expect us to survive so many troubles, so many quotas, so much discrimination? Every day, every blessed day, there’s some new regulation against us. Why, there must be a regulation per Jew already!”

At the same time, Jews in Russia were shaken from within by great cultural changes underway during these years. The most emphatic of these changes was found in the conflict between conventionally religious Jews and those Jews who, under the banner of the Haskalah, or Jewish Enlightenment, wished to modernize traditional Judaism by broadening Jewish education. Although the Haskalah was never about assimilation, but about widening the boundaries of Jewish ghetto and shtetl life, it nonetheless stirred strong conflict among Jews, often within the same families. As Sholem Aleichem notes in his autobiography, From the Fair, during the era of the Haskalah, “to show piety was humiliating,” and to be “a fanatic was worse than a libertine.” Many younger Jews became political, revolutionary even, abandoning Jewish worship, which they viewed as mired in retrograde superstition.

The first question facing the young Sholem Aleichem was whether to write in Yiddish or Hebrew. The Haskalah favored Hebrew, and the maskilim, as the advocates of Haskalah were called, looked down on Yiddish as a vulgar jargon, even though it was the language of 98 percent of the Jews living in the Pale of Settlement. Sholem Aleichem’s father, though pious in his religion, nonetheless reflected this split; favoring Hebrew over Yiddish as proper language for Jewish literature, he wanted his son to write in the ancient tongue, which he did at the beginning of his career.

Sholem Aleichem came to recognize that the Yiddish-speaking Jews who were his subject were best written about in their own language. “For Sholem Aleichem,” Ruth R. Wisse wrote in her introduction to the collection of his stories called The Best of Sholom Aleichem, “the unfixed nature of Yiddish was its greatest attraction, and its infinite range of dialects and oral styles the best literary means of capturing the dynamic changes—or the resistance to change—in the culture.” Writing in Hebrew, when he thought in Yiddish, as Jeremy Dauber notes, meant for Sholem Aleichem essentially translating himself from one language to another.

Yiddish at that time also gave Sholem Aleichem access to a larger audience, which suited him, for he was never interested in being a small-public writer. His stories were published not in quarterlies, or what the Russians used to call the “thick” magazines, but in Yiddish-language newspapers read by Jews all over the world. He wanted the largest possible readership, and he won it at a relatively early age.

In his autobiography, written toward the end of his life, Sholem Aleichem remarks on his early gift for mimicry. Such skill may be the first sign of the verbal artist in the making. For Sholem Aleichem, it would prove indispensable. His specialty was the monologue, as in the first-person stories of his character Tevye the Dairyman, or epistolary fiction, as in the exchange of letters between Menakhem-Mendl and his ever complaining wife Sheyne-Sheyndl. His series of tales known as the “railroad stories” rarely feature the author speaking; instead, he records the stories that Jews packed into third-class recount on long rail trips as though he were transcribing them.

A Jew without irony is probably not fully a Jew, but Sholem Aleichem’s irony was never contentious, never superior to its subject, never malignant. The Yiddish poet Itzik Fefer described it as “lyrical irony.” Sholem Aleichem found what was extraordinary in the most ordinary Jews, highlighting their oddity, comedy, sadness, and endurance. The standard cliché about Sholem Aleichem’s writing is that he provokes laughter through tears. In No Joke, her recent book on Jewish jokes, Wisse comes closer to capturing it when she characterizes Sholem Aleichem’s stories as “more accurately understood as laughter through fears.”

If one is searching for influences on Sholem Aleichem, one thinks first of his fellow Ukrainian, Nikolai Gogol—the only authentic comic genius among Russian writers, and an artist who, like Sholem Aleichem, was always playful but never shallow. Cervantes and Laurence Sterne were two other writers he delighted in. He admired Tolstoy above all the Russian novelists and thought well of Maxim Gorky, for both his socialism and his philo-Semitism; for a time, in imitation of Gorky, he grew his hair long and went about in a loose tunic.

Like Dickens, whose work he loved, Sholem Aleichem had the copiousness, the unending flow, the inexhaustible inventiveness of the natural writer. He rewrote, cut, polished his prose, but ideas for stories seem never to have been in short supply. He produced a story a week for the Yiddish press for a quarter-century. At various times in his later years, physicians had to ask him to cease writing as part of their plan for his recuperation, but he found himself unable to do so. He was writing the stories that went into Motl, the Cantor’s Son up to a few days before his death.

“I feel a kind of bond exists between me and the people, that is, between all the people who read jargon,” he wrote.It seems to me like I need them and they need me.” Through his stories, he showed the pressures under which they lived, the rich complications of their lives, and through the force of his art, he authenticated them. “What kind of extraordinary, yet plausible, Jewish work of literature could be created that would ironically juxtapose the past and the changing present,” Dauber writes, “and, for good measure, include doses of playfulness, disruption, along with the occasional self-referential or autobiographical excursion?” This was precisely the kind that Sholem Aleichem created, over and over again.

He do the Jews in different voices, to ring a change on T.S. Eliot’s line from “The Waste Land.” In his various stories Sholem Aleichem did schnorrers, hondlers, yentes, luftmenschen, petty tyrants, children, and dreamers—above all, dreamers. Sholem Aleichem describes himself in his autobiography as “the constant dreamer,” and so he remained all his days; to the very end of his life he was hoping for a big score on the stage of the New York Yiddish theatre. Only the women in Sholem Aleichem are landed, grounded, anchored in reality, burdened with the unpleasant task of bringing their husbands, sons-in-laws, and children back down to earth. Their chief weapon in doing so is the combined curse and aphorism: “As mother says, God bless her,” Menakhem-Mendl’s wife Sheyne-Sheyndl says, “the worm within the radish thinks there’s no sweeter place.”

Sholem Aleichem was able to create characters who are garrulous without becoming tiresome. Part of the pleasure of the performance is in his picking up the different tics that repeat themselves in his characters’ speech; the character who fastens on the phrase “in plain Yiddish,” as we today would say “the bottom line is”; the character who is always making “a long story short,” but doesn’t, not really; the character who in recounting his own troubles says over and over that they should be visited only on “Purishkevich,” a right-wing anti-Semite of the day; the character who cannot get through four or five sentences without falling back on “et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.” His stories can begin at the beginning, the end, or in medias res. “‘Speaking of the Drozhne fire’…” one story begins, when of course no one was speaking of it.

In From the Fair, Sholem Aleichem repeats a story his grandfather told him. It is about a Jew who approaches his nobleman landlord for the renewal of his lease on an inn he runs. The inn brings him a minimal profit but is his sole income. He finds the nobleman drunk among friends. When he makes his request, the nobleman says that he will accede to the request if the Jew will climb up to the roof of his house and allow him to shoot at him as if he were a bird. The Jew, with great trepidation, does so, reciting the Sh’ema prayer as he climbs the ladder to the roof. “Jews of the old school,” Sholem Aleichem writes. One might think the prayer will save him; one might think the nobleman, even in his drunkenness, cannot be so brutish as actually to shoot the poor Jew. Once the Jew attains the roof, the nobleman asks him to spread his arms, bird-like, and he fires and hits the Jew in the forehead, killing him. Afterward the nobleman, a man of his word, renews the lease for 10 years, at the same rent, despite his having had higher offers. “Noblemen of the old school,” writes Sholem Aleichem. Nothing about this story is as one might have expected. Everything about it is believable. The two capping comments—“Jews of the old school,” “Noblemen of the old school”—couldn’t be more perfectly placed.

Sholem Aleichem dedicated his first novel, Stempenyu, to S.M. Abramovitch, better known under the pen name Mendele Mocher Sforim, the “grandfather of Yiddish literature.” Sholem Aleichem addressed him as zaide. Abramovitch told the younger man the novel was not his genre; that, as a writer of great comic gifts, he would do best to work in shorter forms. Sholem Aleichem continued to turn out the occasional novel, and he also attempted with great financial hope in his heart to write for the stage. But Abramovitch was correct. The 1,500- to 5,000-word sketch or story was where he shone.

When his writing centered on the same character in different stories, he produced what in effect were the equivalents of novels. Such is the case with the stories about Menakhem-Mendl, the stories about Motl the Cantor’s son, and, above all, the stories about Tevye the Dairyman. Religion forms the background, but culture is the true subject of these various works—the culture of Jewish life at a time of constant change and perpetual peril.

Sholem Aleichem lived the Jewish life of the miskilim. He wore no yarmulke, did not observe dietary laws. In his own household, he spoke not Yiddish but Russian. Not all of his children could read Yiddish. Yet in his will he beseeches his descendants “to guard their Jewish descent” and specifies that those who fail to do so “have thus erased themselves from my will, ‘and they shall have no portion and inheritance among their brethren.’”

Jewish stories are without happy endings. The standard Jewish story, it has been said, is about disaster avoided. The closest to hope these stories come is in the recognition that things could have been worse. Critics have noted that Sholem Aleichem’s stories do not have true endings; they merely conclude. “The stories move toward a climax,” Irving Howe wrote, “and then, just when you expect the writer to drive toward resolution they seem deliberately to remain hanging in the air. They stop rather than end.” Dauber’s view is that by doing away with endings that explain “what it all means,” Sholem Aleichem “yanks away our security blanket as readers.” I would only add that the want of conventional endings in so many of these stories feels aesthetically right.

Sholem Aleichem left Russia in 1905, when, from the window of his hotel room, he witnessed a pogrom in the streets of Kiev. He would be a permanent transient for the remainder of his life, in Lemberg, London, Geneva and Montreux in Switzerland, the Italian Riviera, New York, and other places.

Dandaical in dress, expensive in his tastes, Sholem Aleichem was, as Dauber has it, “a spendthrift.” He was, though, the saddest of spendthrifts—one with a conscience. However much money he earned, he always needed more. Living without permanence with his large family on the road was costly. Dauber recounts his unending negotiations and disputes with Yiddish newspaper and book publishers over fees, advances, and copyrights; his attempts at a theatrical bonanza. (He had two plays mounted on the same night in New York, one under the direction of Boris Thomashevsky, the other of Jacob Adler, the great figures in the New York Yiddish theatre. Both flopped.) When Abramovitch accused him of extending his series of Menakhem-Mendl stories merely for the money, Sholem Aleichem was much offended. His pen, he argued, was never for sale. He claimed he “always writes for writing’s sake.” But the money was nice, and necessary.

He gave readings throughout Eastern Europe that thousands attended and was met at train stations by admiring crowds. When Sholem Aleichem first arrived in New York in 1906, a crowd awaited him at the dock, including editors of the leading Yiddish press and theater, academics, readers who adored his writing. Even the yekkes, the German Jews already well settled and financially successful in America, the Warburgs and the Schiffs, invited him into their homes.  But it was downhill from there. Along with his theatrical failures, he made the wrong newspaper contracts for his writing, and his readings were not always well attended. He would later refer to America as “the land of cultural servitude and senseless humiliation,” where an “author is a schlimazl.  He returned to Europe the following year.

On one of his reading tours, in 1908 in the Ukrainian town of Baranovitch, Sholem Aleichem’s health broke down. He was found to have acute pulmonary tuberculosis. The last eight years of his life would be spent in expensive convalescence. He continued working, even tried turning some of his stories into scripts for silent films. (He was a great admirer of Charlie Chaplin.) World War I drained much of the hope left in him. He returned to America in 1914, to less acclaim than on his first voyage, and remained here, living in the Bronx. He now seemed, as Jeremy Dauber puts it, less a visiting celebrity than a refugee. He died in 1916 at the age of 57. Estimates of the number of people who attended his funeral vary between 30,000 and a quarter of a million.

Of his writing, very little of which had appeared in English while he was still alive, today only the Tevye stories are well known, and these through the adaptations of the Broadway musical and movie versions of Fiddler on the Roof. To be remembered, appreciated, world-famous for something one didn’t quite do would have been an irony not lost on that great ironist Sholem Aleichem.

The Tevye stories represent Sholem Aleichem at his greatest. David Roskies, a professor of Yiddish literature at the Jewish Theological Seminary, calls Tevye himself “the greatest storyteller in Jewish fiction.” Another critic, Itzik Manger, referred to him as “a comic Job.” He is one of the half dozen or so great comic characters in Western literature, with Don Quixote, Falstaff, and Mr. Wilkins Micawber. Tevye is a great comic character because, like these others, he is not comic merely. He is fully as tragic as he is comic, perhaps more so. 

In Tevye, Sholem Aleichem found the perfect character—the vivid objective correlative—to describe the plight of the Jews in Russia in the last decades of the 19th century. Tevye is the poor Jew who does not let his poverty detract from his dignity. He is also a fine vessel for purveying Sholem Aleichem’s ironic vision. “‘We’ve heard, Tevye,’ they [some peasants] tell him, ‘that you’re an honest man, even if you’re a rat-Jew.’ I ask you, do you ever get such compliments from Jews?”

When we first encounter him, Tevye is a laborer, married, with seven daughters. He is given to endless quotations from the Torah and the Talmud. His wife, Golde, tells him, “You Bible a person half to death, and think you have solved the problem.” He prides himself on his erudition; he is, he says, a man “who reads the fine print.” With his aged horse and cart he drags logs and lumber between his village of Anatevka and Boiberik, the rich Jewish suburb of Yehupetz (Kiev). One day in the forest he picks up two lost women and returns them to their opulent dachas in Boiberik, for which he is rewarded with food, a cow, and 37 rubles. With this money he buys more livestock and, with the aid of his wife, becomes the moderately successful Tevye the Dairyman.

Tevye talks chiefly to three parties: to himself, as he makes his rounds between Anatevka and Boiberik, where he sells his milk, butter, and cheese; to the scribbler Sholem Aleichem, to whom he recounts his troubles; and to God, with whom he for the most part argues. At the center of the Tevye stories are his daughters, who are all comely and, in differing ways, fiercely independent. In the stories of each of the five older daughters one discovers the departures from Jewish tradition that confronts not only Tevye but Russian Jewry generally. All are love stories, but told from the point of view of the father.

The oldest daughter, Tsaytl, goes against his wishes, and turning away from a marriage with a wealthy widower butcher, marries Motl Komoyl, a poor tailor without prospects whom she loves. “What do you have against my daughter,” Tevye asks Motl, “that you want to marry her?” In the end Tevye relents, deciding that his future son-in-law may only be a tailor, but he is honest and of his love for Tsaytl there can be no doubt. He concludes that “if everyone acted sensibly, there wouldn’t be a Jewish wedding in the world.” He determines to reconcile himself to the marriage. “Tevye, I said to myself, stop hemming and hawing and sign on the dotted line.” There remains only to convince his wife, Golde, who, in a nice touch of Jewish snobbery even among the poor, laments that until now there has never been a tailor or shoemaker in the family.

Tevye’s daughter Hodl takes up with a tutor, one Pertchik, who turns out to be a political radical. They plan to marry, and it becomes clear that Tevye’s permission means little to them. Pertchik’s secret political work will take him away from Hodl for a good while, but she is ready to stand by him. Eventually Pertchik will be sent by the Russian government off to Siberia, where she will join him. The night before her departure to meet her future husband, Hodl and her father spend alone, saying little, feeling everything.

“What a mistake it was,” says Tevye, “to go and have such daughters.” What makes the mistake complicated is his fathomless love for them. They might very well, indeed, have taken their strong independent strain from him. As Tevye says in another of his monologues with Sholem Aleichem: “Trust no one but God. Just leave it to Him. He’ll see that the worms are exiting you like fresh bagels and you’ll thank him for it, too.” Still, he adds, “there’s a great God above and…a man must never lose heart while he lives.”

Tevye’s problems are not alone with God, with whom he claims somehow to have made his peace. “My problem,” he says, “was with men. Why did they have to be so bad when they could as well have been good?” Which is of course another question for God, who seems to be deficient, as Tevye sees it, in a sense of justice. “A Jew must have confidence and faith. He must believe, first, that there is a God, and second, that if there is, and if it’s all the same to Him, and if it isn’t putting Him to too much trouble, He can make things a little better for the likes of you.”

Another of Tevye’s daughter’s will marry a temporarily wealthy four-flusher named Podhotzur, with whom she will eventually run off to America. Yet another has her affections trifled with by the son of a rich family who eventually deserts her, causing her, in her heartbreak, to drown herself.

Most drastic of all, Tevye’s daughter Chava marries a Gentile, a Russian from a peasant family, causing him to think, “Was I really the world’s greatest sinner, that I deserved to be its most punished Jew,” and “was it for this that I had been such a good Jew all my life?” Easily the most poignant moment in the Tevye stories occurs when the apostate Chava appears out of the forest to cry out that she needs a word with her father, and he, with so much love in his heart for her, but already having declared her dead, drives off in his cart without deigning to recognize her.

The Tevye stories recapitulate the chronicle of the Jews in late 19th-century Russia: the break with tradition, the radicalization of the young, intermarriage, and finally, in the last Tevye story, their dispossession from their shtetl homes, to depart for…Odessa, America, Israel, who knew? Tevye is a widower at the close, and he reminds Sholem Aleichem that he used to tell his wife the Misnah holds that life is no different with or without children. “Either way,” he says, “there’s a great kind merciful God above. I only wish I had a ruble for every dirty trick he’s played on me…”

Although he wrote many brilliant stories—“Dreyfus in Kasrilevke,” “On Account of a Hat,” “A Yom Kippur Scandal,” and others—Sholem Aleichem’s right to a posthumous reputation is based upon, and justified by, the Tevye tales. The nature of that reputation, it turns out, has varied wildly. For a while in the Soviet Union, Sholem Aleichem was valued as an anti-Czarist writer. In Israel, where the old shtetl life was viewed more with revulsion than nostalgia, he was regarded chiefly as the author of children’s stories. In America, Sholem Aleichem’s reputation was most complicated of all.

The complication set in and quickly thickened with the production, first on stage and then on film, of Fiddler on the Roof. The great Yiddish actor Maurice Schwartz earlier had success playing Tevye on stage. But the Broadway musical that debuted in 1964 swept the boards. By 1971, as Dauber notes, “an estimated 35 million people had seen the show.” Eventually it ran for 3,242 performances, and the movie version was the most successful film of 1971.

Jeremy Dauber concludes that Fiddler on the Roof rendered Sholem Aleichem, at least in the public mind, that vague entity a folk artist, and a writer who kindled a nostalgia for old-world shtetl life. (Nostalgia, the sociologist Robert Nisbet wrote, “is the rust of memory.”) Fiddler on the Roof softened and sentimentalized Sholem Aleichem. But anyone who reads him discovers that he was the least sentimental of writers. He knew how grim life in the shtetl was; he knew both the necessity for Jews in the Pale to modernize themselves and the cost modernization inflicted on Jewish tradition; he knew, finally, what was distinctive about being a Jew and how important it was to preserve this distinctiveness. “I, loving my people with warm heart and cold reason,” Sholem Aleichem wrote, “tell the truth.” And he did, always. This truth-telling, together with his penetrating comic perspective, made him a great writer and the best of all historians of the quotidian life of Eastern European Jewry.

About the Author

Joseph Epstein’s latest contribution to Commentary was the short story “Out of Action,” published in our November 2013 issue.

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