Authors: Alisa Solomon
He wondered, with a little false modesty, as to the cause: was it the popularity of the folk writer, the Jewish public’s yearning for a Yiddish theater, or simply the mob’s lack of restraint? In any case, Sholem-Aleichem evaded the “thousand-headed mass that awaited its prey” at the theater’s exit only because a police officer hid him away in a locked loge for half an hour and then slipped him out a back door. “My God! What would happen if it were possible to play in Yiddish?”
With more prescience than he could have guessed, Sholem-Aleichem concluded, “My fate and your future (I mean that of my successors) are tightly bound up with the Jewish theater. Write it down in your calendar.”
She would have done well to mark a date more than half a century later that would not only forever tie Sholem-Aleichem’s fate to the theater but also shape the future of remembered Jewish history: September 22, 1964, the opening night of
Fiddler on the Roof
leichem sat in
iev and thought about the
ork theater. He was exhausted from a reading tour that autumn of 1905, through a land sputtering with aftershocks of the failed revolution. Train strikes had delayed his travel and he was depressed by the hunger and hopelessness he had seen among the adoring crowds who poured out to hear his wry stories of the Jewish folk. At forty-six, he was uncertain about his own future as well. Though he was the most famous Yiddish author in the world, beloved by readers from Berdichev to Brod, Boston to Buenos Aires, he had no idea where his next kopek would come from. With a wife and five children to support (his eldest of six was already on her own and engaged to be married) and unrest still rumbling through the Russian Empire, he dreamed—like millions of other Jews in the region—of finding deliverance in America.
Specifically, he expected to make a killing in the flashy Yiddish theater scene. Surely, the great actor-managers in New York would clamor for a play from the celebrated writer and pay handsomely for it, too. What’s more, he believed, his work would raise the level of theirs. In place of the sensational melodramas and trivial operettas that dominated the Yiddish repertoire, Sholem-Aleichem would offer an honest charm. Instead of the flamboyant figures who pranced and declaimed, his characters would be true-to-life Jews. His plays would be funny, yes; touching, sure. But not by dint of the cheap gags and sentimental exaggerations that were the yeast of the plays that hacks “baked”—as the critics said—by the dozen. Rather, the comic humanity and the pathos of his famous fiction would shine forth from a nobler, more sincere form of drama. Sholem-Aleichem was convinced: New York’s Yiddish theater would save him. And he would return the favor.
A good place to start would be with a stage adaptation of
, a highly successful novella about a dazzling, philandering violinist who woos Rokhele, a beautiful young woman tied to an inattentive husband. When he published it in 1888, the author had been writing for five years under the Yiddish pen name Sholem-Aleichem—literally “Peace be unto you” but the conversational equivalent of “How do you do?” In the late nineteenth century, serious Jewish writers such as the young Sholem Rabinowitz aspired to be could be proud to identify themselves with works penned in Hebrew or Russian—but not in Yiddish. Intellectuals and proponents of the Jewish Enlightenment, the
, scorned the vernacular “jargon” that made its way into print only for the degraded texts that appealed to women—prayer books for those unlearned in the holy tongue, formulaic romance novels. Rabinowitz had long left the shtetl of his boyhood and, after standard study in a religious
, had been educated in a Russian high school; as the tutor to the daughter of a wealthy estate owner near Kiev for three years, he’d had a taste of the high life (he was fired for courting his pupil); at twenty-one, he was pursuing a writing career and asserting his place in the intelligentsia. Hebrew, therefore, formal and flowery, was the language he used when he wrote essays on Jewish pedagogy during the longueurs of his day job as a Jewish community record keeper and liaison (a
) in a provincial town government in the Ukraine.
Sholem-Aleichem, urbane businessman and beloved
In 1881, the editor of the Hebrew journal Rabinowitz wrote for also started putting out a Yiddish weekly and the imprimatur such a publication granted the derided language tapped open an old desire. Rabinowitz had determined as a child that he’d become a writer one Saturday evening as he listened in on his grandfather reading to guests from a thin, yellowed book (or so his self-mythologizing autobiography maintains). The boy could not make out the words or even the general subject of the Yiddish his grandfather recited, but he could hear the visitors laughing. Someday, Rabinowitz decided, he too would bring such delight to the common people. With the publication of the Yiddish supplement to the Hebrew paper, he now had the chance.
The Yiddish language’s standing had been rising with the growth of Jewish nationalism, spurred on by a wave of pogroms that began after the assassination of Alexander II in March 1881 and then spread through the southwestern swath of the empire over the next several years. The violence tearing up Jewish towns and urban neighborhoods shocked Jews who had believed they could gain full emancipation and equality in the Russian Empire; cosmopolitanism looked less promising in the face of antisemitic attacks. With the model of earlier modern national movements that emphasized the distinctness of peoples through their languages, the Jewish intelligentsia began to valorize the “folk” and their lingua franca. Hard-core Yiddishists, insisting on the language itself as the binding agent for Jews, represented only a single faction of competing nationalist visions. But whether making the case for the glory of the proletariat, the promise of Zionism, the redemption of Hasidic devotion, or the utility of cultural autonomy within Russia, Jews were hashing out these arguments in one vernacular.
Still, to be on the safe side, following a convention of the period, Sholem Rabinowitz opted for a pseudonym when, in 1883, he published a satirical sketch in the weekly about crooked elections for a
in a town just like the one where he lived. In May of that year, he had wed his former pupil, Olga Loyev. Now there was even more of a reputation to protect. His new father-in-law, a secular intellectual, would hardly have welcomed Rabinowitz’s stooping to that “unmanly” tongue any more than his father back in Pereyaslav, a poor Talmudic scholar and ardent Hebraist, would support it. (The pseudonym also had the advantage of protecting the author from the wrath of thinly veiled people he ridiculed in the feuilleton.) “Sholem-Aleichem” soon went on to publish a series of humorous epistolary stories. The very choice of moniker conveyed the waggish tone of the work. Essentially, it is a joke of the who’s-on-first variety. (“What’s your name?” “How do you do.” “Yes, how do you do. And what’s your name?”) Within the short space of a few years—first writing full-time with his father-in-law’s financial support (after a brief stint as the inspector on a sugar estate) and then, after Olga’s father’s sudden death in early 1885, liquidating the estate and playing the Kiev stock market—he began to produce a distinctive body of work while also laboring to advance Yiddish literature as a form. And he did so without ever discarding the pseudonym, even long after it was necessary. On the contrary, the persona took on a peculiar life of its own as Sholem-Aleichem fashioned himself into a
, a folk writer. The multilingual, urbane businessman, in his tightly buttoned vests and wire-frame spectacles, who spoke Russian at home with his family, took stage as the Yiddish voice of the people. And readers—those who remained in the shtetls and those who had left them behind—embraced him as their own. They invoked his name every time they said hello.
But there was nothing simple or artless about his extraordinary output. Coming into his own, especially at the turn of the twentieth century, Sholem-Aleichem brought to life enduring characters who appeared in Yiddish periodicals from time to time, as he conjured them into new episodes: the clueless financial speculator Menakhem-Mendl and his long-suffering wife, Sheyne-Sheyndl; the downtrodden yet lighthearted “little people” of Kasrilevke; and his supreme creation, the irrepressible Tevye.
From Tevye’s first appearance in 1894, the stories take the shape of dialogues between the hero and his silent interlocutor, the author Sholem-Aleichem, whom Tevye addresses; they read like monologues but are framed as tales told to a specific listener, lending them complex layers of irony that allow readers to see the limits of Tevye’s self-consciousness as he narrates his experiences retrospectively. The first story, “Tevye Strikes It Rich,” uncoils tightly, introducing the garrulous, pious patriarch and painting Tevye’s social place in the isolating outskirts of a village (he does not live in a shtetl) where he barely ekes out a living for his wife and seven daughters as a drayman. When he delivers some wealthy women lost in the woods back to their dacha, he is rewarded with the astonishing sum of thirty-seven rubles and a cow, and he becomes Tevye
—milkman or dairyman in the usual translations but more literally, in Sholem-Aleichem’s neologistic application, “the milky one” (as distinct, as any reader familiar with kosher dietary rules would know, from being
, or meaty). It’s a feminizing descriptor, signaling Tevye’s warmth and nurturing nature and, later, the challenge to his paternal authority that will come from his daughters as the eight tragicomic stories unfold over the next two decades. Tevye opens the first episode telling Sholem-Aleichem what he learned from his good fortune: “Just like it says in the Bible … as long as a Jew lives and breathes in this world and hasn’t more than one leg in the grave, he mustn’t lose faith.”
The world begins to challenge that faith in the second story, “Tevye Blows a Small Fortune” (1899), in which his distant relative Menakhem-Mendl persuades him to invest in a disastrous financial scheme. By the third story, “Modern Children” (1899), modernity begins to push from within the family, as Tsaytl persuades her father to forgo the marriage deal he arranged for her with the butcher Lazar Wolf and to let her marry her poor, beloved tailor, Motl. The pressure intensifies in the fourth story, “Hodl” (1904), written in the midst of the fervor that produced men like Perchik, the revolutionary, whom Hodl follows when he is imprisoned in Siberia. Bereft, Tevye ends this chronicle by asking Sholem-Aleichem to discuss something more cheerful with him: “Have you heard any news about the cholera in Odessa?”
In the early years of his career, before finding the mature literary voice that would produce Tevye, Sholem-Aleichem struck the tone of the
—proponents of the
—by calling for a world-class Yiddish literature that would rise above the
, or shameful trash, of the pulp novels that had dominated Yiddish fiction in the nineteenth century (though many of the
never let go of their distrust of Yiddish and, as Sholem-Aleichem developed his own work, ended up dismissing him, in the literary scholar Dan Miron’s words, “as a vulgar comedian who pandered to the uneducated plebs”). To further the cause, he edited what he hoped would be a yearly anthology, modeled on Russian literary annuals and their Hebrew imitators, highlighting the finer Yiddish writers. The first edition of
Di yidishe folks-bibliotek: a bukh fir literatur, kritik un vissenshaft
A Jewish Popular Library: A Book of Literature, Criticism, and Scholarship
), published in 1888, ran some six hundred pages and included works by Mendele Mocher-Sforim and I. L. Peretz (the literary giant’s first publication in Yiddish); it also featured Sholem-Aleichem’s own novella
. (When he lost his enormous inheritance in the stock market in 1890, abandoning volume 3 was the least of his worries; he had to flee Kiev for two years to escape his creditors.) In that same period, he wrote a pamphlet attacking the leading proponent of
, Nokhum Meyer Sheikevitch, who cranked out preposterously plotted romances under the name Shomer. Five years before George Bernard Shaw famously coined the term “Sardoodledom” to ridicule the vacuous star vehicles scribbled by the French playwright Victorien Sardou, Sholem-Aleichem delivered a similar verdict against Yiddish prose potboilers in his essay “
” (“Shomer’s Trial”).
was meant to demonstrate how real Yiddish books should be written. In case the example of the novella wasn’t enough of a clue, Sholem-Aleichem included a pompous preface written in the form of a letter to Mendele Mocher-Sforim, whom he greatly admired.