The Worlds of Sholem Aleichem

May 13, 2013

While many might read­i­ly asso­ciate the word tra­di­tion” with the great Yid­dishist Sholem Ale­ichem, as well as with the internation­ally pop­u­lar musi­cal adap­ta­tion of his sto­ries, Fid­dler on the Roof, two new books sug­gest that the word tran­si­tion” would be con­sid­er­ably more apt. Jere­my Dauber’s delight­ful work, The Worlds of Sholem Ale­ichem, begins with the biographer’s own frag­ment­ed rec­ol­lec­tion of star­ring in a first-grade pro­duc­tion of Fid­dler. Every Amer­i­can of a cer­tain age — Jew­ish or not — has her own par­tic­u­lar Fid­dler con­nec­tion, Dauber pos­tu­lates. He sets out to piece togeth­er what he can about the man who start­ed it all, the grapho­ma­ni­ac” who did noth­ing less than cre­ate mod­ern Jew­ish lit­er­a­ture, mod­ern Jew­ish humor, a mod­ern Jew­ish home­land, in literature.”

Through­out this com­pre­hen­sive biog­ra­phy, Dauber shapes his read­ings of Sholem Aleichem’s life and works part­ly as a response to the many myths and mis­con­cep­tions that have abound­ed since (and often even before) the author’s death in 1916. Despite some of Aleichem’s most famous moments hav­ing tak­en place in New York — for exam­ple, his death and vast­ly attend­ed funer­al as well as his ulti­mate­ly unsuc­cessful dou­ble pre­mier on the Yid­dish stage — the author was not as im­mersed in this New World” as many seem to think. His time in Amer­i­ca was short-lived in com­par­i­son to the time he spent liv­ing, writ­ing, and trav­el­ing across East­ern and West­ern Europe. But this Jew­ish Mark Twain,” as he was often referred to in his time, was not a sen­ti­men­tal folk­lorist either; he was not sim­ply a tra­di­tion­al­ist pin­ing for the Old Coun­try,” for a sim­ple and quick­ly van­ish­ing way of life. Through care­ful retellings and analy­ses, Dauber presents a more nuanced pic­ture: of a man torn between new and deep-root­ed ways of life, a man who adapt­ed to the pulls of new tech­nolo­gies, shift­ing cul­tur­al val­ues, and polit­i­cal upheavals just as often as he resist­ed them.

Ale­ichem was also some­one intense­ly and unswerv­ing­ly tied to his fam­i­ly, and Dauber expert­ly nav­i­gates between all of these inevitably insep­a­ra­ble worlds to give us a full and gen­er­ous por­trait of this great cul­tur­al fig­ure. As he writes in his intro­duc­tion, turn­ing a spot­light on Sholem Aleichem’s life is a way of enter­ing into a con­ver­sa­tion not only about the writer him­self, but also about Amer­i­can Jew­ish life and Amer­i­can Jew­ish his­to­ry over the last century.”

If The Worlds of Sholem Ale­ichem affords us a metic­u­lous account of an excep­tion­al life sto­ry, as well as some of its after­life (pre­sent­ed in an epi­logue formed out of ten intrigu­ing scenes), Won­der of Won­ders zeroes in on that after­life and takes us some­where just beyond the worlds of Sholem Ale­ichem. Alisa Solomon’s engag­ing cul­tur­al his­to­ry begins at the very end of Aleichem’s life. The open­ing chap­ter traces, among oth­er events, Aleichem’s com­po­si­tion of the Tevye sto­ries, his own adap­ta­tion of those sto­ries into two screen­plays writ­ten for the then-emerg­ing medi­um of cin­e­ma, and his first suc­cess on the New York stage, which occurred three years after his death. From there, Solomon looks for­ward to the unex­pect­ed and dra­mat­ic twists and turns that inevitably led to the pro­duc­tion — first of a suc­cess­ful and long-run­ning Broad­way play and then of an Acad­e­my-award win­ning film — of the cul­tur­al mark­er known as Fid­dler on the Roof.

Solomon takes us on a reveal­ing tour of the pol­i­tics of cre­at­ing a pop­u­lar the­atri­cal hit, care­ful­ly weav­ing that nar­ra­tive along­side the chang­ing his­tor­i­cal con­di­tions of Jew­ish Amer­i­can life, lit­er­a­ture, and pop­u­lar cul­ture in the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry. Just when so many Jews had become com­fort­able with their assim­i­lat­ed posi­tions in Amer­i­can life, the sto­ry of Tevye and his daugh­ters offered an oppor­tu­ni­ty for flaunt­ing a kind of par­tic­u­lar­ized Jew­ish pride that was far enough in the past as to be ren­dered a safe dis­tance from the thorny eth­nic pol­i­tics of the mid-to-late twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry. But what is most intrigu­ing about the Fid­dler on the Roof sto­ry, as Solomon tells it, is the way its spe­cif­ic ren­der­ing of shtetl life has so often res­onat­ed for those with­out any direct con­nec­tions to it. The last third of Won­der of Won­ders, per­haps the most cap­ti­vat­ing of all, exam­ines recent adap­ta­tions of the play — from a con­tro­ver­sial high school pro­duc­tion staged by most­ly Black and Puer­to Rican ado­les­cents in Brook­lyn to a one-night per­for­mance in a small town in Poland, a town still per­me­at­ed by the oblit­er­a­tion of most of its Jew­ish pop­u­la­tion almost half a cen­tu­ry ear­li­er. As these pow­er­ful por­traits reveal, Sholem Aleichem’s great imag­i­na­tion, in all of its adapt­ed forms, main­tains its rel­e­vance in a post­mod­ern, some might say posti­den­ti­ty” era per­haps best char­ac­ter­ized by transition.

Addi­tion­al Title Fea­tured in Review

Relat­ed Content:

Read Jere­my Dauber’s Posts for the Vis­it­ing Scribe

Jere­my Dauber On Tour­ing with Sholem Aleichem

If You Read Just Ten Sto­ries by Sholem Aleichem…

Discussion Questions

1. Which of Sholem Aleichem’s char­ac­ters speaks the most to you? Why?

2. How would you char­ac­ter­ize Sholem Aleichem’s writ­ing style, from the selec­tions you’ve read in the book?

3. Sholem Ale­ichem” is, of course, a pseu­do­nym. What ben­e­fits did using it have for the man born Sholem Rabi­novich? Were there complications?

4. Why did Sholem Aleichem’s work become so well known in the Unit­ed States after his death? Was this fair to his legacy?

5. Was Sholem Ale­ichem a good father and fam­i­ly man?

6. All too often, Sholem Ale­ichem seems to have made prob­lem­at­ic busi­ness deci­sions. How do you think this affect­ed him as a writer?

7. Sholem Ale­ichem became involved in a wide vari­ety of crit­i­cal move­ments in mod­ern Jew­ish his­to­ry. Which of them do you think spoke most to him? Why?

8. How would you char­ac­ter­ize Sholem Aleichem’s sense of humor? In what ways is it typ­i­cal Jew­ish humor”?

9. Have you seen Fid­dler on the Roof? If so, how does the musical’s Te­vye — or oth­er aspects of the play — com­pare to your sense of the Tevye of Sholem Aleichem’s stories?

10. Sholem Ale­ichem wasn’t just a writer; he was an edi­tor and a crit­ic as well. How impor­tant was this to his lega­cy? To his self-perception?

11. Many writ­ers com­pose in only one lit­er­ary genre; Sholem Ale­ichem wrote nov­els, plays, short sto­ries, and the occa­sion­al poem. Why do you think he chose to do this? Was it a good idea?

12. Most of us read Sholem Ale­ichem in trans­la­tion from the orig­i­nal Yid­dish (though he also wrote in Hebrew and Russ­ian). What role did the choice to write in Yid­dish — and it was a choice — have in his work?