So my biography of Sholem Aleichem – the great Jewish writer, perhaps the greatest in modern Jewish history, the man who created Tevye, the person who can lay as good a claim as any to inventing modern Jewish humor – comes out today, and, as you can imagine, I’m pretty happy about the whole thing. Schocken, Nextbook Press, and Random House produced a beautiful volume; the reviews so far have been very kind; I got mentioned in a Huffington Post listicle; and thanks to the JBC Network, I get to go to a whole bunch of places and talk to people about how the man’s life was just as remarkable, in its own way, as his remarkable work. I leave for DC tomorrow; and Baltimore, Charleston, Philadelphia, Detroit, Houston, Miami, and others aren’t far behind.
So naturally my thoughts are turning to Sholem Aleichem’s experiences on tour: since he was, at different times in the course of his career, a prodigious traveler, heading from city to city to give readings to make money to support his family. (Why was such an enormously popular author, a massive seller, in such financial straits? It’s a long story; the answer’s in the book. But he was.) It was the age of the railroad, and Sholem Aleichem became deeply familiar with the train routes that criss-crossed Eastern Europe – although he had his share of mishaps, which included getting lost, oversleeping, and confusing himself for a high-ranking non-Jewish official with whom he had exchanged hats.
Okay, that last one didn’t happen to him; it was a fate that befell one of his characters, the protagonist of “On Account of a Hat,” one of Sholem Aleichem’s finest stories. It’s a brilliant tale, born of an old joke and transformed, through authorial artistry, into a meditation on the underlying uncertainties of modern Jewish life. For the purposes of this post, it’s enough to say that it’s not the only time, or place, where travel becomes an inspiration for Sholem Aleichem’s literary artistry. In his series of “Railroad Stories,” the most exciting thing about the train is that it’s a source of narrative inspiration. Travel is where you meet your next stories, where you find your inspirations.
And so I’m excited to get on the road; who knows what I’ll learn.
I just hope I don’t oversleep.Check back on Thursday for Jeremy Dauber’s next post for the Visiting Scribe.
Jeremy Dauber is the Atran Professor of Yiddish Language, Literature and Culture at Columbia University. He is the author of several books on Jewish literature, including a biography of Sholem Aleichem that was a finalist for the National Jewish Book Award. He lives in New York City.