Jere­my Dauber is a pro­fes­sor of Yid­dish lit­er­a­ture at Colum­bia Uni­ver­si­ty, where he also serves as direc­tor of its Insti­tute for Israel and Jew­ish Stud­ies and teach­es in the Amer­i­can Stud­ies pro­gram. His newest book, The Worlds of Sholem Ale­ichem (Schock­en Books/​Nexbook Press), is now avail­able. Win a copy here. He will be blog­ging here all week for Jew­ish Book Coun­cil and MyJew­ish­Learn­ing.

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.