Will the Real Sholem Aleichem Please Stand Up?

Two New Books Show He's More Than ‘Fiddler on the Roof’

Promising Futures: Sholem Rabinovich, who adopted the name Sholem Aleichem, divided his time between writing and playing the stock market.
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Promising Futures: Sholem Rabinovich, who adopted the name Sholem Aleichem, divided his time between writing and playing the stock market.

By Ezra Glinter

Published November 24, 2013, issue of November 29, 2013.
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The Worlds of Sholem Aleichem: The Remarkable Life and Afterlife of the Man Who Created Tevye
By Jeremy Dauber
Schocken, 464 pages, $28.95

Wonder of Wonders: A Cultural History of ‘Fiddler on the Roof’
By Alisa Solomon
Metropolitan Books, 448 pages, $32.00

Like most Jews of my generation, I saw “Fiddler on the Roof” before I heard of Sholem Aleichem, and I saw the movie before I saw the musical. I can’t actually remember the first time I watched Chaim Topol stomping down that dusty road, snapping his fingers and belting “Tradition!” but I also can’t remember a point in time when I hadn’t seen him. I imagine it was one of those February snow days we had growing up in Winnipeg in the early 1990s, when my older sister and I would put on our snowsuits and trudge through carless streets to our little Jewish elementary school. Because half the students wouldn’t show up, we’d spend the day in darkened classsrooms, watching whatever movies the school library had on VHS. I’m pretty sure that “Fiddler” featured heavily in the rotation.

“Fiddler” was my first brush with Sholem Aleichem, but it wasn’t my last. One evening, when I was around 15 or so, I pulled a battered, blue-covered book called “The Old Country” off my parents’ shelf, where it was sandwiched between “A Treasury of Jewish Folkore” and a full set of “The History of Civilization” by Will and Ariel Durant. The book turned out to be a collection of Sholem Aleichem stories translated by Julius and Frances Butwin, a husband-and-wife team who had emigrated from Eastern Europe and had both landed in St. Paul, Minn. Published in 1946, the book impressed me as much with its own history as with the material between its covers. Though I didn’t learn the details until later, I intuited that “The Old Country” was not just a collection of stories by a turn-of-the-century Yiddish writer; it was, itself, an artifact of midcentury American Jewish life. The book didn’t just depict history; it was a piece of it, as well.

In the decades since “The Old Country” appeared, and since the 1964 Broadway debut of “Fiddler,” Sholem Aleichem has been thoroughly reevaluated, re-appreciated and re-translated. Scholars such as Dan Miron, Ruth Wisse and David Roskies have explicated the complexities of his work, and new translations have made the Butwins’ efforts, valuable though they were, largely redundant. But “The Old Country” was still an auspicious place to start. As my earlier encounter with “Fiddler” proved, it is almost impossible today — or at least, very unlikely — to experience Sholem Aleichem unmediated. He comes to us through the lenses of translation and adaptation, each reworking of his material reflecting the moment of its own creation. Even reading him in Yiddish, you can’t help but be aware of the later uses of his work. To put it another way, it’s hard to get “Fiddler” out of your head.

Depending on your taste in musical theater, “Fiddler’s” staying power could be evidence of its quality, or of its contamination of Sholem Aleichem’s legacy. Should fans of the writer thank the musical for making him famous, or condemn it for overshadowing his original stories? The question is raised by two new books, both of which support the first view, albeit with different emphases. “The Worlds of Sholem Aleichem: The Remarkable Life and Afterlife of the Man Who Created Tevye,” by the Columbia University Yiddish literature professor Jeremy Dauber, is a comprehensive biography — amazingly, the first in any language — that presents the writer’s legacy through the lens of his turbulent life. Though aimed at a general audience rather than at a scholarly one, it is a valuable resource for anyone interested in the life of the author. In contrast, “Wonder of Wonders: A Cultural History of ‘Fiddler on the Roof,’” by theater critic and Columbia journalism professor Alisa Solomon, takes Sholem Aleichem as context for its main subject. But both Dauber and Solomon are quick to point out that it’s impossible to talk about Sholem Aleichem without talking about “Fiddler” and it’s impossible to talk about “Fiddler” without talking about Sholem Aleichem. Rarely has there been an author so entangled with his creations, even, in this case, with one that isn’t his.

When Sholem Aleichem was in his mid-20s and living in Kiev, he used to summer with his family in Boyarka, a resort town about an hour outside the city. Boyarka boasted forests, fresh air, and door-to-door milk, cheese and butter delivery from a dairyman named Tevye. Sholem Aleichem enjoyed Tevye’s wares — he once wrote that the three things he loved most in life were newspapers, dairy foods and Jews — as well as his conversation, which he would jot down, amid chuckles, in his notebook. That fall, Tevye appeared as the subject of a two-part story called “Tevye the Dairyman — The Story of His Sudden Rise, Described by Tevye Himself and Dictated to Sholem Aleichem Word by Word.” Later revised as “The Jackpot” (or “Tevye Strikes It Rich,” in Hillel Halkin’s translation), the story begins:


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