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.
Forward Association
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.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

(page 2 of 6)

“If you’re meant to strike it rich, Pani Sholem Aleichem, you may as well stay home with your slippers on, because good luck will find you there too. The more it blows the better it goes, as King David says in his Psalms — and believe me, neither brains nor brawn has anything to do with it. And vice versa… How does the saying go? Flogging a dead horse won’t make it run any faster.”

That voice, with its jokes, arguments, and attempts to deal with a crumbling world, helped make Sholem Aleichem famous, and made its real-life counterpart famous as well. Some 30 years later, a Soviet theater troupe visiting Boyarka was so impressed by meeting Tevye that the actors bought him a new cart and dairy equipment.

In the “Tevye” stories, Sholem Aleichem’s character is aware that he is being used for material, and he is sensitive about his portrayal. A few times he asks the author not to write about him, and if he does write something, to leave out his name. Today, in contrast, it’s Sholem Aleichem who is on the receiving end of the fame reflected by his character, and more because of Tevye’s appearance on Broadway than because of his role in Yiddish fiction. (There’s a reason, after all, that Dauber’s book references Tevye in its subtitle.) But if anyone would be amused by the ironies of Sholem Aleichem’s posthumous career, it would probably be Sholem Aleichem himself.

In his autobiography, “From the Fair,” which he wrote in the final years of his life, Sholem Aleichem portrayed himself as a troublemaker since childhood — “the greatest rascal in the family” — and especially gifted at imitating adults. His first attempt at writing, he claimed, was a dictionary of curses derived from his stepmother’s vocabulary. But Sholem Aleichem’s literary playfulness went beyond mimicry (though his work does display an exceptional talent for imitating human speech), or even late-life attempts to plant the seeds of his own mythology. Through an elaborate series of pseudonyms, characters and literary conceits, he created a fictional universe that not only convinced readers of its own reality, but succeeded in invading actual reality, as well. If an author attempted similar games today we would call them postmodern, and perhaps dismiss them for being too obvious about it. But coming before modernism, let alone postmodernism, Sholem Aleichem’s meta-fictional tricks seem more like natural outpourings of creativity than attempts to make theoretical points. And they started with his own name.

Sholem Aleichem in America from Jewish Daily Forward on Vimeo.

In 1883, a few years before he met Tevye, Sholem Rabinovich was a 24-year-old crown rabbi in Lubny, an ancient city in the Poltava province of Ukraine. (The position, imposed on the Jewish community by the czarist government, was more of an administrative post than a religious one.) He had recently married Olga Loyev, the daughter of a wealthy Jewish landowner and a former student from his years as a private tutor. In 1885 he would inherit his father-in-law’s estate and move to a luxurious apartment in Kiev, where he split his time between playing the stock market and writing at his custom-built standing desk. He also used his fortune to publish a new journal of Yiddish literature — Di yidishe folks-bibliotek — and to upgrade his wardrobe, adopting a pince-nez and pocket-watch to complement a Vandyke beard and jaw-length hair, which he wore swept back over his head.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • The Jewish bachelorette has spoken.
  • "When it comes to Brenda Turtle, I ask you: What do you expect of a woman repressed all her life who suddenly finds herself free to explore? We can sit and pass judgment, especially when many of us just simply “got over” own sexual repression. But we are obliged to at least acknowledge that this problem is very, very real, and that complete gender segregation breeds sexual repression and unhealthy attitudes toward female sexuality."
  • "Everybody is proud of the resistance. No matter how many people, including myself, disapprove of or even hate Hamas and its ideology, every single person in Gaza is proud of the resistance." Part 2 of Walid Abuzaid's on-the-ground account of life in #Gaza:
  • After years in storage, Toronto’s iconic red-and-white "Sam the Record Man" sign, complete with spinning discs, will return to public view near its original downtown perch. The sign came to symbolize one of Canada’s most storied and successful Jewish family businesses.
  • Is $4,000 too much to ask for a non-member to be buried in a synagogue cemetery?
  • "Let’s not fall into the simplistic us/them dichotomy of 'we were just minding our business when they started firing rockets at us.' We were not just minding our business. We were building settlements, manning checkpoints, and filling jails." What do you think?
  • PHOTOS: 10,000 Israel supporters gathered for a solidarity rally near the United Nations in New York yesterday.
  • Step into the Iron Dome with Tuvia Tenenbom.
  • What do you think of Wonder Woman's new look?
  • "She said that Ruven Barkan, a Conservative rabbi, came into her classroom, closed the door and turned out the lights. He asked the class of fourth graders to lie on the floor and relax their bodies. Then, he asked them to pray for abused children." Read Paul Berger's compelling story about a #Savannah community in turmoil:
  • “Everything around me turns orange, then a second of silence, then a bomb goes off!" First installment of Walid Abuzaid’s account of the war in #Gaza:
  • Is boredom un-Jewish?
  • Let's face it: there's really only one Katz's Delicatessen.
  • "Dear Diaspora Jews, I’m sorry to break it to you, but you can’t have it both ways. You can’t insist that every Jew is intrinsically part of the Israeli state and that Jews are also intrinsically separate from, and therefore not responsible for, the actions of the Israeli state." Do you agree?
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.