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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“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.


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