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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In the following decades Sholem Aleichem would go bankrupt, survive a pogrom, flee the Russian Empire, and move to America, Switzerland and Italy, where he went to treat the tuberculosis that ultimately contributed to his death. He would also become one of the most popular and prolific Yiddish authors, whose 28 volumes of collected works cover barely half of his total writing. But in 1883 he was just starting out as a contributor to the Yudishes folks-blat, a weekly Yiddish newspaper published in St. Petersburg. Perhaps because of his job as crown rabbi, and perhaps because writing in Yiddish — so-called “jargon” — was not yet respectable, Rabinovich chose to use a pseudonym rather than his real name. When he wrote a story called “The Election,” about the election of a crown rabbi like himself, he signed it “Sholem Aleichem.”

In retrospect, critics have read various meanings into the phrase, including, as Alfred Kazin put it, “the sweet familiarity, the informality, the utter lack of side, that was associated with the Yiddish-speaking masses of Eastern Europe.” More convincing is Miron’s assertion that the name — meaning, roughly, “How do you do?” — was simply “absurd.” But even without any real significance, “Sholem Aleichem” took on a life of his own. Over the course of Sholem Aleichem’s career the moniker became not just a pseudonym but also a persona, and even a character in the stories themselves. He encouraged readers to identify him as Sholem Aleichem, and his own friends started calling him by that name rather than by his own. The title became so important to his identity that, as Miron writes, he couldn’t have gotten rid of it even if he had wanted to. As time went on, Sholem Rabinovich was replaced completely by Sholem Aleichem, his more famous alter ego.

The substitution of a literary persona for a flesh-and-blood person wasn’t Sholem Aleichem’s only ruse. His work, like that of other authors of the period, first appeared in the press before being published in book form. But unlike writers such as Dickens, who serialized entire novels from beginning to end, Sholem Aleichem mostly wrote linked sets of stories over long periods of time, with different parts appearing in different publications. Some of his best-known works include the Menakhem Mendl stories, epistolary works about a ne’er-do-well financial speculator and his long-suffering wife (published between 1887 and 1913); the Railroad Stories, in which an anonymous narrator recounts tales heard while traveling third class (published in 1902-3 and 1909-10), and “Motl, Peysi the Cantor’s Son,” the story of an orphan who travels with his mother and older brother to America from a shtetl in Europe (published in 1906-07 and 1915-16). But no matter where or how far apart the installments appeared, Sholem Aleichem managed to imbue his tales with a sense of their own reality, and the feeling that he had just come along to tell you about them.

This was especially true of the “Tevye” stories, which first appeared in 1884 in Der Hoyz-fraynd, a Warsaw periodical, and continued for almost 20 years. In this series, Sholem Aleichem became a character himself, as the listener to whom Tevye pours out his troubles. Tevye, of course, was inspired by a real person (though the events and details of his life are fictional), as was the wealthy Brodsky, who was a sugar merchant in Kiev. Complicating matters further was the appearance in one story of Menakhem Mendl, who swindles Tevye out of his savings. (Menakhem Mendl showed up in extra-literary contexts, as well. A wealthy fan of Sholem Aleichem once wrote a letter to the character, asking which political ideology to support. Sholem Aleichem responded, as Menakhem Mendl, advising the letter writer to become a patron of the arts and help the author Sholem Aleichem buy back his copyrights.) Dauber draws an analogy here to the Marvel comic book universe, where the hero of one series will show up in another hero’s adventure. As with Dauber’s other pop-culture references (“Seinfeld,” Oprah Winfrey and Chris Rock all get mentioned) the analogy isn’t really necessary, but it makes the relevant point.


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