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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Most important to this through-the-looking-glass effect was the fact that Tevye’s adventures took place in real time. Over the course of the stories, Tevye gains a fortune, loses it and suffers through his daughters’ escalating series of nontraditional marriages. In the end, he is exiled by czarist edict from his home, where he has lived his entire life. But unlike “Fiddler on the Roof,” which is set within a relatively short time frame, Tevye grows older in the stories by the same interval it took for each installment to be published. Whenever Sholem Aleichem sat down to write a new episode, the character had lived through whatever world events had occurred since the last one. It was no wonder that so many readers saw their lives reflected in the stories, or that Sholem Aleichem came to be considered a writer of, and for, the common people. Tevye was their beleaguered milkman, and Sholem Aleichem a sympathetic neighbor.

If Sholem Aleichem did want his readers to take his stories as something more than fiction, he was more successful than he knew. On May 13, 1916, Sholem Aleichem died in the Bronx at age 57, having finally succumbed to tuberculosis and diabetes. Two days later, upward of 150,000 mourners packed the streets of New York in the largest funeral the city had ever seen. The author was hardly in the ground before he was appropriated as a symbol not of literary artistry, but of artless authenticity. The Hebrew writer Yosef Haim Brenner declared him to be “a living essence of the folk itself” who “had no style” and “had no need of style.” Maurice Samuel, a later adapter and popularizer of Sholem Aleichem in English, wrote that it is “hard to think of him as a ‘writer’” but his work provided “as reliable a scientific document [of the Russian-Jewish Pale] as any ‘factual study.’” Perhaps, as a mimic, Sholem Aleichem had succeeded too well. Perhaps some of his meta-fictional tricks had been taken too seriously. Most likely, his readers wanted a link to a swiftly disappearing past, and decided that he was the best fit. If that meant overlooking other aspects of his work, then so be it.

By the time the original Broadway production of “Fiddler on the Roof” closed on July 2, 1972, almost eight years after it opened, the musical had run for a record-breaking 3,242 performances, won nine Tony Awards and earned about $1,574 for every dollar invested. To date there have been four Broadway revivals, productions in countries from Israel to Japan and, according to Solomon’s estimate, around 200 school performances each year. All of this makes “Fiddler” the most famous version of Sholem Aleichem’s stories, and certainly the most successful.

Chaim Topol performs as Tevye in a 2005 Australian production of ‘Fiddler on the Roof.’
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Chaim Topol performs as Tevye in a 2005 Australian production of ‘Fiddler on the Roof.’

“Fiddler,” hasn’t been the only adaptation of Sholem Aleichem, however. The author himself rewrote his “Tevye” stories for the stage, though the play wasn’t produced until 1919, when Maurice Schwartz premiered “Tevye der milkhiker” (“Tevye the Dairyman”) on Second Avenue. (In 1939, Schwartz also made “Tevye” into a movie, which he shot in Jericho, Long Island.) The most significant pre-“Fiddler” stage production of Sholem Aleichem’s work was the English-language “The World of Sholem Aleichem,” created in 1953 by two blacklisted artists, Arnold Perl and Howard Da Silva. Only a portion of the play was actually based on Sholem Aleichem, and even there Perl and Da Silva introduced some transparent leftist sloganeering. (Though Sholem Aleichem was sympathetic to the socialist left, and occasionally enthusiastic about revolutionary ideas, his only consistent political cause was Zionism, which he supported throughout his life.) But “The World of Sholem Aleichem” was hugely popular, and ran for 306 performances.

For some critics, however, Perl and Da Silva’s play was guilty not just of politicizing its source, but of misrepresenting Eastern European Jewry altogether. Midge Decter, writing in Commentary Magazine, accused it of fabricating “just the kind of Never-Never-Land American Jews like to think they came from, quaint, not quite respectable, but abounding with a special sweetness.” It was guilty of making the shtetl into “a new Jewish folk tradition,” she wrote, for a community that “can afford to be pleased by the ghetto. Here is the Jewish past as we like to think it. Here is Jewish culture as well-meaning friends like to understand it. Sweet and simple…. The ghetto is sufficiently dead in us by now to become a serene source of ageless wisdoms.”

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