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 debate also wasn’t just about whether “Fiddler” got the details of the shtetl right — it was a fight over the soul of America Jewish culture. Here, Solomon and “Fiddler” critics aren’t so much in disagreement as they occupy different points of view. Solomon, coming after the fact, looks at the Jewish reaction from a detached perspective, observing it as an anthropological reality rather than a position to be argued with. For critics like Howe, who were writing contemporaneously and from within the Jewish sphere, the audience was an object of criticism as much as the musical itself. Part of the triumph of “Fiddler,” according to Solomon, was its embrace by a community that had spent decades denying, ignoring or otherwise trying to cover up its immigrant past. The musical, in her reading, provided a way for them to reengage with that past on comfortable and even celebratory terms. But for critics who had been decrying the same tendency for decades, the moment was less a triumph than a compounding of tragedy. When the Jewish community finally decided to remember its heritage, it turned to a Broadway musical that, in Solomon’s own view, shouldn’t have been counted on to represent a real place. It may have been a great show, but it could hardly replace thousands of years of history.

These days, if the soul of American Jewry seems a little more secure, that’s because “Fiddler” wasn’t the only source of connection for everyone, any more than Sholem Aleichem had been. But in the 1960s, the culture that had been so thoroughly destroyed in the Holocaust did seem in danger of being lost for good. Thus “Fiddler,” in the role of rescuer, took on a burden that it never should have had, but one that was also largely responsible for its success. Now, with academic programs in Yiddish at universities around the world, more scholarship being produced on Eastern European Jewish history than anyone could ever read, and a religious revival that makes Tevye’s observance seem less exotic, the stakes are a lot lower. Nobody needs “Fiddler” to connect with the past anymore. At the same time, these resources are there only for those who want them. For many people, “Fiddler” is still representative of the Yiddish world, and that is still a problem. When your culture is chiefly represented by a Broadway show, it’s bad news.

One can hope that books like Dauber’s and Solomon’s will make the history behind “Fiddler” known to a wider public, and that “Fiddler” will be free to be the work of musical theater that it is, rather than the cultural avatar it became. But as Solomon describes, “Fiddler” itself has assumed its own strange afterlife, just as Sholem Aleichem did. In a neat little irony, “Fiddler,” which was so often accused of not being the real article, has become a source of folk culture. Just as Sholem Aleichem’s stories were assumed to be traditional, so the songs and dances in “Fiddler” have become part of Jewish ritual. And just as “Fiddler” was originally accused of watering down its source, so a 2004 Broadway revival was charged with making the musical less Jewish. It was, you might say, accused of misrepresenting the midcentury way of representing the early 20th-century Jewish past.

To be honest, I don’t care for “Fiddler” all that much, despite Solomon’s persuasiveness. And there are plenty of writers I prefer to Sholem Aleichem, though he is one of the greats. But as Louis Armstrong once said: “All music is folk music. I ain’t never heard a horse sing a song.” Here, too, Sholem Aleichem and “Fiddler” are both part of Jewish folk culture, whether as literature or theater or sets of Tevye and Golde salt and pepper shakers. My school’s VHS tape of the movie, if it still exists, is as much a relic of 20th-century Jewish culture as my parent’s copy of “The Old Country” or my own set of Sholem Aleichem’s complete works, published by the Forverts in 1942. What I enjoy or how much is beside the point — all of them are part of the culture I live in, and feel like they always have been. And maybe that’s the highest complement you could pay to Sholem Aleichem or “Fiddler,” or any of the works they inspired. It’s hard to imagine life without them.

Ezra Glinter is the deputy arts editor of the Forward. Follow him on Twitter, @EzraG


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