How Do You Do’s Novels

ON LANGUAGE

By Philologos

Published March 12, 2004, issue of March 12, 2004.

Help! Now it’s The New York Times. This is from a Times article last week about the new Broadway revival of “Fiddler on the Roof”:

“‘Fiddler on the Roof,’ with music by Jerry Bock and lyrics by Sheldon Harnick, is based on ‘Tevye the Milkman,’ a cycle of short stories by Sholem Aleichem published in the Yiddish press from the early 1880s until 1905. Aleichem was a stockbroker from Kiev who based his work on characters he met during his travels. By Aleichem’s time, the scholar David Roskies has argued….”

It goes on like that. “This paradox would probably have delighted Aleichem….” “Aleichem populates his stories with a multitude of characters….” “In Aleichem’s stories, Tevye is not learned….”

I’ve been seeing more and more of this lately. What can we do to make the world realize that “Aleichem” is not the last name of the greatest of Yiddish writers, and that one can no more speak of “Aleichem’s time” or “Aleichem’s stories” than one can speak of “the fiction of Henry” instead of “the fiction of O. Henry?” Indeed, “the fiction of Henry” has far more justification, because “O. Henry,” the pen name of William Sydney Porter, does strike an English speaker as a first name (or initial)-last name combination, whereas to a speaker of Yiddish, “Sholem Aleichem,” the pen name of Sholem Rabinovich, is clearly not such a combination. It’s Yiddish for “How do you do?” or “Good to see you!” and to speak of “Aleichem’s stories” sounds to a Yiddish ear just as “Do’s poetry” or “See You’s novels” might sound in English.

Shalom aleykhem is in its origin an old Hebrew expression that means literally “Peace [be] upon you,” and is a way of saying “Hello.” The standard reply to it consists of reversing the words and answering “Aleykhem shalom,” “Upon you [be] peace.” In Hebrew’s sister Semitic language, Arabic, the same greeting and response exist as salaam aleykum and aleykum as-salaam. Whereas in Arabic, however, this exchange is still an everyday feature of the language, in contemporary Israeli Hebrew it is rare, having been replaced by the shorter form of shalom. The only context in which shalom aleykhem is still regularly used is in the well-known Sabbath hymn that begins “Shalom aleykhem mal’akhey ha-sharet,” “Peace be unto you, ministering angels.” Sung in most observant Jewish homes at the beginning of the Sabbath-eve meal, it welcomes the heavenly guardians who, according to Jewish tradition, accompany every Jew during the 24 hours of the day of rest.

In Yiddish, too, sholem aleykhem is always answered by aleykhem sholem. It is one of several ways of saying “hello” and has a different tone from the others, such as gut morgn (“good morning”), gutn ovent (“good evening”) or just plain sholem. Sholem aleykhem is on the whole more emphatic, is said in a louder or heartier voice, and expresses greater formality, pleasure, excitement or surprise than its alternatives. You would not ordinarily greet a friend, acquaintance or family member with it if you had just seen them a day or hour ago and there was nothing out of the ordinary about encountering them again. You would use it, rather, if you were introduced to someone new, or met or ran into someone you had not seen for a while.

It is this aspect of the expression that led Sholem Rabinovich, then a young “crown” or government-appointed rabbi in a small town in Ukraine, to first adopt it as a pseudonym in an 1883 article, a satirical piece on local politics, written for the St. Petersburg Dos Yidishe Folksblat. Rabinovich needed a pen name because, being a government employee, he had to be careful if he wanted to keep his job. He had already experimented with several comical names before “Sholem Aleichem,” among them Solomon Bikherfreser (“Solomon Bookeater”) and “Der Yidisher Gazlen” (“The Robber Jew”). “Sholem Aleichem” was a clever choice because, since Rabinovich was then publishing irregularly and unpredictably in a number of Yiddish periodicals, each time he appeared he was indeed like an old acquaintance unexpectedly met — and also, of course, because “Sholem” was his actual first name. Although he continued to use some of his other pseudonyms for a while, “Sholem Aleichem” gradually took over and became, by the early 1890s, his sole byline.

A number of important Yiddish and Hebrew writers of the 19th and 20th centuries published under pseudonyms: One might mention the essayist Asher Ginzburg, better known as Ahad Ha’am, “One of the People”; the novelist and story writer Sholom Ya’akov Abramovitsh, who wrote as Mendele Mocher Seforim, “Mendele the Bookseller”; Ba’al Makhshoves or “The Thinker,” the pen name of the social and literary critic Isidor Elyashev, and still others. One can refer to them as either Ahad Ha’am or Ginzburg, Mendele or Abramovitsh, Ba’al Makhshoves or Elyashev, but never as Ha’am, Seforim or Makhshoves. And never, never should Sholem Aleichem be called Aleichem, not even by the authoritative Times.

Questions for Philologos can be sent to philologos@forward.com.



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