The Worlds of Sholem Aleichem: The Remarkable Life and Afterlife of the Man Who Created Tevye

  • By Jeremy Dauber
  • Schocken
  • 464 pp.

A theatrical study of the Yiddish writer whose short stories were the source for “Fiddler on the Roof.”

The Worlds of Sholem Aleichem: The Remarkable Life and Afterlife of the Man Who Created Tevye

Sholem Aleichem rose to prominence in his lifetime, but as biographer Jeremy Dauber is at great pains to demonstrate, he rose to even greater fame in the many decades that followed his death. This phenomenon was due in large part to the several serviceable collections of his stories in English translation, to the revivals of his plays, and, eventually, to the grand Broadway and cinematic renderings of the interplay among Tevye the milkman, his wife and (especially) his children. The success of “Fiddler on the Roof” eventually opened the door to serious assessments of Sholem Aleichem’s substantial, foundational achievements.

To underscore the theatrical – or is it the dramatic? – nature of Sholem Aleichem’s life and career, both during and after the writer’s lifetime, Dauber harnesses his colorful, fact-filled chapters into the structure of a five-act play. Not only is this teeming full-length exploration of Sholem Aleichem’s person-hood and achievement presented as both melodrama and tragicomedy, it is also framed by an “Overture: Setting the Scene” and a lengthy epilogue in 10 brief scenes that follow the posthumous life, or “afterlife,” of the subject’s works.

Dauber doesn’t miss a chance to extend his theatrical motif. Each chapter captures the phrasing of Victorian episodic fiction and perhaps a bit of silent movie placard writing. For example, Chapter 13 is headed “In Which Our Hero Reads the Newspapers in Yiddish and Becomes a Media Star (1899-1903).” All the other chapters also begin with “In Which Our Hero ...”

These trappings, at once charming and humorous, are also thematic. Dauber is concerned with art and artifice, and he underscores the various ways in which Sholem Aleichem’s life and art interact. In the beginning, there was the self-creation: A man named Sholem Rabinovich (1859-1916) turned himself into an author-character named Sholem Aleichem.

To Dauber’s great credit, he does not totally give in to his foreground subject, colorful and dynamic as he was, but always sets him within a detailed historical context. It is amazing how often and quickly change unfolded in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The life of the shtetl Jews of Eastern Europe that Rabinovich knew so well and brilliantly immortalized was fading fast, prolonged only by the waves of pogrom-driven immigration to New York but, even then, quickly and radically altered. Dauber brings this tumultuous history to life.

Among the many issues this study treats, several stand out. Among these is Sholem Aleichem’s place in the contest regarding the primacy of Yiddish or Hebrew as the national literary language of the Jewish people. Yiddish seems to win in the short run, as Sholem Aleichem rises to ascendancy, becoming a premier builder of a substantial body of popular and acclaimed Yiddish literature and drama – a literature that fed and was fed by a vanishing culture. Along the way, we learn about the European and American Yiddish press, its rivalries and jealousies, its great period of bloom and its inevitable fading.By 1911, in greater Warsaw, with a Jewish population of more than 5 million, “two leading newspapers would have over 100,000 subscribers each.”

However, the main struggles are the basic human and professional ones of raising a family and making a living as a (Yiddish) writer. Even though, as Dauber tells us, “1903 marked [Sholem Aleichem’s] twentieth anniversary as a Yiddish writer, and the young upstart had become the celebrated master,” there was never enough money. In one instance, Dauber relates a 1901 episode in which Sholem Aleichem runs off after the birth of his last child “in search of a loan from a friend or acquaintance to pay off the midwife and the doctor.” Dauber’s ongoing descriptions of his hero’s family life, his illnesses (which often demanded relocation for rest and recuperation), and his struggle for markets and payments for his nonstop productivity are constantly fascinating in their detail and emotional resonance.

In tracing Sholem Aleichem’s movements – pressured by the vulnerability of Jewish communities, business opportunities and health issues – Dauber gives us an intriguing map of Europe, and a bit of the United States as well. Small towns, restorative retreats and busy cities all provide not-quite-permanent homes for the vagabond virtuoso – a man at once rootless and deeply rooted. Like Anthony Trollope in England, Sholem Aleichem became comfortable and productive writing on train trips. Nonetheless, according to Dauber, “[a]n early version of the money tour in the summer of 1902, visiting Jewish cities around the Pale [Russian-sanctioned Jewish settlements] to support his Folkstsaytung, was distasteful; Sholem Aleichem only agreed to do it because he had no financial choice.” 

This life study of a prominent author also provides, as many similar books do not, a careful reading of that author’s representative works. Sholem Aleichem’s reputation was and is caught up in the critical battleground over the relative status of literary and folk literature. Dauber examines themes, characters and techniques in a manner that insists on valuing Sholem Aleichem as a literary artist, not merely a folktale purveyor. Though Sholem Aleichem often presents characters who seem like country bumpkins, closer examination reveals their complexity and their creator’s artistic sophistication. While Tevye, due to his amazing life beyond his creator’s death, is the most prominent, many others are shaped and nuanced with equal skill.

Because Dauber is more concerned with the impact of his subject’s achievement than with its ultimate literary stature, his descriptions of the stories and novels do not include lengthy stylistic analyses or appraisals. In addition, Dauber is alert to Sholem Aleichem’s reworking of earlier efforts and his tendency to exploit the same motifs and issues over and over – a part of the writing life framed by deadlines and the need to fulfill promises.

Sholem Aleichem wrote more for the masses than for the intelligentsia, but he managed to please both. Jeremy Dauber also has a great story to tell, and he tells it with precision, with gusto, and with more than a little showmanship. With the addition of his abundant, carefully managed research, Dauber will satisfy both the general reader and the academic community. He brings his subject fully to life and he reveals the complex meaning of that life. What more can one ask?

Philip K. Jason is professor emeritus of English from the United States Naval Academy. A former editor of Poet Lore magazine, he is the author or editor of 20 books, including Acts and Shadows: The Vietnam War in American Literary Culture and Don’t Wave Goodbye: The Children’s Flight from Nazi Persecution to American Freedom. His reviews appear in many regional and national publications.

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