A stenographer for his people’s soul

Sholem Aleichem, the subject of Jeremy Dauber’s new biography, aspired to be 'A writer of the people ... a mirror in which the rays of his epoch and generation are reflected.’

Sholem Aleichem
Photograph from the film Sholem Aleichem: Laughing in Darkness /
By Benjamin Balint
Published 09:58 05.01.14

The Worlds of Sholem Aleichem: The Remarkable Life and Afterlife of the Man Who Created Tevye, by Jeremy Dauber, Nextbook/ Schocken, 480 pages, $28.95

“In Jewish stories,” Saul Bellow once said, “laughter and trembling are so curiously intermingled that it is not easy to determine the relation of the two.”

The cover of The Worlds of Sholem Aleichem
The cover of The Worlds of Sholem Aleichem /

As a comprehensive, prodigiously researched new biography by Jeremy Dauber suggests, nowhere did the two modes intermingle with such natural genius as in the fictions of Sholem Aleichem, the very archetype of the Jewish storyteller. “Life is rich with facts,” that beloved Yiddish writer observed, “full of curiosities, many misfortunes, a sea of tears, which, as they will pass through my prism will already become by themselves comic, beloved delights.”

In telling that writer’s story, Dauber, a professor of Yiddish literature at Columbia University, gives us both a life rich in facts and an introduction to a brand of literary alchemy that transmuted tears into comic delights.

“The Worlds of Sholem Aleichem” opens with a family hemmed, like countless others, into the Pale of Settlement by a czarist government that both sanctioned and incited anti-Semitic pogroms. Sholem Rabinovich was born in a town near Kiev, Ukraine, in 1859 (the same year as Alfred Dreyfus). After he lost his mother to cholera when he was 13, he penned his first work: a dictionary of the Yiddish curses his stepmother hurled his way. His public-school teacher, he remembered, “used to good-humoredly inform us that Jews were physiologically incapable of truly internalizing Russian culture.” But he immersed himself in the books of his fellow Ukrainian Nikolai Gogol, and, in Russian translation, those of Shakespeare, Dickens, Swift and Cervantes.

At 18, the young man landed a job as a Hebrew tutor to the teenage daughter of a wealthy landowner, who banished him from the manor when their love became too open. Four years later, Sholem and Olga married against her father’s wishes. They would have six children.

After the death of his father-in-law, Sholem inherited a fortune, gave up his career as a Hebrew essayist for one as a writer of Yiddish stories, and founded a groundbreaking, annual Yiddish literary anthology. But, aided by over-confidence and a poor business sense that would plague him throughout his life, the aspiring writer lost everything in the market crash of 1890. “I’m down in flames,” he wrote to a friend. “Seized by a fire of debts and obligations.” Fleeing his creditors in Kiev, he moved his family to Odessa, only to return three years later after his mother-in-law paid off his debts.

Buoyed by a flourishing popular Yiddish press, where his stories ran in weekly installments, the pen name Sholem Aleichem became a household word, and “epitomized,” Dauber writes, “more than anyone, Yiddish’s rapidly expanding empire.” In 1906 Warsaw alone, Dauber notes, there were five Yiddish dailies and three weeklies competing for mass readership. The popularity of his serialized stories soared. In 1908, Baal Makhshoves, the first Yiddish literary critic, wrote: “Among the folk, there is hardly a celebration or gathering where the guests are not asked, ‘Would you care to hear some Sholem Aleichem read aloud?’ as one would offer a good glass of wine with a piece of cake.” His stories confirmed his position not just as a writer, but as a culture-hero who personified Yiddish itself. “Reading him,” said S. Niger, another prominent critic, “the Jews seemed to be listening to themselves.”

Fame, but neither fortune nor pretention, followed. His reading tours were rapturously received. In Dvinsk, “they drowned me in flowers.” In Brisk, “ovations without number.” In Lodz, workers pressed forward to kiss his hand. In Vitebsk, the young Marc Chagall clambered over a fence in the attempt to steal a glimpse of the great man. In Warsaw, a Hasid rushed up to him and said, “You are our comfort, you sweeten the bitterness of our exile!”

In 1905, however, a four-day pogrom in Kiev signaled that exile had far from exhausted its store of bitterness. The harrowing experience of his narrow escape (which he would incorporate into his 1907 novel “In the Storm”) helped seal Sholem Aleichem’s decision to leave: first to Lemberg, in Galicia, then Geneva, and then to America.

“The American Sholem Aleichem”

Dignitaries, welcoming committees, and the editors of the city’s four daily Yiddish papers greeted him at New York Harbor. One of those papers heralded his arrival with a front-page photo of “The Jewish Mark Twain” (another writer overtaken by his own pen name). New York State Supreme Court Justice Samuel Greenbaum arranged a meeting of the two men. Acting as translator, he introduced the Yiddish writer as “the Jewish Mark Twain.” “Please tell him,” Twain said, “that I am the American Sholem Aleichem.”

Yet as the euphoria wore off, Sholem Aleichem found that all was not golden in the Goldene Medine. His plays for the Second Avenue Yiddish theaters, panned by critics, both flopped. The Yiddish papers showed scant interest in his a cycle of stories about his beloved character Motl, the character closest to his heart. (The Motl stories appeared in installments in 1906-07 and 1915-16.) He and Olga had to borrow money for the fare back across the Atlantic.

In the summer of 1908, Sholem Aleichem undertook a taxing reading tour in Russia, where his stories had begun to appear in Russian translation to great acclaim (and to the favorable attention of Leo Tolstoy and Maxim Gorki). “He is national as Maupassant, Dickens, and Chekhov are national,” one Russian critic wrote. During the tour, he suffered a serious collapse, later describing “the privilege of meeting his majesty, the Angel of Death, face to face.” For the next year he was hospitalized in a series of tuberculosis wards and sanitaria in Germany, Switzerland and the Italian Riviera.

Still in ill health, he fled World War I and returned to New York at the end of 1914. This time he was greeted with a standing-room-only event at Carnegie Hall and offers to appear in English translation in the New York World, a broadsheet owned by Joseph Pulitzer. But his finances remained desperate, and he was shattered by the word that his son Misha, 24, who had been stranded in Copenhagen by the war, had died of tuberculosis.

When Sholem Aleichem died in 1916, aged 57, his funeral was the largest New York had ever seen. U.S. Congressman William Stiles Bennet called it “the greatest spontaneous gathering of the people in the history of our city.” Sweatshops closed and sidewalks thronged as his cortege wound its way from the Bronx to a synagogue in Harlem, through the Lower East Side, and to a cemetery in Brooklyn. He had asked to be buried among the “plain people, the toilers, the common folk.”

He left his memoir, “From the Fair,” unfinished on his desk.

Artful alchemy of storytelling

So much for the rich facts of a life, which Dauber relates in riveting detail. But what of the artful alchemy of storytelling to which that life was devoted, the work of a graphomaniac whose collected works fill 28 volumes?

More than anything else, what makes Dauber’s book an ideal introduction to Sholem Aleichem is the way it judiciously places the writer at the forefront of “an emergent sense that Yiddish literature could and should be literary.” Literary, but not deadly serious. Not for him the urbane modernism of I.L. Peretz. But also not for him the shund-roman, the trashy Yiddish romances. Before him, under the influence of the Haskalah, the Jewish Enlightenment, Jewish literature was, as it had ever been, earnest, didactic and moralistic in tone. Yiddish - so-called “jargon” - had been disdained by high-minded custodians of Hebrew, like the poet Y.L. Gordon, stigmatized by Zionists who resisted the cultural products of exile, and belittled by assimilated Russian-speaking Jews. Sholem Aleichem’s father, himself an ardent devotee of the Haskalah, once expressed pride in his son’s books, even if they were written in “a weekday tongue of cooks and serving-girls.”

But by affording Yiddish a new and dignified status, by freeing the rich literary potential of the vernacular, the common jargon, Sholem Aleichem accomplished its artistic redemption.

He did this, in Dauber’s telling, not just by mastering - and taking boundless pleasure in - the melodies and cadences of a language in which he felt so utterly and obviously at home, but in establishing an unprecedented intimacy with his readers. He often gives the impression that rather than inventing stories, he was merely transcribing or overhearing them. (One of his early satiric sketches is called “Letters Stolen from the Post Office.”) The Russian-born Hebrew writer Y.H. Brenner spoke of Sholem Aleichem - a folkschreiber, to use his own term - not as a writer but as a stenographer taking dictation from the soul of his people.

Sholem Aleichem’s people gave him - and recognized themselves in - his gallery of garrulous characters: luckless schlemiels; schemers who fill their heads with pipe dreams of making millions; raucous talkers who prattle and chatter and forget their main point (characters, as a friend of mine once put it, “who have a one-track mind and no train of thought”); virtuoso sufferers who quote half-understood biblical verses; defenseless young men lured into arranged marriages (as Isaac Bashevis Singer noticed, there is no sex in Sholem Aleichem’s stories); harried husbands mocked by shrewish wives; careworn peddlers bewildered by the world and resigned to their fate.

His readers saw themselves, for example, in Menakhem-Mendel, a luftmensch who seems to eke his living out of thin air; and in Tevye the Dairyman, the mild-mannered modern Job who loses his daughters to Siberian exile, to Christianity, to suicide and to America. They delighted in his imagined insular quintessential shtetl, Kasrilevke (including in the famous 1902 story “If I Were Rothschild”), and in its poor but cheerful residents. They adopted Motl, the mischievous, illiterate cantor’s son (Irving Howe called him “Sholem Aleichem’s Tom Sawyer”), who speaks to us in the second-person plural about his family’s emigration from the Ukraine to New York.

But in each case, as Sholem Aleichem shifts between “satire and sympathy,” as Dauber puts it, readers also responded to the way the characters responded to the forces of dissolution. Sholem Aleichem’s characters talk - often in wonderful meandering monologues - as though their words could mitigate their own powerlessness. For all its informality, their language -- and that of their author - registered a deep anxiety. Dauber calls this language “a perfect venue to reflect the jarring transpositions of old and new, traditional and modern.”

This is the trembling beneath the playfulness and wry humor, the source of what Sholem Aleichem famously called “open laughter and hidden tears.” This is why the man Isaac Babel thought of as “the funniest writer in the world” subtly animated his stories with the darker undercurrents of anxiety and uncertainty and dizzying dislocation. “Reading Sholem Aleichem,” said Irving Howe, using a different metaphor, “is like wandering through a lovely meadow of laughter and suddenly coming to a precipice of doom.”

“Epitaph of a vanished world”

The doom of his readership, however, did not by a long stretch consign Sholem Aleichem to oblivion, and Dauber closes his book with a nuanced account of the writer’s ambiguous afterlife.

Each successive audience, Dauber shows, used Sholem Aleichem for its own purposes. The Soviets turned him into a critic of capitalism. Marxist critic Max Erik, for example, could write in 1935 a sentence like: “The roots of Sholem Aleichem’s critical stance toward Menakhem-Mendl must be sought in the denunciation of the petty bourgeois.” In the 1920s, the Moscow State Theater put on his one-act plays (makeup and sets by Marc Chagall), and four Soviet film adaptations came to the big screen.

More intriguing, however, is Dauber’s skillful account of how Sholem Aleichem entered into American consciousness. Immigrants and children of immigrants, drawn by a sense of guilt into a rosy nostalgia for a “tradition” and an “old country” from which they were growing daily more distant, turned him into a touchstone of a bygone authenticity. After the Shoah, they needed his work even more urgently as a memorial to a culture extinguished, “the epitaph of a vanished world,” as Ben Hecht put it.

The effect was an easy sentimentality, an anemic popularization of the quaint shtetl - in short, schmaltz. Tevye’s story was adapted in 1939 into a popular movie by Maurice Schwartz, and in 1964 into the slick Tony-award winning musical “Fiddler on the Roof,” directed by Jerome Robbins and starring Zero Mostel. In the city where Sholem Aleichem’s own plays had 57 years earlier sputtered after a couple of weeks, “Fiddler” would play for 3,242 performances over eight years, setting a record for the longest Broadway run. It would also spawn its own afterlife, including four Broadway revivals, and an Academy-Award winning 1971 film starring Chaim Topol.

“A writer of the people - a true artist and poet - is a mirror in which the rays of his epoch and generation are reflected.” So said Sholem Aleichem, whose own epoch was one that sensed more keenly than any other the encroachments of emigration and assimilation, and that felt both presentiments of decline and dreams of regeneration. In so faithfully mirroring his people’s laughter and trembling, he captured a world - and a language - at the precarious moment of its passing, all the more irretrievable for our attempts to retrieve it.

Benjamin Balint, author of “Running Commentary,” teaches at the Bard College liberal arts program in Jerusalem.