Sholom Aleichem1 is the pen name of the most famous author of Yiddish2 literature3, Solomon Yakov Rabinovitz4. The name 'Sholom Aleichem' is derived directly from the name Solomon, which in Yiddish is often spelled 'Sholomo'. By dropping the ending, the word 'sholom' or 'sholem', meaning peace (as in 'shalom') is obtained. 'Aleichem' completes the name to form a Yiddish greeting, or phrase, from the Hebrew for 'peace be unto you'. The name 'Sholom Aleichem' will be used throughout this Entry.
Sholom Aleichem was born on 2 March, 1859 in the small town of Pereyaslav - not to be confused with the more famous town Pereyaslav-Zalyeskiy near Moscow - southeast of Kiev, now Ukraine, then a part of the Russian Empire. Aleichem never settled for very long periods, but stayed mostly in that part of the Ukraine. The beginning of the 1905 Russian revolution and the growth of violent antisemitism caused him to leave the Russian Empire. He lived mainly in western Europe until the beginning of WWI in 1914. He then moved to New York, USA. Aleichem passed away two years later on 13 May, 1916. A more detailed biography is given below.
Two of his most famous works are: Tevye's Daughters, a compilation of short stories (written between 1895 and 1914) which later served as a basis for the Broadway musical The Fiddler on the Roof, and The Adventures of Mottel, the Cantor's Son (ca. 1900). His works are difficult to categorise without diverging into full interpretations and studies about the historical and cultural context, but are mainly of satirical and/or humorous nature. Aleichem himself wrote in his autobiography:
To make people laugh, to point the comical out to them, this was for me almost like an illness.
One aspect of Aleichem's storytelling style that might appear intriguing to readers unfamiliar with his works is the contrasting of humour with very serious subjects like discrimination, poverty, political arbitrariness, suicide or hunger - Aleichem's works while one the one hand very humorous, are at the same time deeply touching.
Aleichem's Work - Yiddish Literature
Aleichem's literary work5 is mainly about the life of the simple Jewish people in the small towns or settlements, the so-called 'shtetls', of eastern Europe. It was his explicit purpose to write for this people, the people he loved: he wanted to be their chronicler. With this motivation in mind, he knew that he had to write in Yiddish, naturally, as this was the only language his readership understood. Only an intellectual minority of the Jews in eastern Europe knew Hebrew and even fewer spoke Russian. Aleichem was aware of the fact that writing in Yiddish also constituted a big challenge. 'Serious' Yiddish literature hardly existed up to this time (or was, at least, limited to a very small circle). The existing Yiddish works, collections of ephemeral anecdotes, were scoffed at by most Jewish intellectuals (who opted for Russian or Hebrew as a language for 'real' literature). This was one reason that led Aleichem to adopt his pen name in 1883 - he didn't want to lose the intellectuals as a potential readership. If he failed with the Yiddish works, he would at least have spared the reputation of his real name.
Aleichem succeeded. The simple people, the people he wrote about, loved the stories, in which they could recognise themselves. He soon became very popular among the east-European Jewish community, and earned an extra buck by touring from town to town to present his works. Eventually his work diffused all over Europe, reached America and crossed cultural barriers. By 1888 (Aleichem and his wife Olga - who was a dentist - were earning enough money to support their family) he created an annual dedicated to 'serious' Yiddish literature Di jidische Folksbibliothek - the publication of the first issue in 1889 is considered to mark the beginning of modern Yiddish literature.
In the 1890s Aleichem went through a period of financial uncertainty, which led him to abandon the annual project in 1891. In about 1900, life was becoming increasingly difficult for Jews living in eastern Europe. The increasing discrimination slowly led many people to leave the small towns for western Europe. Shortly after, when the discrimination escalated to violent waves of state-sanctioned pogroms, the Jewish life in these small towns ceased to exist in the way it used to. Aleichem and his family left eastern Europe in 1905. Aleichem's work - in some way - united the dislocated Jewish community, and at the same time reminded them of the world they had to leave. It was disseminated all over the western hemisphere, but lost its nourishing ground. Aleichem continued writing and kept touring Europe and the US until his untimely death in 1916.
His works are a monument dedicated to the simple Jewish people in eastern Europe. This seems to invoke a cultural barrier between a modern reader and Aleichem's work: Only the people carrying this specific culture would be able to comprehend, to relate to the stories in an absolute way. It is true that Aleichem wrote for that people. Furthermore Aleichem is very specific about places (Kiev, Odessa), people (the Tsar, Baron Rothschild, millionaire Polyakov), traditions (the kaddish, the kashrut and the observance of the shabbat), interreligious problems (interreligious marriage, antisemitism, pogroms) and historical events (the census of 1897, the congress of the socialist party in 1898, the Russo-Japanese war 1904-05). Many puns and asides fail to reach a modern reader. A lot of the cultural peculiarities of Jewish life in eastern Europe are described in his works, which today are almost forgotten. The fact that it was written in Yiddish also renders some expressions untranslatable without some knowledge of the historical and cultural context6.
Even so, Aleichem's work builds cultural and temporal bridges. While the individual aside and the individual pun could be important for a deep analysis of his work, the big story is about human behaviour, about surviving under adverse conditions, about relations between people - timeless topics. It is easy to transpose the situations experienced by Aleichem's characters to a modern context. In summary - and this is probably a hallmark of all genuine literature - the stories reach out and appeal to people of all cultures, living in different times. Of course, some of his works also sound dated: Aleichem also wrote notes and commentaries for various newspapers. But so did Mark Twain; indeed, there are numerous parallels in the biographies and in the literature of Mark Twain and Sholom Aleichem. Aleichem supposedly met Twain on one occasion in the US. Aleichem was introduced (they needed a translator) with the words 'This is Sholom Aleichem, the Yiddish Mark Twain'. Twain alledgedly responded 'I am Mark Twain, the American Sholom Aleichem.'
Aleichem helped to create modern Yiddish literature. He helped raise Yiddish literature to be on a par with world literature. Many other authors followed Aleichem, and Yiddish literature and Yiddish curture flourished. This period soon ended bitterly: Yiddish literature and culture was murdered along with the very same Jews of Aleichem's stories during the Holocaust. Before 1936 an estimated 12 million people used Yiddish as an everyday language, spoken and written. Today this language is virtually extinct according to Chaim Frank of the Documentation Archive for Jewish Culture and History.
Sholom Aleichem was born on 2 March, 1859 into a relatively well-off family and had 11 siblings. His father was a merchant and was knowledgeable about religious matters. He sympathised with the haskalah, which is in very rough terms a progressive movement within Judaism towards a less traditionalistic form7. He was part of the so-called inteligentsia, an ill-defined circle of middle-class intellectuals (of all walks of life) in Russia.
In the early 1860s the family moved to Voronko, a very small town, not far from Pereyaslav. This village ended up serving as a model for the fictitious Jewish villages, or shtetls, of Kasrilevke and Anatevke in Aleichem's work. Around 1870 the family ran into financial difficulties and moved back to Pereyaslav. Aleichem's mother died in 1872 during a cholera epidemic. Encouraged by his father, Aleichem attended secondary school in Russia in spite of the intensive religious segregation8.
After graduation in 1876 he started working as a tutor and from 1880 to 1883 he served as a so-called 'court-rabbi'9 in the town of Lubny a very poor Jewish village. During this time he learned to love the simple, humble Jewish people, who were to become the characters of his stories. It was probably during this time he decided to start writing in Yiddish (cf. also above). Aleichem had already started to publish short stories and commentaries for periodicals in 1879. In 1883, Aleichem married his former pupil Olga Loyev, who came from a relatively wealthy family (they had six children). She studied to become a dentist, which helped to stabilise their financial situation. However, money was always a concern. The 1890s were difficult years, and Aleichem was not very prolific; he had to travel a lot around eastern Europe to read from his books. Around this time he was diagnosed with tuberculosis.
In the late 1890s he started writing the first stories of Dairyman Tevye and the Letters of Menachem Mendl. Around 1900 the financial situation became stable: Olga ran a working practice, and Sholom was earning more money from writing. The ongoing turmoil in Russia, however, worsened the situation for the Jews. In 1905, after a particularly violent wave of pogroms, Aleichem left Russia with his family. They originally moved to New York, USA, but Aleichem did not find a job as a writer for a Yiddish theatre or Yiddish newspaper. They returned to western Europe in 1907 and lived mostly in Switzerland, but were in reality moving from place to place. The finacial situation became comfortable, after Aleichem regained control over his copyrights10. In 1914 WWI broke out and Aleichem fled with his family to New York. Aleichem's son Misha, who had tuberculosis, and Aleichem's daughter Emma, who was to take care of him, stayed in Switzerland. In New York, Aleichem was plagued yet again by financial instability, but managed to write some pieces for the Yiddish theatre and made sporadic contributions to Yiddish newspapers. Misha died in 1915 leaving Aleichem in great dolefulness. Sholom Aleichem died on 13 May, 1916. On the day of his burial, all Jewish shops closed, and hundreds of thousands attended. He is buried in the Mount Neboh Cemetery in Queens.
Wherever I may die, let me be buried not among the rich and famous, but among plain Jewish people, the workers, the common folk, so that my tombstone may honor the simple graves around me, and the simple graves honor mine, even as the plain people honored their folk writer in his lifetime.
From Sholem Aleichem's testament, full excerpt here: Religion and Ethics
One-liners by Aleichem
A bachelor is a man who comes to work each morning from a different direction.
Gossip is nature's telephone.
Life is a dream for the wise, a game for the fool, a comedy for the rich, a tragedy for the poor.
No matter how bad things get you have to go on living, even if it kills you.
The rich swell up with pride, the poor from hunger.