Sholom Aleichem Essay - Sholom Aleichem Long Fiction Analysis

Sholom Rabinowitz

Sholom Aleichem Long Fiction Analysis

Sholom Aleichem excelled in character development. The personalities of his protagonists unfold through their thoughts, desires, dreams, worries, and hopes; their interactions with others; and, most of all, through their speech. Their language—a lively, colloquial Yiddish—is rhythmic and rustically poetic. They curse one another, express affection, identify with animals, misquote Scripture, and misuse Talmudic lore, though, even in their innocent, or calculated, mangling of Scripture and tradition, they often reveal a higher folk wisdom.

Because Aleichem was basically a writer of short impressionistic sketches, it is difficult to diagram a clear plot in his narratives. He was largely indifferent to the literary architecture required of longer works. His novels, often picaresque, are therefore disjointed and episodic. He may introduce a character, leave him or her for several chapters, take up another character, and only later return to the first. The natural environment is rarely or only briefly described, yet the little towns and bustling cities through which his characters move come alive as they struggle to survive in whatever setting God has placed them.

The most famous Aleichem characters struggle with poverty, dream of what it would be like to be rich, and ultimately accept their plight. They are not, however, above arguing with the Deity. There is frequently a nearly magical, even mystical element in some of Aleichem’s writing, which may reflect the influence of his grandfather, a Hasidic Jew and Kabbalistic mystic.

Preferring the epistolary narrative form or the monologue, Aleichem allows his protagonists to speak for themselves. Sometimes they address their unseen listener respectfully, but the author appears rarely to interfere with them. This encourages the reader to laugh with rather than at the characters so compassionately presented. In his novels, Aleichem appears to be telling rather than writing a story.

It has been customary to refer to Aleichem as the Jewish Mark Twain. There is a story, almost certainly apocryphal, of his meeting with the American humorist: When introduced, Twain is modestly rumored to have said “I understand that I am the American Sholom Aleichem.” Certainly, in their use of first-person narrative, often in...

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