Sadly, Sholom Aleichem’s chief legacy is his richly detailed delineation of the world destroyed by Nazi genocide and the Soviet repression of all religious cultures. Read by thousands of Jews dispersed throughout the world, Aleichem evokes nostalgically the society that Jewish ancestors knew; the thick tapestry of Jewish life in czarist Russia—messianic claimants, holy fools, idealistic youth, merchants, scholars, revolutionaries—is resurrected in his sketches. His major achievement may have been his decisive establishment of Yiddish, however briefly, as a worthy vehicle for literary expression. He has been credited with the virtual creation of modern Yiddish literature. Before him and his writing contemporaries, Yiddish was “the tongue without tradition.” Only sentimental romances were written in “the jargon,” along with simplistic books of scriptural explication and devotional verses for women, who, unlike men, did not read Hebrew.
Aleichem became a godfather to subsequent Yiddish writers. Isaac Bashevis Singer was perhaps the last of international significance. Yet an entire generation of Jewish fiction writers, whose language is English, must also trace its lineage to Aleichem. In the early 1990’s in the Ukrainian Republic, the Society of Jewish Culture began moving ahead with plans to establish a museum in the house where Aleichem lived. A special library of mementos and writings, all in Hebrew translation, is maintained in Tel Aviv, Israel. The American stage and screen have far extended the gentile audience of this most characteristic of Yiddish masters. The World of Sholom Aleichem, an off-Broadway production written by Arnold Perl and inspired by the writings of Aleichem and Issac Leib Peretz, debuted in 1953, while Fiddler on the Roof, a musical based on his stories, had a long run on Broadway and in motion picture theaters throughout Europe and the United States. Music for the Broadway production, which debuted in 1964, was written by Jerry Bock with lyrics by Sheldon Harnick; the film, produced in 1971, was directed by Norman Jewison.