Sholom Aleichem 1859-1916
(Also transliterated as Sholem-Aleykhem; pseudonym of Solomon Rabinowitz, also transliterated as Rabinovich, Rabinovitsh, and Rabinovitch) Ukrainian-born Yiddish short story writer, novelist, and dramatist.
One of the founding authors of Yiddish literature, Sholom Aleichem's reputation is based primarily on humorous short stories, such as those adapted for the musical Fiddler on the Roof, in which he depicted the Jewish Pale of Settlement, those areas in Russia to which Jews were restricted during the nineteenth century. While other Russian Jews of his era wrote in either Hebrew or Russian, Sholom Aleichem chose to write in Yiddish, a language spoken by eastern European Jews that is derived from High German but usually written with Hebrew characters. His stories reflect the determined optimism and faith of Jewish people amid poverty and persecution, bringing humor to this grim setting through absurd situations and revealing monologues. Sholom Aleichem used the literary forms of the monologue and the epistle to present his characters in their own idiom with no intervention from a narrator, a method that led to his fame as the "folk voice" of Ukrainian Jewry.
The son of a prosperous, educated merchant, Sholom Aleichem was born in the Ukrainian city of Pereyaslav and spent his early years in a shtetl, a small, impoverished Jewish community that functioned much like a medieval town. His early proclivity for writing so impressed his father that he sent him to a Russian secondary school, where he would receive a secular education, rather than to a yeshiva, the traditional Jewish religious academy for advanced studies. After graduation, Sholom Aleichem moved to Kiev and took a job as a government rabbi and began to publish articles in Hebrew and Russian on educational and liturgical reform. Wanting to reach the large audience of shtetl Jews who could not read Hebrew, he decided to write in Yiddish, a language then derided by educated Jews. Protecting his professional reputation by adopting the pseudonym Sholom Aleichem (a Hebrew greeting meaning "peace be with you"), he published his first short story, "The Two Stones," in 1883. Over the next few years, Sholom Aleichem wrote critically acclaimed short stories and several novels, hoping to provide more serious and artistic examples of Yiddish writing in contrast with the frivolous romances that prevailed in Yiddish literature of that time. Having established himself as a respectable Yiddish author, he encouraged other Yiddish writers by founding and editing Di yidishe folksbiblyotek, an annual devoted to Yiddish literature.
Throughout the 1890s, Sholom Aleichem wrote stories incessantly. The immensely popular Tevye stories and Menachem Mendl series date from this period, and their success gave Sholom Aleichem's family enough security to enable him to devote himself entirely to writing. In 1905 pogroms, in which thousands of Jews were massacred, forced the family to flee into exile. Despite his immense popularity, Sholom Aleichem soon found himself in financial trouble. Having sold his copyrights to unscrupulous publishers years before, he received no royalties from the sales of his works. He traveled constantly, giving lectures and readings in Europe and America, until he collapsed from tuberculosis in Russia in 1908. While Sholom Aleichem recovered in Italy, unable to pay his debts, some friends raised money by sponsoring a twenty-fifth anniversary jubilee in honor of his first story. They received donations from all over the world and arranged to reclaim his copyrights from publishers. Financially secure and having recovered his health by 1913, Sholom Aleichem resumed his lecture and reading tours. However, the outbreak of World War I in 1914 drove him and his family once more into exile. They moved to New York, where he died in 1916.
Major Works of Short Fiction
Sholom Aleichem's fame rests primarily on his short stories, which were among the first Yiddish works to be accepted as serious literature. In their detailed representation of shtetl life, these stories successfully reflect the chaotic world of eastern European Jews. As well as documenting the Jews' daily suffering from hunger and persecution, he addressed the problem of changing values among the younger generation, particularly their increasing secularization and disregard for tradition. Sholom Aleichem's stories never follow a conventional plotline: they begin in the midst of trouble, more disasters occur, then they break off without resolution. However, instead of focusing on the disruption and calamity that provide much of the substance for his short stories, he maintained a tone of humor and optimism. For example, Tevye the dairyman, one of Sholom Aleichem's most popular characters, distracts the reader from the tragedy of his stories through his audacious challenges to God and his humorous misquotations of religious verses. Menachem Mendl, the fast-talking dreamer who fails in every business venture he attempts, amuses the reader with his outrageous plans and his frenzied pace. Presenting himself as a listener in his stories and allowing his characters to speak without authorial intervention, Sholom Aleichem added to the humor by having his characters inadvertently reveal their attitudes and faults.
Despite the careful craftsmanship of Sholom Aleichem's narratives, the naturalness of his characters' speech and the accuracy of his descriptions of shtetl life led to his initial reputation as simply a "recorder" of Jewish life. Early critics focused on the cheerfulness of the characters, on their "laughter through tears" as a way of coping with the endless adversity in their lives. More recent critics have noted a tragic side to Sholom Aleichem's stories, maintaining that his works inspire sympathy as well as laughter. Significant change has occurred in the critical estimates of Tevye: once seen as a cheerful but naïve character who inadvertently misquotes scripture through his ignorance, he has recently been described as a perceptive man who consciously manipulates religious quotations to comment on his life and on God. While Sholom Aleichem's writing is now considered more complex than it was previously, his importance as a founder of Yiddish literature has never been disputed. Likewise, critics and readers have consistently appreciated the humorous and poignant stories in which he masterfully evoked the resiliency and hopefulness of shtetl Jews.