Other Literary Forms

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

ph_0111207179-Aleichem.jpg Sholom Aleichem Published by Salem Press, Inc.

Sholom Aleichem was a prolific writer throughout a career that spanned thirty-six years. His total output comprises more than forty volumes, but much is unavailable in English and would be of little pertinence to most modern readers. Early writings from his rabbinical period, including Hebrew essays on Jewish education, are curiosities but lack originality. His social criticism, never cruel and always mitigated by humor, remains valuable to understanding the now-vanished milieu in which he lived and worked. Journalistic essays, satires, autobiographical sketches, and rhapsodic meditations on biblical and folk themes are often indistinguishable from his short stories and therefore difficult to classify. Though he was less impressive in long narratives and dramas, he did produce several novels still interesting to read. His plays were never total popular and critical successes, but several remain significant for their exploration of themes especially important to Jewish life.


(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

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.

Other literary forms

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Sholom Aleichem (ah-LAY-kehm) is best known for his short narratives, impressionistic sketches, and literary slices of life. The stories surrounding two of his characters—Tevye, the milkman, and Menahem-Mendl, the unsuccessful jack-of-all-trades—are frequently brought together in collections that form episodic but coherent wholes. The adventures of a third character, Mottel, the cantor’s son, are sometimes published as young adult fiction, though divisions of Aleichem’s audience according to age distinctions are artificial. Aleichem’s stories have been published throughout Europe, in Israel, and in the United States. At least eight separate compilations are now available in English.

Some of Aleichem’s writings, descriptions, or reactions to events and people are difficult to classify and are sometimes labeled simply “miscellany.” Even his autobiography—Fun’m yarid, 1916 (The Great Fair: Scenes from My Childhood, 1955)—contains as much fantasy as fact. Although he had planned the book for many years, it was left incomplete at his death and covers only his youth.


(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Sholom Aleichem is regarded as one of the founders of Yiddish literature and is perhaps the most beloved writer in that language. While his longer fiction adds little to the development of the novel, even these works demonstrate the strengths for which he is loved throughout the Jewish world. Although, like most educated East European Jews of his time, he began by writing in Hebrew, the language of sacred learning and of scholarship, he soon discovered that Yiddish was the proper vehicle for relating the exploits of people like those he had known in his youth. The wisdom, the humor, and even the foolishness of these folk could be fully captured only as they actually spoke. In his hands, this despised “jargon” became a vivid, lively, literary instrument. Fluent in the Russian language, and a correspondent with Leo Tolstoy and Anton Chekhov, Aleichem brought to Yiddish fiction the compassion for the insulted and injured that was such a dominant note in classic Russian fiction.

By the end of the twentieth century, Yiddish was spoken only in small pockets of the United States, East Europe, and Israel, and was spoken chiefly by older people. The Yiddish newspapers had almost disappeared, and the theater was preserved only as a relic. Though much of the humor was lost in translation, Aleichem’s writing survived and reached large Gentile as well as Jewish audiences in English, Russian, Hebrew. and other languages. Aleichem’s fictional characters were...

(The entire section is 454 words.)

Discussion Topics

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Discuss Sholom Aleichem’s presentation of the clash between tradition and modernity in the Jewish community.

What is the role of religion in Aleichem’s works?

How does Aleichem portray America in his works?

At the end of Tevye the Dairyman, Tevye asks God to explain the meaning of life. What answer, if any, does Aleichem provide to this question?

How does Tevye’s attitude toward money change, and why?


(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Aarons, Victoria. Author as Character in the Works of Sholom Aleichem. Lewiston, N.Y.: Edwin Mellen Press, 1985. An exploration of Aleichem’s interesting literary technique and the use of himself as “naive auditor.” Religious insights of the fiction also receive suitable attention.

Butwin, Joseph, and Frances Butwin. Sholom Aleichem. Boston: Twayne, 1977. A general review of the life and work of Aleichem, with insightful descriptions of all major writings and critical reactions to them. Part of Twayne’s World Authors series.

Frieden, Ken. Classic Yiddish Fiction: Abramovitsh, Sholom Aleichem, and Peretz. Albany, N.Y.: State University of New York Press, 1995. Examines the works of Shalom Jacob Abramovich, Aleichem, and Isaac Leib Peretz.

Halberstam-Rubin, Anna. Sholom Aleichem: The Writer as Social Historian. New York: Peter Lang, 1989. A scholarly consideration of Aleichem’s reconstruction of his native East European Jewish community written as a background study for the Broadway production of Fiddler on the Roof.

Howe, Irving. World of Our Fathers: The Journey of the East European Jews to America and the Life They Found and Made. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1976. A thorough examination of East European Jewish immigrants in the United States, the...

(The entire section is 573 words.)