Sholom Rabinowitz Biography


(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

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

One of the founders of modern Yiddish literature and the most widely read Yiddish author, Sholom Aleichem (ah-LAY-kehm) was a humorist of the first order. Born Sholom Rabinowitz, he spent much of his youth in the village of Voronko, which would serve as the model of Kasrilevke, the quintessential Jewish shtetl about which he wrote. His father, Nochem Rabinowitz, was fairly wealthy; he ran the general store, supplied beets to sugar refineries, and operated the local post office. A devout Jew, he nevertheless wanted his son to receive a good secular education as well as a religious one.{$S[A]Rabinowitz, Sholom;Aleichem, Sholom}

When the boy was twelve, his father lost most of his money, and the Rabinowitz family was forced to move back to Pereyaslav, where Aleichem had been born. Despite this financial reversal, Nochem sent his son to the Russian County School, an unusual step for an Orthodox family; Aleichem graduated with the highest honors in 1876. Already he had become a prolific writer. His first literary effort was a collection of the Yiddish curses that his stepmother rained down on him. (His mother had died of cholera when he was thirteen, in 1872.) Inspired by the popularity of Abraham Mapu’s romantic Hebrew novels, he wrote an imitation called “Bas Tzion” (the daughter of Zion), and his reading of Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe prompted “The Jewish Robinson Crusoe.”

After finishing high school with highest honors, Aleichem became a tutor to the thirteen-year-old Olga Loyev at Sofievka, near Kiev, and secretary to her father, Elimelech Loyev. When Elimelech Loyev learned of his daughter’s romantic attachment to her tutor, he dismissed Aleichem, but Olga married him on May 12, 1883, without her father’s permission. Loyev was soon reconciled with the couple and invited them to live on his estate.

After Loyev’s death in 1885, Aleichem and his family moved to Kiev—the Yehupetz of the tales—where he used his inheritance to subsidize the Yiddishe Folksbibliotek (popular Yiddish library), an annual he edited to encourage writers of Yiddish literature. Two volumes appeared (1889 and 1890) before he lost most of his money in the collapse of the Kiev stock market. This disaster would contribute to the creation of one of Aleichem’s most enduring characters, Menachem-Mendl, the eternal speculator; it also initiated twenty years...

(The entire section is 982 words.)


(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

Much of Sholom Aleichem’s life is detailed in his writings, only thinly fictionalized. Born Sholom Rabinowitz, in the Ukrainian town of Pereyaslav, he was the son of a merchant of some education and means. He lost his mother the year of his Bar Mitzvah, only to have her quickly replaced by an unfavored stepmother whose sole contribution to his well-being was a vivid vocabulary of Yiddishisms he would use profitably in his writing. Reversals in family fortune sent the young man in search of employment, as a “crown rabbi” (half religious functionary and half Russian bureaucrat) and as a tutor. By marrying Olga Loyev, his pupil, he acquired a loving life companion, a substantial dowry, and inspiration for lyrical narratives. Moving to Kiev, Aleichem wrote novels and short stories and, through the annuals that he published and the banquets that he hosted, became a patron of Yiddish writers. Financial problems again dislocated him, however, this time to Odessa, another flourishing center of Jewish life. It was finally the social turmoil following the assassination of Czar Alexander II that drove him abroad, to Geneva and New York.

Despite the fame that preceded him to the New World, Aleichem had difficulty supporting his increasingly large family from the proceeds of his writings and theatrical ventures. Through public readings in Western Europe and even Russia, he was still able to earn a living. Remaining a part of the intellectual life of his homeland, he made friends with leading Zionists, corresponded with Leo Tolstoy and Anton Chekhov, and met Maxim Gorky. During his last years, though beset by bereavement and tuberculosis, Aleichem was a revered international man of letters. His funeral in New York, attended by thousands of mourners, became the occasion for an affirmation of the Yiddish culture he had done so much to dignify.


(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Sholom Aleichem was born Sholom Naumovich Rabinowitz in 1859 in Pereyaslav, Russia (now in Ukraine), to a family of means, although family fortunes fluctuated during his childhood as they did throughout his entire life. His family moved to Voronkov, a small town nearby, which would be the model for his fictional town of Kasrilevke. Even though he received a traditional Jewish religious education, his father was aware of his talents and made sure they were supplemented by training at a Russian secondary school.

Sholom was thirteen years old when his beloved mother died. According to Jewish custom, it was not long before he had a stepmother; in this case, she could have stepped from the tales of the Brothers Grimm. However, she inspired his first published Yiddish work, a dictionary of humorous curses commonly uttered by stepmothers.

Because of the precarious financial situation of his family, young Sholom accepted a position as a government rabbi, an elected but despised functionary who mediated between the czarist government and the Jewish community. Later he was able to find more congenial employment as tutor to Olga Loyeff, daughter of a wealthy Jewish family. Falling in love and fearing her father’s disapproval, Aleichem and Loyeff eloped. Their marriage lasted until his death.

Around 1883, Sholom wrote a humorous sketch that appeared in a Yiddish paper under the pseudonym Sholom Aleichem, a Hebrew greeting meaning “Peace...

(The entire section is 494 words.)