The Jewish author Sholem Aleichem (1859-1916) wrote with great humor of Jewish life in eastern Europe and America.
Sholem Aleichem was born Sholem Rabinowitz on March 3, 1859, in Freislav, Poltava district, in the Ukraine. He received a traditional Jewish education but also attended a state school. His mother died when he was 13, and he suffered considerable hardship at the hands of his stepmother. At 17 he made his first literary attempts. The following year he was employed by a Jewish landowner in Kiev as a tutor. He remained at the estate for 3 years but was forced to leave at the discovery of his secret romance with the young lady he tutored. In 1880 he began to serve as a rabbi in a Jewish town. At this time he began to publish his writings in both the Hebrew and Russian press. In 1883 his first Yiddish works were published. In that year he married his former pupil and left his position to return to her father's estate. After the death of his father-in-law he became executor of the inheritance and from 1887 resided in Kiev, where he was involved in various business enterprises.
Sholem Aleichem continued his literary work, publishing several stories as well as the series of Die Yiddische Volksbibliothek (The Yiddish Folk Library). In 1890 he suffered great financial losses and went to Paris, and then to Vienna and Czernowitz (Chernovtsy). Between 1893 and 1899 he lived in Kiev and wrote works in both Yiddish and Russian. During this period he began his renowned works Tevya the Dairyman and Menachem Mendel.
Following the 1905 Kiev pogrom he decided to emigrate to America, and in October 1905 he reached New York. In 1908 he embarked on a lecture tour in Russia during which he fell seriously ill with a lung ailment. His impaired health, however, did not affect his literary output, and during those years he published many works, among them Motel Ben Pasey the Chazan, The Flood, and The Correspondence of Menachem Mendel and His Wife Shayndel Shaynda.
At the outbreak of World War I Sholem Aleichem and his family were displaced to Copenhagen, where he began writing his tragicomedy It's Hard to Be a Jew. Later in 1914, he returned to New York, and there he published his autobiography, From the Market-place, as well as stories about the war. In 1915 he wrote his well-known play The Great Prize. He died in New York on May 13, 1916. His funeral was attended by 300,000 mourners, and he was eulogized in the U.S. Congress.
Sholem Aleichem depicted Jewish life in the Diaspora with great affection and heartfelt humor. His portrayals are sharply drawn and highly incisive characterizations of simple folk plagued by the problems of earning their daily bread, merchants, rabbis, teachers, and cantors—all animated by a humor born of oppression. Sholem Aleichem wrote little in Hebrew, preferring what was then the language of the masses, Yiddish. He frequently used the monologue as a vehicle of expression, allowing characters to speak for themselves in their own idiom. His fidelity to the speech of the people being depicted contributes much to the realism of his characterizations. The bittersweet humor of Sholem Aleichem pervades his portrayal of the lot of his people as that of the Wandering Jew.
Further Reading on Sholem Aleichem
There are scholarly studies of Sholem Aleichem in Hebrew. In English see Maurice Samuel, The World of Sholom Aleichem (1943); Melech W. Grafstein, ed., Sholom Aleichem Panorama (1949); Marie Waife-Goldberg, My Father, Sholom Aleichem (1968); and Louis Falstein, The Man Who Loved Laughter: The Story of Sholom Aleichem (1968). General works include Sol Liptzin, The Flowering of Yiddish Literature (1964), and Charles A. Madison, Yiddish Literature: Its Scope and Major Writers (1968).
Additional Biography Sources
Butwin, Joseph, Sholom Aleichem, Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1977.
Samuel, Maurice, The world of Sholom Aleichem, New York:Atheneum, 1986, 1970.