Probably the foremost writer of Yiddish literature, Sholom Aleichem (1859-1916) was a catalyst for its revival at the turn of the century. He is also "The Jewish Mark Twain," a folk artist who faithfully recreated the shtetl, village life of Russian Jews before modernity, anti-Semitism, and war destroyed that world forever.
Sholom Aleichem was born March 2, 1859. He grew up in Woronko, a Ukranian village which he later recalled with affection. When he was 12, his father failed in business and the family moved to nearby Pereyaslav. A year later his mother died and his father remarried. The stepmother harrassed the children, and her curses, which Sholom recorded, became his first writing. He also composed The Jewish Robinson Crusoe, modeled on Daniel Defoe, and The Daughter of Zion, an imitation of a Hebrew novel by Abraham Mapu.
Recognizing Sholom Aleichem's intelligence and talent, his father enrolled him in a Russian school where he received a secular education and graduated with honors. But because he was eligible for the draft—eventually he avoided conscription—he was refused admission to a teachers' institute. He found employment as tutor to a young girl, Olga Loyeff, in 1877. When a romance developed he was abruptly dismissed by the girl's father. In 1880 he became the certified rabbi of Louben, the Jewish community's representative to the government. A Hebrew article he wrote during this period came to Loyeff's attention. Tutor and pupil were reunited. They married in 1883, and, after reconciliation with her father, moved to his estate. There, Sholom Aleichem began publishing stories in Yiddish under his pseudonym (Hebrew for "Peace be with you") because Yiddish was considered an inferior dialect for serious writing.
In 1887 he moved to Kiev and produced more stories, mainly about childhood, and novels, including Sender Blank, Yossele Solovey, and Stempanyu. In 1888 he founded Die Yiddishe Folksbibliotek, a magazine containing works by Yiddish authors. He was famous. But writing did not pay, and he supported his family as a trader on the stock exchange. In 1890, after losing his money, he moved to Odessa, then back to Kiev in 1893. Between 1890 and 1903 some of Sholom Aleichem's best known works—the letters of Menachem-Mendel, the Tevye and Kasrilevka stories, subjects to which he later returned—appeared. By 1903 he had left business altogether to write full time.
His life reflected the fortunes of European Jewry. Following the 1905 revolution and pogroms, he fled Russia. Until 1908 he lived in Switzerland, but after a bout of tuberculosis he had residences in the more healthful climates of Italy and Germany. At the outbreak of World War I he was forced, as a Russian alien, to leave Germany for Denmark. In December 1914 he came to America, where he lived until his death on May 13, 1916.
Writings in Exile
During his exile he continued writing stories, novels, and plays. Sholom Aleichem also went on reading tours, including a brief visit to America in 1907. Everywhere he was a celebrity. In Austro-Hungary students carried him from the stage on their shoulders and pulled his carriage home. Crowds greeted him on both arrivals in America. In 1909 admirers held an international jubilee honoring his 50th birthday and 25th anniversary as a writer. But, despite his fame, finances were meager. Books were pirated, publishers owning rights to the works withheld royalties, magazine editors failed to pay. The move to New York in 1914 was financed by its Yiddish cultural community.
In America he disliked the materialism and rivalries among Jewish groups, newspapers, and theaters. Two plays, a dramatization of Stempanyu and Samuel Pasternak, had disastrous runs in 1907. In 1914 he was ill and depressed over the death of a son, Misha. Though he contributed regularly to the Yiddish press and his stories appeared in translation in The New York World, money remained a problem. But his popularity never waned. Huge audiences attended his readings, and over 100,000 people were at his funeral in 1916.
Early Yiddish fiction tended to be sentimental, romances with happy endings. Sholom Aleichem's subjects were real people and their problems. Menachem-Mendel moves from one financial catastrophe to another. Tevye is a milkman with seven daughters to support; Mottel, a cantor's son, an orphan. There are three major fictional settings: Kasrilevka, a shtetl; Yehupetz, a city; and Boiberick, a country town. Generally, the characters narrate their stories, capturing the rich vocabulary and cadences of Yiddish.
The works are studies of European Jews in recent times. But the themes are universal: poverty, endurance in adversity, conflict between tradition and progress, and nostalgia for a simpler life. The characters are treated with gentle humor. "Laughter is healthful," Sholom Aleichem said.
Concerned with form, he studied Dickens, Tolstoy, Goethe, and Chekhov, as well as the major Jewish authors—Mendele, Bialik, and Peretz. In his works Yiddish was no longer a "jargon" reserved for commonplace affairs but a literary language, the inspiration for a new generation of Yiddish writers. His works have been translated into many languages, and the musical adapted from his stories, Fiddler on the Roof (1964), had productions world-wide.
Further Reading on Sholom Aleichem
Sholom Aleichem's works run to 28 volumes. All the major books, The Adventures of Menachem-Mendel (1969), The Adventures of Mottel (1961), and The Great Fair (an autobiography, 1958), are available in English, as are the novels, plays, and many of the stories. Among the story collections are Inside Kasrilevka (1948), The Old Country (1946), Old Country Tales (1966), Stories and Satires (1968), and Tevye's Daughters (1949). In addition, stories appear in anthologies, notably Melech Grafstein, Sholom Aleichem Panorama (1948) and Irving Howe and Eliezer Greenberg, Treasury of Yiddish Stories (1965). These also contain critical essays. Marie Waife-Goldberg's My Father, Sholom Aleichem (1969), an affectionate memoir, interweaves anecdotes with research. Frances and Joseph Butwin, Sholom Aleichem (1977) and Sol Gittelman, Sholom Aleichem: A Non-Critical Introduction (1974) analyze the works.
Additional Biography Sources
Samuel, Maurice, The world of Sholom Aleichem, New York: Atheneum, 1986, 1970.