The Worlds of Sholem Aleichem

By Jeremy Dauber
  • Overview
  • Reader's Guide
  • News and Reviews

Overview

“With an eye for interesting detail, Dauber takes us year-by-year through the life of the writer who entered this world as Sholem Rabinovich. [An] engrossing biography . . . graced with an occasional glint-in-the-eye touch.”

—Moment

"Dauber brings to life 'the Jewish Mark Twain.'"

The New Yorker, Briefly Noted Section

“A must for every Jewish bookshelf, this is the definitive biography of the Yiddish writer. Dauber knows the territory, and situates the writer in a time of upheaval and transition.”

—Forward

“The first comprehensive biography of the giant of Yiddish literature. . . . Beautifully written.”

—The Jewish Week

“Could it be that we are just another invention of the man who called himself Sholem Aleichem? Revealing the many worlds contained in one man, Jeremy Dauber has managed to shine a light on what it means to be us: to be a Jew in this place and this time. It’s an experience that might be almost painful if Dauber’s book weren’t so funny, sharp, profound, and utterly alive.”

—Nicole Krauss, author of The History of Love

“Sholem Aleichem’s life was as improbable and dramatic as any of his stories, and in this first comprehensive English-language biography of the greatest Yiddish writer, Jeremy Dauber marvelously brings the adventure to life. If you want to learn how European Jews first entered, laughing, into the horror and majesty of modern life, start here.”

—Dara Horn, author of The World to Come and A Guide for the Perplexed

“Two hundred thousand people turned out for Sholem Aleichem’s funeral in 1916. He was the most beloved writer the Jewish world had ever known, yet somehow it’s taken almost one hundred years for a proper biography to finally appear. Fortunately, Jeremy Dauber’s account was worth waiting for. The Worlds of Sholem Aleichem is original, comprehensive, insightful, and riveting. We all owe Dauber an enormous debt of gratitude.”

—Aaron Lansky, president, Yiddish Book Center and author of Outwitting History: The Amazing Adventures of a Man Who Rescued a Million Yiddish Books

“Dauber brings to his task a comprehensive knowledge not only of Sholem Aleichem’s life but also of the contexts—historical and literary—in which he wrote and thrived. His prose is swift, clean, and clear, and the portrait that emerges is sharply focused.”

—Kirkus Reviews (starred)

“Sholem Aleichem invented Tevye and his daughters, but if you think Fiddler on the Roof is the only reason we should remember him, just wait until you read The Worlds of Sholem Aleichem. In a warm and witty style suited to his subject, Dauber tells the story of the writer known as the ‘Yiddish Mark Twain’ and shows why Sholem Aleichem is one of the most important figures in modern Jewish culture. His story encompasses riches and poverty, revolution and emigration, Russia and America, literature and theater and journalism—­all the opportunities and pressures of Jewish life in the modern world. This is the major biography Sholem Aleichem deserves.”

—Adam Kirsch, author of Why Trilling Matters

The first comprehensive biography of one of the most beloved authors of all time: the creator of Tevye the Dairyman, the collection of stories that inspired Fiddler on the Roof.

Novelist, playwright, journalist, essayist, and editor, Sholem Aleichem was one of the founding giants of modern Yiddish literature. The creator of a pantheon of characters who have been immortalized in books and plays, he provided readers throughout the world with a fascinating window into the world of Eastern European Jews as they began to confront the forces of cultural, political, and religious modernity that tore through the Russian Empire in the final decades of the nineteenth century.

But just as compelling as the fictional lives of Tevye, Golde, Menakhem-Mendl, and Motl was Sholem Aleichem’s own life story. Born Sholem Rabinovich in Ukraine in 1859, he endured an impoverished childhood, married into fabulous wealth, and then lost it all through bad luck and worse business sense. Turning to his pen to support himself, he switched from writing in Russian and Hebrew to Yiddish, in order to create a living body of literature for the Jewish masses. He enjoyed spectacular success as both a writer and a performer of his work throughout Europe and the United States, and his death in 1916 was front-page news around the world; a New York Times editorial mourned the loss of “the Jewish Mark Twain.” But his greatest fame lay ahead of him, as the English-speaking world began to discover his work in translation and to introduce his characters to an audience that would extend beyond his wildest dreams. In Jeremy Dauber’s magnificent biography, we encounter a Sholem Aleichem for the ages.

Reader's Guide

Sholem Aleichem, Jeremy Dauber writes in his new biography, is “the man responsible, in his day and ours, for the most compelling picture of the world of our great grandfathers, a society in dizzying, wrenching transition from the traditional life of centuries past to the modern age.” A master of Yiddish stories, chronicler of Jewish life, and creator of enduring fictional characters who continue to gain devoted fans across the globe, Sholem Aleichem helped to shape our modern notions about shtetl life and the now-vanished Jewish world of Eastern Europe. In The Worlds of Sholem Aleichem, Dauber explores the author’s life, from his birth in a small town near Kiev in 1859 to his death in New York City in 1916. Through these tumultuous decades, the author’s personal life and career serve as a lens on enormous cultural shifts taking place at the time, not only in terms of literature and language, but with respect to politics, religion, nationalism, assimilation, and self-determination, as well.

THE MAN BEHIND THE STORIES

Sholem Aleichem has been dubbed the “Jewish Mark Twain.” Like his American counterpart, Sholem Aleichem not only created characters inside his stories; he also created a pseudonymous character out of himself as their creator. Finding out exactly where Sholem Aleichem the author and Sholem Aleichem the person (who was born Sholem Rabinovitch) overlapped and diverged is one of Dauber’s missions.

•“Sholem Aleichem himself—the figure Sholem Rabinovitch fashioned by will, effort, and imagination,” Dauber writes, was “undoubtedly one of his greatest and most influential creations.” Why do you think he adopted this pseudonym when he started publishing stories? What did this alter ego allow him to accomplish that might not have been possible under his real name? What was the difference between Sholem Rabinovitch and Sholem Aleichem—and do you think this distinction got more or less pronounced over time?

•Sholem Aleichem was a prolific writer, but one major project he never completed was his own autobiography, From the Fair. Although he worked on it for many years, at the time of his death he had only covered his life up until age 21. Why do you think this project was particularly difficult for him to write? Did he worry that his own life story would be less compelling than his fiction? Was he wary of revealing too much about himself? Or had he simply put it off, without realizing he might not have time to complete it before he died?

•Money was a constant concern throughout his life. He grew up with modest means, then came into a fortune as a young man, only to lose it soon after. Even at the lowest points in his career, though, he could afford to support his family, travel the world, and continue writing; on the other hand, even at his highest points, he was on the edge of insolvency—chasing down publishers for checks, struggling to pay bills, taking unwanted assignments because he needed the cash. How did his experience as a wealthy man, a poor man, and a middle-class man—together with constant anxiety about his financial future, no matter his present situation—influence the work he did, and what he wrote about?

•Family was a source of both comfort and stress for Sholem Aleichem. His mother died when he was a teenager, and his relationships with his stepmother and his mother-in-law were fraught with tension. He loved his wife, but was often away from her as he toured to earn a living. His own children brought him joy, and yet also brought their own set of tragic illnesses and deaths. How did his family life, with its ups and downs, influence his writing?

THE WORLD HE LIVED IN

Sholem Aleichem lived in many places during his lifetime—London, New York, Italy—and he traveled widely throughout Europe. Yet Russia remained his home, and the Jewish world, with all its complexities and internal divisions, remained his culture. Neither Russia nor the Jewish world was stable, however: By the time Sholem Aleichem died, the Russia he remembered and the Jewish world he’d spent so many years vividly describing were both on the brink of vanishing forever.

•Russia was in a period of constant change during Sholem Aleichem’s lifetime. As Dauber points out, when the author was born in 1859, Russia had already begun taking “cautious steps toward modernity.” Yet, when he died in 1916, the country’s transition was still incomplete; he had never seen Russia ruled by anyone but a tsar. How did this state of flux—the tumultuous fading years of the old ruling order, but no new ruling order yet firmly in place—affect Sholem Aleichem’s view of Russia, and of the future for the country’s Jews?

•Zionism emerged as a major political force during Sholem Aleichem’s lifetime, and he was involved in many ways. He wrote a bestselling pamphlet on the subject for the First World Zionist Conference in 1897 (although he did not attend the conference). And he continued to write Zionist material afterward (although he never made it to Palestine himself). What appeal do you think Zionism held for a writer whose identity and career were so firmly rooted in the Jewish world of Eastern Europe? If he had lived longer—long enough to see the rise of Nazism in Europe, the flourishing Jewish community in America, and the increase in immigration to Palestine—do you think Zionism would have come to play a more central role in his work, and in his life?

LANGUAGE

Language often played a central role in cultural battles within the Jewish world in Sholem Aleichem’s time, particularly the battle between Yiddish and the Hebrew preferred by “enlightened” maskilim and later Zionists. Language would continue to be a contentious issue for the multilingual author, whose work was only translated into Russian and English—reaching enormous readerships of Jews and non-Jews alike—toward the end of his career.

•Dauber notes that Yiddish was seen, even in Sholem Aleichem’s time, as “common jargon, not fitting for enlightened discourse.” How did this conventional wisdom work for, or against, him as a Yiddish writer? Did it endear him to readers, alienate him from certain movements, prevent him from reaching a broader audience, help establish him as the voice of a particular community?

•Dauber writes that Sholem Aleichem felt that Yiddish and Hebrew were “complementary and not antagonistic.” How did the fact that Sholem Aleichem didn’t entirely take one side over the other in this language war affect his audience reception, his literary career, and his legacy? What does the fact that his chilren’s first language was neither Yiddish nor Hebrew—it was Russian—say about what Sholem Aleichem personally valued most, or thought would be most important in the future?

•Sholem Aleichem knew many languages, and as Dauber notes, “he would continue to write in Hebrew and Russian throughout his life.” And yet he is remembered almost exclusively as a Yiddish writer. Why do you think this is true? Was his Yiddish writing more expert in literary terms, more relevant in cultural terms, more “authentic” in Jewish terms? Does Yiddish language seem to line up more neatly with the worlds he described in his writing?

•In the last years of his life, Sholem Aleichem published several of his books in Russian translation for the first time—and found a receptive audience, and a new stream of royalties. Why do you think he hadn’t published more in Russian before—lack of opportunity, or lack of ambition on that front? If he’d published sooner and more widely in Russian, do you think he might have become known as a Russian writer, in addition to a Jewish one?

•His work appeared in English translation for the first time in 1915, just a year before Sholem Aleichem died. The World Magazine, introducing the author to its readership, called him “one of the world’s greatest writers” and yet “a genius of whom we know little or nothing.” If he had lived just a few years more, and had seen more of his work translated into English, how do you think it would have affected his life in terms of income, fame, his feelings about America, and his legacy? Do you think it would have affected his writing, as well? How?

HIS WRITING CAREER

He was one of the most influential Yiddish authors of his day. And he was prolific, writing stories and serials and novels and plays for dozens of publications across Europe and in America. And yet, despite his acclaim and wide readership, Sholem Aleichem never stopped struggling to make ends meet as a writer. And he never reached a point where editors couldn’t thwart him, critics couldn’t affect him, and his own health problems couldn’t throw his entire career into doubt.

•In the years following the 1903 Kishinev pogrom, Sholem Aleichem was attacked for writing light-hearted stories in such a tragic age. “When it comes to writing,” he responded, “it may be that no matter how tragic the subject, the scenes I see, through tears, make me laugh.” Do you think comedy has a place in a world filled with very serious and very real dangers? What purpose does comedy serve: escape, avoidance, satire, comfort—or does laughter help people cope or engage with more serious subjects?

•When Sholem Aleichem came to America in 1906, he was greeted with great fanfare by the public and the Jewish press. But this good feeling didn’t last: Critics and editors quickly turned against him, and he found it difficult to make a living. Why was America such a difficult audience for him in those years? Were American audiences interested in different subjects and artists, making his European perspective less relevant? Or was there a certain resentment of him simply because he was such a large figure in European circles?

•The editors and publishers on whom Sholem Aleichem depended were often a contentious lot, spurring feuds and holding personal grudges for years. But worst of all, they often stole his work, denied him payment, or granted him paltry wages—even long after he’d become famous. Was there anything he might have done to improve his situation? If he’d been better compensated, do you think he would have written less? Were you surprised to learn how much a literary giant had to struggle to get by financially? Do you think this situation persists today, even for well-known writers?

HIS MOST ENDURING CHARACTER

“There’s no talking about Sholem Aleichem without talking about Fiddler on the Roof,” Dauber states in his introduction. And there’s no talking about Fiddler without talking about Sholem Aleichem’s most enduring literary creation: Tevye the Dairyman. First appearing in 1894, the character was based on a real dairyman the author had met, but as Dauber explains, the fictional Tevye became something far larger than life—“an inspirational canvas” for Sholem Aleichem to explore a world of subjects that inspired him. Over the course of twenty years of Tevye stories, Dauber notes, “the stories’ emphases changed dramatically as the author’s interests and experiences did.”

•Sholem Aleichem created hundreds of characters in his career, including several recurring characters, such as Menakhem-Mendl the bumbling businessman, or Motl the cantor’s son. Why do you think Tevye is the character who’s best remembered today? Is there something about Tevye in particular that speaks to modern times, or American culture? Or does Tevye somehow represent a modern American notion about what shtetl life was like?

•Although Tevye was inspired by a real person, he soon came to represent much more. In some ways, the dairyman with his many daughters allowed Sholem Aleichem to explore issues that he was dealing with as a father in his own family. In other ways, Tevye came to stand for an entire generation of Jews, watching the younger generation adapt to modernity in ways they could not comprehend. Is there a comparable character in fiction today—a character whose struggles will endure for the next century—who might play such a role in Jewish literature, or any other cultural medium? Or in American culture as a whole?

•“Here was a character who stood for something like hope,” Dauber writes of Tevye. In the end, is that how you also view Tevye—as hopeful? Why, after all he endures and all the indignities he suffers, do you think hope endures in his character? Do you think that reflected an accurate depiction of a Jewish mindset at the time—or was it rather how Sholem Aleichem hoped a Jewish mindset might be?

•Readers sometimes confuse Tevye with Sholem Aleichem. Dauber points out that they were quite different: the rural, uneducated dairyman, and the urban, educated, cosmopolitan writer. “But the difference between the two diminishes when it comes to living the emotional complexities of conflicts posed by their rapidly changing worlds,” Dauber writes, “emotions Sholem Aleichem no doubt experienced in the jaw-dropping, whipsawing series of changes in his religious, economic, and educational state.” What do you think Dauber means? In what way would external circumstances have brought together such disparate men as Tevye and Sholem Aleichem, and made their differences less significant?

•Dauber writes that Tevye and his daughters stand as “arguably the most popular and most powerful representatives of Jewish life to the world at large since the closing of the biblical canon.” Do you agree? Do you think Sholem Aleichem would have agreed while he was alive—and do you think he’d agree if he were alive today? What do you think the real-life Tevye would make of his internationally iconic status?

HIS LEGACY

Sholem Aleichem’s death prompted an enormous outpouring of admiration in America: from his massive funeral procession through New York City to a sold-out tribute at Carnegie Hall, from laudatory newspaper editorials to a statement read aloud in the House of Representatives. But his American legacy would only grow—first as more of his work was translated into English, and second when his Tevye stories inspired an award-winning Broadway musical and its blockbuster film adaptation: Fiddler on the Roof.

Fiddler continues to play regularly on American stages, with Broadway revivals and touring companies, not to mention school productions. What do you think Sholem Aleichem would have made of Tevye’s enduring popularity? Would he be surprised? How would the author react to finding out that he is best known because of his association with a piece of musical theater that he did not actually write that appeared some fifty years after his death?

Fiddler also plays around the world, with productions in dozens of languages, often in countries with no Jewish population. Would he be confused at the attachment non-Jewish audiences have to the character? Do you think he’d be concerned about Tevye becoming one of the most popular representatives of Jewish culture in the world? Why do you think Fiddler resonates in so many other cultures, and speaks to so many non-Jews?

•The image of the shtetl most prevalent in American culture a century after Sholem Aleichem’s death comes from Fiddler on the Roof. How do you think the author would respond to the knowledge that the scenes he created—fictional, sometimes fanciful scenes—were often seen today as a sort of documentary recreation of European Jewish life?

•Sholem Aleichem wrote novels, plays, even screenplays for silent films. And yet he is best remembered for his short stories. Why do you think this is the case? Does it speak to the quality of his writing in different areas, the attention span of the readers, the somewhat random decisions regarding what was translated into English and what wasn’t?

•If he could have chosen, what do you think Sholem Aleichem would want to be remembered for a century after his death? If he were alive today, what kind of stories do you think he’d be writing now—and where would he be living? Is there anyone writing now who you think does for American Jews what Sholem Aleichem did for Eastern European Jews a century ago?

News and Reviews

“Jeremy Dauber marvelously brings the adventure to life” in The Worlds of Sholem Aleichem

“Sholem Aleichem’s life was as improbable and dramatic as any of his stories, and in this first comprehensive English-language biography of the greatest Yiddish writer, Jeremy Dauber marvelously brings the adventure to life. If you want to learn how European Jews first entered, laughing, into the horror and majesty of modern life, start here.” Continue reading

Dara Horn, author of The World to Come and A Guide for the Perplexed

The Worlds of Sholem Aleichem is original, comprehensive, insightful, and riveting”

“Two hundred thousand people turned out for Sholem Aleichem’s funeral in 1916. He was the most beloved writer the Jewish world had ever known, yet somehow it’s taken almost one hundred years for a proper biography to finally appear. Fortunately, Jeremy Dauber’s account was worth waiting for. The Worlds of Sholem Aleichem is original, comprehensive, insightful, and riveting. We all owe Dauber an enormous debt of gratitude.” Continue reading

Aaron Lansky, president, Yiddish Book Center and author of Outwitting History: The Amazing Adventures of a Man Who Rescued a Million Yiddish Books

The Worlds of Sholem Aleichem “is the first comprehensive biography of the giant of Yiddish literature”

"Jeremy Dauber’s biography of Sholem Aleichem is beautifully written, following the threads of the writer’s too short life (he died at 56) and the stories he invented, and their characters, which have taken on lives of their own." Continue reading

Will the Real Sholem Aleichem Please Stand Up?

"The Worlds of Sholem Aleichem: The Remarkable Life and Afterlife of the Man Who Created Tevye, by the Columbia University Yiddish literature professor Jeremy Dauber, is a comprehensive biography — amazingly, the first in any language — that presents the writer’s legacy through the lens of his turbulent life." Continue reading

Sholem Aleichem, The great artist of laughter through fears

"A Jew without irony is probably not fully a Jew, but Sholem Aleichem's irony was never contentious, never superior to its subject, never malignant." Continue reading

Commentary

About the Author

Jeremy Dauber

Jeremy Dauber

Jeremy Dauber is a professor of Yiddish literature at Columbia University, where he also serves as director of its Institute for Israel and Jewish Studies and teaches in the American Studies program. His previous books include In the Demon’s Bedroom: … Continue reading

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