Last reviewed: June 2018
Russian-born Yiddish humorist
March 2, 1859
Pereyaslav, Russia (now Pereyaslav-Khmelnitsky, Ukraine)
May 13, 1916
Bronx, New York
One of the founders of modern Yiddish literature and the most widely read Yiddish author, Sholom Aleichem 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. Sholom Aleichem
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 of financial hardship. Despite a prodigious literary output—the most comprehensive edition of his works runs to twenty-eight volumes and, even at that length, is incomplete—Aleichem earned a precarious living until 1909, when world Jewry celebrated his twenty-fifth anniversary as a published writer. This recognition led to editions of his work in Polish and Russian and the return to him of profitable copyrights he had earlier sold for a pittance. Thus, in his final years he enjoyed financial security as well as great popularity. His funeral, held in New York in May, 1916, was attended by 150,000 people.
Such a tribute was well deserved, for more than anyone else of his generation Aleichem shaped the course of Yiddish literature. In his autobiography he recalls that when he was a child, people were ashamed to be seen with a Yiddish book because such a book suggested ignorance. In 1888 the Hebrew poet Y. L. Gordon expressed surprise that someone as educated as Sholom Aleichem would write in Yiddish rather than in Hebrew or Russian. For his Yiddish stories Rabinowitz adopted the pseudonym Sholom Aleichem (the common Jewish greeting meaning “peace be with you”) to disguise his identity from his father, who loved Hebrew, just as Sholom Jacob Abramovich (1835-1917), who wrote under his own name in Hebrew, had assumed the mask of Mendele Mokher Sefarim (“Mendele the Bookseller”) for his Yiddish pieces.
Aleichem elevated the status of Yiddish. Through the encouragement of the Yiddishe Folksbibliotek and, even more significantly, through his own example, he turned Yiddish into a sophisticated literary language. Paradoxically, he accomplished this transformation by emphasizing the oral qualities of the language and its roots among the common folk. Claiming to be not the writer but the recorder of stories told to him by his characters Tevye or Menachem-Mendl, he captured the idiom of the Eastern European shtetls even as they were vanishing under the twin pressures of anti-Semitism and modernization.
This world of Sholom Aleichem is not without its darker side. Leyzer, the driver in Yosele Solovey (the nightingale), remarks, “It’s a wicked world.” However, as Aleichem writes in his short story “The Lottery Ticket,” “I don’t like mournful pictures. My muse does not wear a black veil on her face. My muse is a poor—but cheerful one.” Menachem-Mendl never is, but always longs to be, rich. Tevye loses his money, his daughters, his home. Yet Aleichem’s characters are never defeated. When Kasrilevke burns, the villagers re-create their community on New York’s Lower East Side. These stories are comic not only because of the humorous style and ironic contrast between reality and expectation but also because they end with regeneration rather than despair. Thus Aleichem captures the essence of the Jewish experience, the ability to rise from disaster and the faith in the future.
Such a vision may be condemned as sentimental, and for much of Aleichem’s career, it was. He was dismissed as a writer of popular stories for the masses rather than as a literary artist. More recent critics have come to appreciate his sophisticated use of the persona in the manner of Mark Twain (who once called himself the American Sholom Aleichem) and his sympathetic treatment of common people.
Aleichem’s works have been translated into most of the languages of Western Europe; by 1972 more than six thousand books, articles, and reviews dealing with them had appeared. His legacy, maintained by Mordecai Spector, Abraham Reisen, Lamed Shapiro, and Joseph Opatoshu in the early 1900’s, has influenced later writers as well, among them the Nobel laureates Saul Bellow and Isaac Bashevis Singer.