Sholem Aleichem

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Solomon Rabinovich
Born March 2 [O.S. February 18] 1859
Pereyaslav, Russian Empire
Died May 13, 1916 (aged 57)
New York City, United States
Pen name Sholem Aleichem (Yiddish: שלום־עליכם)
Occupation Writer
Genres Novels, short stories, plays
Literary movement Yiddish revival

Sholem Aleichem (Yiddish: שלום־עליכם, Russian and Ukrainian: Шолом-Алейхем) (March 2, 1859 – May 13, 1916) was the pen name of Solomon Naumovich Rabinovich, a leading Yiddish author and playwright. The musical Fiddler on the Roof, based on his stories about Tevye the Milkman, was the first commercially successful English-language stage production about Jewish life in Eastern Europe.


Solomon Naumovich Rabinovich (Salomon Nochem Vevik) was born in 1859 into a Hasidic family in Pereyaslav and grew up in the nearby shtetl (small town with a large Jewish population) of Voronko, in the Poltava Governorate of the Russian Empire (now in the Kiev Oblast of central Ukraine).[1] His father, Menachem-Nukhem Rabinovich, was a rich merchant at that time.[2] However, a failed business affair plunged the family into poverty and Solomon subsequently grew up in reduced circumstances.[2] When he was 13 years old, the family moved back to Pereiaslav, where his mother, Chaye-Esther, died in a cholera epidemic.[3]

His first venture into writing was an alphabetic glossary of the epithets used by his stepmother. At the age of fifteen, inspired by Robinson Crusoe, he composed a Jewish version of the novel. He adopted the pseudonym Sholem Aleichem, a Yiddish variant of the Hebrew expression shalom aleichem, meaning "peace be with you" or "hello".

In 1876, after graduating from school in Pereyaslav, he spent three years tutoring a wealthy landowner's daughter, Olga (Golde) Loev (1865 – 1942).[4] On May 12, 1883, they married, against the wishes of her father. They had six children. Their son, Norman Raeben, became a painter and an influential art teacher and their daughter Lyalya (Lili) Kaufman, became a Yiddish writer. Lyalya's daughter Bel Kaufman, also a writer, was the author of Up the Down Staircase, which was also made into a successful film.

In 1905, as pogroms swept through southern Russia, he resettled in New York City. His family set up house in Geneva, Switzerland, but when he saw he could not afford to maintain two households, he joined them in Geneva. Despite his great popularity, he was forced to take up an exhausting schedule of lecturing to make ends meet. In 1914, the family moved to the Lower East Side, Manhattan. His son Misha, ill with tuberculosis, was inadmissible under United States immigration laws. He remained in Switzerland with his sister Emma and died in 1915.[5]

Literary career

A volume of Sholem Aleichem stories in Yiddish, with the author's portrait and signature

At first, Sholem Aleichem wrote in Russian and Hebrew. From 1883 on, he produced over forty volumes in Yiddish, thereby becoming a central figure in Yiddish literature by 1890. Most writing for Russian Jews at the time was in Hebrew, the liturgical language used largely by learned Jews. Yiddish, however, was the vernacular language of nearly all literate East European Jews. It was often derogatorily called "jargon", but Sholem Aleichem used this term in an entirely non-pejorative sense.

Apart from his own literary output, Sholem Aleichem used his personal fortune to encourage other Yiddish writers. In 1888-1889, he put out two issues of an almanac, Di Yidishe Folksbibliotek ("The Yiddish Popular Library") which gave important exposure to young Yiddish writers. In 1890, Sholem Aleichem lost his entire fortune in a stock speculation, and could not afford to print the almanac's third issue, which had been edited but was subsequently never printed. Over the next few years, while continuing to write in Yiddish, he also wrote in Russian for an Odessa newspaper and for Voskhod, the leading Russian Jewish publication of the time, as well as in Hebrew for Ha-melitz, and for an anthology edited by Y.H. Ravnitzky. It was during this period that Sholem Aleichem first contracted tuberculosis.

Sholem Aleichem monument in Kiev. His name is written in Ukrainian and Yiddish.

In August 1904, Sholem Aleichem edited Hilf: a Zaml-Bukh fir Literatur un Kunst ("Help: An Anthology for Literature and Art"; Warsaw, 1904) and himself translated three stories submitted by Tolstoy (Esarhaddon, King of Assyria; Work, Death and Sickness; Three Questions) as well as contributions by other prominent Russian writers, including Chekhov, in aid of the victims of the Kishinev pogrom.

In July 1908, during a reading tour in Russia, Sholem Aleichem collapsed on a train going through Baranowicze. He was diagnosed with a relapse of acute hemorrhagic tuberculosis and spent two months convalescing in the town's hospital. He later described the incident as "meeting his majesty, the Angel of Death, face to face", and claimed it as the catalyst for writing his autobiography, Funem yarid [From the Fair].[1] He thus missed the First Conference for the Yiddish Language, held in 1908 in Czernovitz; his colleague and fellow Yiddish activist Nathan Birnbaum went in his place.[6] Sholem Aleichem spent the next four years living as a semi-invalid. During this period the family was largely supported by donations from friends and admirers.

Critical reception

Sholem Aleichem's narratives were notable for the naturalness of his characters' speech and the accuracy of his descriptions of shtetl life. Early critics focused on the cheerfulness of the characters, interpreted as a way of coping with adversity. Later critics saw a tragic side in his writing.[7]

Beliefs and activism

Sholem Aleichem was an impassioned advocate of Yiddish as a national Jewish language, one which should be accorded the same status and respect as other modern European languages. He did not stop with what came to be called "Yiddishism", but devoted himself to the cause of Zionism as well. Many of his writings[8] present the Zionist case. In 1888, he became a member of Hovevei Zion. In 1907, he served as an American delegate to the Eighth Zionist Congress held in The Hague.

Sholem Aleichem was often referred to as the "Jewish Mark Twain" because of the two authors' similar writing styles and use of pen names. Both authors wrote for both adults and children, and lectured extensively in Europe and the United States. When Twain heard the writer called "the Jewish Mark Twain", he replied "please tell him that I am the American Sholem Aleichem."[9]

Sholem Aleichem had a mortal fear of the number 13. His manuscripts never have a page 13; he numbered the thirteenth pages of his manuscripts as 12a[10] and his headstone carries the date of his death as "May 12a, 1916".[11]


Sholem Aleichem's funeral on 15 May 1916
Sholem Aleichem's gravestone in the Old Mount Carmel Cemetery

Sholem Aleichem died in New York on 13 May 1916 from tuberculosis and diabetes,[12] aged 57, while working on his last novel, Motl, Peysi the Cantor's Son, and was buried at Old Mount Carmel cemetery in Queens.[13] At the time, his funeral was one of the largest in New York City history, with an estimated 100,000 mourners.[14][15] The next day, his will was printed in the New York Times and was read into the Congressional Record of the United States.

Commemoration and legacy

A 1959 Soviet Union postage stamp commemorating the centennial of Sholem Aleichem's birth

Sholem Aleichem's will contained detailed instructions to family and friends with regard to burial arrangements and marking his yartzheit. He told his friends and family to gather, "read my will, and also select one of my stories, one of the very merry ones, and recite it in whatever language is most intelligible to you." "Let my name be recalled with laughter," he added, "or not at all." The celebrations continue to the present-day, and, in recent years, have been held at the Brotherhood Synagogue on Gramercy Park South in New York City, where they are open to the public.[16]

In 1997, a monument dedicated to Sholem Aleichem was erected in Kiev; another was erected in 2001 in Moscow.

The main street of Birobidzhan is named after Sholem Aleichem;[17] streets were named after him also in other cities in the Soviet Union, among them Kiev, Odessa, Vinnytsya, Lviv, Zhytomyr and Mykolaiv. In 1996, a stretch of East 33rd Street in New York City between Park and Madison Avenue was renamed "Sholem Aleichem Place". Many streets in Israel are named after him.

Postage stamps of Sholem Aleichem were issued by Israel (Scott #154, 1959); the Soviet Union (Scott #2164, 1959); Romania (Scott #1268, 1959); and Ukraine (Scott #758, 2009).

An impact crater on the planet Mercury also bears his name.[18]

On March 2, 2009 (150 years after his birth) the National Bank of Ukraine issued an anniversary coin celebrating Aleichem with his face depicted on it.[19]

In Melbourne, Australia a small Yiddish school is named after him.[20] Several Jewish schools in Argentina were also named after him.[citation needed]

Comedian Jackie Mason selected his complete works as the book(s) he would take to his Desert Island on Desert Island Discs

Published works

English-language collections

  • The Best of Sholom Aleichem, edited by R. Wisse, I. Howe (originally published 1979), Walker and Co., 1991, ISBN 0-8027-2645-3.
  • Tevye the Dairyman and the Railroad Stories, translated by H. Halkin (originally published 1987), Schocken Books, 1996, ISBN 0-8052-1069-5.
  • Nineteen to the Dozen: Monologues and Bits and Bobs of Other Things, translated by Ted Gorelick, Syracuse Univ Press, 1998, ISBN 0-8156-0477-7.
  • A Treasury of Sholom Aleichem Children’s Stories, translated by Aliza Shevrin, Jason Aronson, 1996, ISBN 1-56821-926-1.
  • Inside Kasrilovka, Three Stories, translated by I. Goldstick, Schocken Books, 1948 (variously reprinted)
  • The Old Country, translated by Julius & Frances Butwin, J B H of Peconic, 1999, ISBN 1-929068-21-2.
  • Stories and Satires, translated by Curt Leviant, Sholom Aleichem Family Publications, 1999, ISBN 1-929068-20-4.
  • Selected Works of Sholem-Aleykhem, edited by Marvin Zuckerman & Marion Herbst (Volume II of "The Three Great Classic Writers of Modern Yiddish Literature"), Joseph Simon Pangloss Press, 1994, ISBN 0-934710-24-4.


  • Funem yarid, written 1914-1916, translated as The Great Fair by Tamara Kahana, Noonday Press, 1955; translated by Curt Leviant as From the Fair, Viking, 1986, ISBN 0-14-008830-X.


  • Stempenyu, originally published in his Folksbibliotek, adapted 1905 for the play Jewish Daughters.
  • Yossele Solovey (1889, published in his Folksbibliotek)
  • Tevye's Daughters, translated by F. Butwin (originally published 1949), Crown, 1959, ISBN 0-517-50710-2.
  • Mottel the Cantor's son. Originally written in Yiddish. English version: Henry Schuman, Inc. New York 1953
  • In The Storm
  • Wandering Stars
  • Marienbad, translated by Aliza Shevrin (1982, G.P. Putnam Sons, New York) from original Yiddish manuscript copyrighted by Olga Rabinowitz in 1917
  • The Bloody Hoax

Young adult literature

  • Menahem-Mendl, translated as The Adventures of Menahem-Mendl, translated by Tamara Kahana, Sholom Aleichem Family Publications, 1969, ISBN 1-929068-02-6.
  • Motl peysi dem khazns, translated as The Adventures of Mottel, the Cantor's Son (young adult literature), translated by Tamara Kahana, Sholom Aleichem Family Publications, 1999, ISBN 1-929068-00-X. Also appeared as Mottel the Cantor's son (Henry Schuman, Inc. New York 1953)
  • The Bewitched Tailor, Sholom Aleichem Family Publications, 1999, ISBN 1-929068-19-0.


  • The Doctor (1887), one-act comedy
  • Der get (The Divorce, 1888), one-act comedy
  • Di asifa (The Assembly, 1889), one-act comedy
  • Yaknez (1894), a satire on brokers and speculators
  • Tsezeyt un tseshpreyt (Scattered Far and Wide, 1903), comedy
  • Agentn (Agents, 1905), one-act comedy
  • Yidishe tekhter (Jewish Daughters, 1905) drama, adaptation of his early novel Stempenyu
  • Di goldgreber (The Golddiggers, 1907), comedy
  • Shver tsu zayn a yid (Hard to be a Jew, 1914)
  • Dos groyse gevins (The Big Lottery / The Jackpot, 1916)
  • Tevye der milkhiker, (Tevye the Milkman, 1917, performed posthumously)


  • Jewish Children, translated by Hannah Berman, William Morrow & Co, 1987, ISBN 0-688-84120-1.
  • numerous stories in Russian, published in Voskhod (1891–1892)


  1. 1.0 1.1 Potok, Chaim (July 14, 1985). "The Human Comedy Of Pereyaslav". New York Times. Retrieved 2008-06-16. "Approaching his 50th birthday, the Yiddish writer Sholom Aleichem (born Sholom Rabinowitz in the Ukraine in 1859) collapsed in Russia while on a reading tour. He was diagnosed as suffering from tuberculosis. As he put it later, 'I had the privilege of meeting his majesty, the Angel of Death, face to face.'" 
  2. 2.0 2.1
  3. Sholem Aleichem, From the Fair, Viking Penguin, 1985. Chapter 34; Cholera. Pages 100-104.
  4. Dates on base of Rabinowitz's gravestone.
  5. [1]
  6. First Yiddish Language Conference. Two roads to Yiddishism (Nathan Birnbaum and Sholem Aleichem) by Louis Fridhandler
  7. Critical reception: Sholom Aleichem
  8. Oyf vos badarfn Yidn a land, (Why Do the Jews Need a Land of Their Own?), translated by Joseph Leftwich and Mordecai S. Chertoff, Cornwall Books, 1984, ISBN 0-8453-4774-8
  9. Levy, RIchard S. Antisemitism: a historical encyclopedia of prejudice and persecution, Volume 2. ABC-CLIO 2005 sv Twain; cites Kahn 1985 p 24
  10. "A Reading to Recall the Father of Tevye", Clyde Haberman, New York Times, May 17, 2010
  11. Hendrickson, Robert (1990). World Literary Anecdotes. New York, New York: Facts on File, Inc, 7. ISBN 0-8160-2248-8. 
  12. Donaldson, Norman and Betty (1980). How Did They Die?. Greenwich House. ISBN 0-517-403021. 
  13. Mount Carmel cemetery
  14. "Vast Crowds Honor Sholem Aleichem; Funeral Cortege Of Yiddish Author Greeted By Throngs In Three Boroughs. Many Deliver Eulogies Services At Educational Alliance Include Reading Of Writer's Will And His Epitaph.". New York Times. May 16, 1916, Tuesday. Retrieved 2008-04-20. "A hundred thousand people of the East Side, with sadness in their faces, lined the sidewalks yesterday when the funeral procession of Sholem Aleichem ("peace be with you"), the famous Yiddish humorist, whose real name was Solomon Rabinowitz, passed down Second Avenue and through East Houston. Eldridge, and Canal Streets, to the Educational Alliance, where services were held before the body was carried over the Williamsburg Bridge to ..." 
  15. "2,500 Jews Mourn Sholem Aleichem; "Plain People" Honor Memory Of "Jewish Mark Twain" In Carnegie Hall. Some Of His Stories Read Audience Laughs Through Tears, Just As The Author Had Said He Hoped Friends Would Do.". New York Times. May 18, 1916. Retrieved 2008-04-20. "More than 2,500 Jews paid honor to the memory of Sholem Aleichem, the "Mark Twain, who depicted in a style almost epic" the spirit of his race, at a "mourning evening" in Carnegie Hall last night." 
  16. Haberman, Clyde. A Reading to Recall the Father of Tevye. The New York Times. May 17, 2010.
  17. Back to Birobidjan. By Rebecca Raskin. Jerusalem Post
  18. MESSENGER: MErcury Surface, Space ENvironment, GEochemistry, and Ranging
  19. Events by themes: To 150th years from the birthday of Sholom-Aleichem NBU issued an anniversary coin, UNIAN photo service (March 2, 2009)

Further reading

External links