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Jewish Journal

The art of feeling Sholem Aleichem’s unforgettable legacy

“The Worlds of Sholem Aleichem: The Remarkable Life and Afterlife of the Man Who Created Tevye” (Schocken Books, $28.95)


by Elaine Margolin

October 22, 2013 | 1:59 pm

Never underestimate the enormous emotional power of a piercing narrative voice, one that can decimate and exhilarate the reader, often simultaneously.  Listen to the eloquence of Israeli author David Grossman recounting his early experiences reading Sholem Aleichem, one of the founding giants of modern Yiddish literature:

“From the moment I stepped into that land I could not leave.  I was eight, and within a few months had devoured all of Sholem Aleichem’s writings that existed in Hebrew at the time -- the children’s stories, the writing for adults, and the plays.  When I reread the works before writing this piece, I was amazed to discover how little I could have understood as a child, and how powerfully the things beyond the visible text must have worked on me.  Because what could an eight- or nine-year-old have understood about Rachel’s tormented love for Stempenyu?  Or the political views that Sholem Aleichem gave to a detached and wayward Jewish character like Menachem Mender.  Or his complete opposite, Tevye the Milkman?  What did I know about the life of yeshiva students who ate at the table of a different landowner each day of the week?  About the hostility between the “landlord” class and the workers, or the conflict between the Zionists and the Bundists?”

Grossman continues luring us back in time with him:

“I did not know, I did not understand, but something inside me would not allow me to let go of the inscrutable stories, written in a Hebrew I had never encountered before.  I read like someone entering a foreign world that was, at the same time, a promised land.  In some sense, I felt that I was coming home.  And it all worked its magic on me in a muddled way -- the words with the biblical ring, the characters, the customs, the way of life, and the fact that the page numbers were marked with letters rather than numbers.”

If you had never heard of Sholem Aleichem, and did not know that he was born Sholem Rabinovich in the Ukraine in 1859, where he endured a traumatic childhood and married into fabulous wealth, only to lose it all and then become a phenomenal success as a Yiddish writer after abandoning Russian and Hebrew, you would still be seduced by Grossman’s prose to want to know more.  Grossman’s writing is an intoxicating brew of personal entanglement and fierce intellect feeding upon each other on the written page.  His early exposure to Aleichem’s and the wonderfully complex and flawed characters who littered all of his pages once really existed and were now dead forever; as was the intimacy of the shtetl and their way of life.  Grossman was able to finally realize that the Jews in these stories were actually connected to him, and now they were gone, perhaps explaining his mother’s perennial sadness and now his own.  He writes poignantly of the brutal starkness of this realization:

“It struck me all at once.  Suddenly.  The six million, the murdered, the victims, the ‘Holocaust martyrs,’ all those terms were in fact my people.  They were Mottel and Tevye and Shimele Soroker and Chaveleh and Lily and Shimek.  On the burning asphalt of the Beit Hakarem school, the shtetl was suddenly taken from me…It was the first time I truly understood the meaning of the Holocaust.  And it is no exaggeration to say that this comprehension shook my entire world. I remember my distress during the following days, a distress characteristic of the children of real survivors, because I imagined that I now bore some responsibility to all those people; it was a responsibility I did not want.”

Cynthia Ozick is equally compelling on Sholem Aleichem.  She believes he found a way to reveal the Jewish soul with all of its harrowing complexities and contradictions.  She believes Aleichem was able to capture the essence of Jews forced to confront the tumultuous forces of cultural, political, and religious modernity that spread through the Russian Empire in the final decades of the 19th century.  She points to Aleichem’s most famous creation, Tevye, as the embodiment of a Jewish man who was intelligent, loving, generous and open, without needing to be overly sentimental or heroic.  Tevye dealt with pogroms, crushing poverty, incessant fear and family troubles by talking intimately to an accessible God, but one whom too often seemed overly distracted.  Tevye, says Ozick, is never optimistic; he is too much at home with the worst that can happen.  But she reminds us that he is not overcome by despair: “He is too much at home with Scripture and with the knowledge of frailty, mutability, mortality.”  Ozick reminds us that this great Yiddish writer spoke Russian to his own children but found the Yiddish language exceptional in its ability to allow him to be simultaneously satirical and cynical and soft-hearted and sad and ironic and irreverent while addressing God in long monologues that eventually were watered down sufficiently for the American stage in “Fiddler on the Roof.”

There isn’t one passage in “The Worlds of Sholem Aleichem: The Remarkable Life and Afterlife of the Man Who Created Tevye” (Schocken Books, $28.95), Jeremy Dauber’s new biography on Sholem Aleichem, that approaches the personal pathos of Grossman or Ozick.  Dauber’s strengths lay elsewhere. 

Dauber has written a comprehensive account of Aleichem that holds your attention and is meticulously researched, but comes up short.  Dauber, who was educated at Harvard University, and then Oxford, is still a young man; at least a generation younger than Ozick or Grossman, and this perhaps explains the distanced lens with which he seems to view his subject; one feels as if he is watching him from afar instead of standing beside him.  Dauber is a professor of Yiddish Studies at Columbia University and has written elsewhere about his idyllic childhood, his wonderful parents, and his delightful wife and son.  Oddly, his seemingly charmed life does not serve him well here.  When he discusses Jewish history and anti-Semitism and the struggles of Jewish men who were repeatedly victimized and restricted from almost all avenues of advancement, he does so without tapping into the trauma and burden and shame and remorse such struggles wrought.  This is surely a supreme victory for Jews of his generation in America at this time, but it does seem to blur his vision when trying to find Aleichem’s pulse.  Aleichem’s life was not charmed; it was fraught with illness, the loss of a child in his twenties, poverty, virulent anti-Semitism and anti-Semitic violence, the loss of his mother while still a child, and constant worry about his family’s future as Jews contemplated and disagreed about the various issues of their time.  Was there a place for them in the larger Gentile world?  What would happen to their traditions and religious faith if they traveled too far? 

Aleichem’s father, the merchant Nochem Rabinowvich, was a traditionally observant man but entranced by the ideas of the Enlightenment.  He allowed his son to attend a secular school in Tsarist Russia, where the young boy fell hopelessly in love with Turgenev, Pushkin, Lermontov, and Gogol.  Sholem Aleichem remembered being teased at school because he was Jewish, and although his academic record was stellar, he remembered bitterly years later a certain professor who would often remind him that the “Jews were physiologically incapable of truly internalizing Russian culture.”

Aleichem set out to reinvent Yiddish literature into serious literary art.  He was turned off by the work of Shomer (pen name for Nokhem Meyer Shaykevich), who wrote highly melodramatic tales he felt were low brow, and he felt he could create stories that were more sophisticated and still accessible to the 11 million Yiddish readers in Europe two decades before the Nazi decimation.  Many Jews and Gentiles alike viewed Yiddish as mere gibberish and less than a cultivated language worthy of respect, and he set out to change that perception.  Readers responded with great enthusiasm, and when he traveled to various cities in Europe he met throngs of fans who waited at the railroad stations for him to get a chance to see him and hopefully to hear him read aloud. 

Dauber patiently takes us through the evolution of almost all of Sholem Aleichem’s characters and shows how they were often created in response to what was happening in Aleichem’s life at a particular time.  He introduces us to Motl, the cantor’s son who loves to make mischief and emigrates to America where he is a “happy orphan.”  We meet Menakhem-Mendl, the ever-striving, never succeeding businessman who writes his wife letters of his pursuits and waits for her replies, which are usually admonishments for his foolish ventures.  Like this one: “To my dear, learned, and illustrious husband Menakhem-Mendl, may your light shine!  First, we’re all well, thank God.  Forgive me for saying so, but I hope to hear no more of your Odessa than I understand about your blasted shorts and hedgerows!  You’re throwing away rubles like last week’s noodles, money-schmoney, eh?  I suppose it grows on trees over there…”  We hear echoes in these stories of the struggles Sholem Aleichem faced brought to life in these characters.  Like Motl, Aleichem went to America a “happy orphan’ and struggled in a land where he never really felt at ease.  Like Menakhem-Mendl, he felt the wrath of his wife and mother-in-law when he lost much of their inheritance in the Odessa stock market, forcing them to struggle financially for years.

Dauber expertly traces for us the evolution of the Tevye stories, which began in 1894 and continued over a 20-year period.  He created Tevye the Dairyman based on a man he actually met.  Tevye was a rural Jew hauling logs from the forest and hoping to save up enough money to buy a cow.  In the initial Tevye story, he is described as “a healthy Jew, with broad shoulders and thick, dark hair, his age is hard to guess; he wears heavy boots…”   Tevye is a talker and speaks using a unique blend of parable, a bit of Torah, and a mixture of high and low art.  He speaks frequently in long monologues.  Dauber offers an insightful analysis as to why the monologues worked so well for Tevye, claiming “The monologues’ an aggressive genre, in other words: the speaker satisfying his or her own needs at the expense of the listener, who lies helpless beneath the constant, punishing pressure, physical and psychological, of their breathless, unceasing delivery.  Think of the classic stand-up comedy, the monologic art par excellence: I killed ‘em.  Unsurprising, then, that monologue and comedy -- with Sholem Aleichem as Exhibit A -- have often been claimed as the Jewish counterattack to history’s depredations; This is how Jews fight back, with, you know, a really vicious one-liner.  More vociferous forms of opposition may be impossible, but you can talk at the problem, around it, suffocate it or minimize it or redefine it in a torrent of words.”

But first, Jeremy Dauber, you have to feel it.


Elaine Margolin is a frequent contributor of book reviews to the Jewish Journal and other publications.

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