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The Sholem Aleichem Exchange, Part 1: What the Great Yiddish Author Meant to the Lower East Side

by Shmuel Rosner

January 22, 2014 | 5:13 am

Professor Jeremy Dauber

Jeremy Dauber is the Atran Professor of Yiddish Language, Literature, and Culture at Columbia University, where he also serves as director of its Institute for Israel and Jewish Studies and teaches in the American Studies program. He received his undergraduate degree summa cum laude from Harvard and his doctorate from the University of Oxford, which he attended as a Rhodes Scholar. His previous books include In the Demon’s Bedroom: Yiddish Literature and the Early Modern and Antonio’s Devils: Writers of the Jewish Enlightenment and the Birth of Modern Hebrew and Yiddish Literature. He frequently lectures on topics related to Jewish literature, history, humor, and popular culture at the 92nd St Y and other venues throughout the United States.

The following exchange will focus on his new critically acclaimed book, The Worlds of Sholem Aleichem: The Remarkable Life and Afterlife of the Man Who Created Tevye (Shocken, 2013)

 

Dear Professor Dauber,

You begin your fascinating biography of literary giant Sholem Aleichem "very near the end", recounting the author's final days before his death in America. Perhaps this is also a good way to start this exchange-

You mention in your book that between 150,000 and 250,000 people attended his funeral, the largest public funeral in New York City then on record. I suppose it would be safe to assume that a large percentage of this mind boggling number of attendees were Jews. Now, I'd like to start by asking about what Sholem Aleichem (who authored a stunning account of the Jewish-American immigration experience in 'Motl, Peysi the Cantor's Son') meant to Jewish American immigrants at the time. What did he symbolize for them, and what was his place in the cultural life of Jewish America in the first few decades following his death?

I'm looking forward to reading your first response.

Best Regards,

Shmuel.

***

Dear Shmuel,

Thanks for allowing me to do this; it's a real pleasure to participate in this exchange. 

As you say, Sholem Aleichem's funeral was a momentous and massive occasion; and though it would certainly be remarked upon by non-Jews, in places as disparate as the New York Times and the floor of the House of Representatives, there's no question that the majority of the mourners were Jews. Why did they turn out in such large numbers? I think the answer to that is, in some way, the key to the author's appeal in both life and afterlife. 

One of the remarkable things mentioned in every account of the funeral procession is the wide diversity of the Jewish crowd - that is, in a period of intense ideological and social factionalism in the Jewish community, whether you were Orthodox, Yiddishist, Reform, Zionist, socialist, atheist, what have you, Sholem Aleichem seemed to have spoken to you. In part, I think, that was because in his remarkable life he had embraced, to varying degrees, elements of all these movements on a personal basis; certainly many representatives of these approaches, if not always the movements, appeared in his fiction. Writing his own autobiography, Sholem Aleichem suggested, in an attempt to get financial support for it, that his story was the story of Jewish life in the modern period: and the masses didn't disagree. 

Well, not exactly, anyway; since on the other hand (and what would a discussion of Sholem Aleichem be without a game of on the one hand/on the other hand?) by the time Sholem Aleichem arrived in the New World for the second time, American Yiddish culture had moved on from regarding him as the voice of their present situation; they had developed their own writers, their own cultural touchstones. They didn't need an old world voice - except, precisely except, as the voice of nostalgia. The Lower East Side was a big producer of nostalgia, for a world many of those immigrants knew intimately and knew they'd never see again; that's why all those songs about the old shtetl went over so well. Sholem Aleichem was part of that, for them, and in mourning him, and thinking about him in the next few years, they were thinking about the world they left behind, a world that was increasingly felt to be vanishing in the depredations of the Great War (unconscious, of course, of the war to follow that one).

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