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The Sholem Aleichem Exchange, Part 2: Did the Shtetl Ever Really Exist?

by Shmuel Rosner

January 30, 2014 | 3:33 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.

This exchange focuses on his new, critically acclaimed book, The Worlds of Sholem Aleichem: The Remarkable Life and Afterlife of the Man Who Created Tevye (Shocken, 2013). (Part 1 of the exchange can be found right here.)

 

Dear Professor Dauber,

In the previous round you mentioned that the admiration Sholem Aleichem enjoyed in America was emblematic of the Lower East Side's great demand for Eastern European nostalgia. You also curiously mentioned that, in an attempt to get financial support for his autobiography, he presented his story as "the story of Jewish life in the modern period".

Throughout your book, one gets the impression that Sholem Aleichem, whom you refer to as "the writer most responsible for the creation of Eastern European nostalgia", virtually designated himself as the man who gives the Jews what they want in that respect, taking great liberties with his own personal history and with the type of Jewish life he actually knew first hand (some of your readers might be disappointed to learn that he didn't even come from a proper shtetl!).

Evelyn Waugh once said about P.G. Wodehouse that his England "is a world that cannot become dated because it has never existed". Is this the case with Sholem Aleichem's Eastern Europe? Is the vibrant shtetl as we know it merely the figment of his beautifully creative imagination?

Yours,

Shmuel.

***

Dear Shmuel,

It's a mark of the greatest writers that they can take a real place - whose streets you can walk, whose buildings you can enter - and  put a stamp on it that is both immediately recognizable and deeply personal and idiosyncratic. Dickens's London; Dostoevsky's St. Petersburg; Henry Roth's New York; Agnon's Jerusalem. Sholem Aleichem - a big fan of Dickens, it's worth noting - is a worthy addition to that category. In those acts of creation, they take great liberties, of emphasis, of representation; they're writers, in all these cases fiction writers, not stenographers or xerox machines. As artists, that's all the justification they need. 

There's been a good bit of academic work in recent decades dedicated to uncovering the shtetl's story behind the stories that were told about it. (My colleague Dan Miron's work on the image of the shtetl is a case in point.) Digging through the layers of loss and elegy that cover the historical kernel is enormously complex. Do we start with the cohort of Yiddish writers who, faced with modernization and urbanization, look back at the shtetl as (depending on who was writing) either a sink of outmoded and backward notions or a sepia-toned portrait of a community in tune with its history and its God? Do we think about how the Holocaust and the destruction of Eastern European Jewry leads to a retrospective investment of these places and people, and the literature that describes them, with a sanctity that may not have been intended in occasionally bitterly biting, raucous, satirical tales (as the tales of Sholem Aleichem's Kasrilevke often are, even if they're not generally read that way)?

But historical accuracy and aesthetic drive aren't necessarily antagonistic impulses: and I think - as in the case of Sholem Aleichem's shtetl stories - the fact that they don't, for example, cover every aspect of shtetl or Eastern European experience isn't quite the point. (There are almost no Gentiles in the shtetl stories; there are almost no Hasidim in Sholem Aleichem's oeuvre; this isn't representative, just to take two examples.) The point seems to be that the best of these Eastern European tales - by Sholem Aleichem and others - express part of an enormous and enormously complex truth truthfully: and that's more than enough, it seems to me.

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