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The Sholem Aleichem Exchange, Part 3: The ‘Fiddler on the Roof’ Phenomenon

by Shmuel Rosner

February 5, 2014 | 3:12 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 and 2 of the exchange can be found here and here.)

 

Dear Professor Dauber,

We'll end this exchange with a 'Fiddler' question-

The epilogue to your book describes the fascinating story of Shalom Aleichem's literary afterlife, examining several milestones in the evolution of the public perception of the author since his death. This includes the history of the critical reception of a series of high profile theater productions inspired by his works- culminating in 'Fiddler on the Roof', of course- which have, for better and for worse, become an integral part of the writer's reputation and legacy.

Unfortunately, ever since the earliest American productions based on Sholem Aleichem, there have been critics who have taken a somewhat condescending attitude towards the great author, treating his work – often through the lens of different theatrical adaptations  –  as quaint, amusing, kindhearted, yet ultimately 'lightweight', folklore. While he has always had his staunch defenders, it is actually still difficult not to think of him, first and foremost, as 'the man who wrote Fiddler on the Roof' (even though he didn't, strictly speaking, write Fiddler on the Roof).

On the one hand, reading the ending your book it sometimes feels as if a literary great in the tradition of Cervantes and Gogol has been tragically overshadowed by a Broadway musical; on the other hand, it's quite a Broadway musical…

How does today's Shalom Aleichem scholar community (if there is such a thing) feel about 'the Fiddler effect'? Is there any sense in which you believe it may have done him, or Yiddish culture, any kind of injustice? And, finally, are there any misconceptions about Sholem Aleichem which it was personally important for you to address?  

I'd like to thank you again for your great book and for doing this exchange.

Yours,

Shmuel.

***

Dear Shmuel,

It's a great final question (or a set of final questions): a fitting end to - at least from my end - a wonderful opportunity and a wonderful exchange.

It's certainly the case that, when giving my "elevator pitch" to anyone who's asking what I've spent the last few years working on, Fiddler on the Roof appears prominently - as in, "the man who wrote the series of stories that became 'Fiddler on the Roof'." Is that - and all the cultural transformation that represents - fair to Sholem Aleichem? Or to his work? Or to the culture his work came from?

Well, I'm not sure that fair enters into it, exactly; or, maybe more precisely, it's just impossible to figure out what fair means. The culture that birthed Sholem Aleichem and read his work in the original in greatest numbers - Jewish Eastern Europe - was subject to such catastrophe over the twentieth century, such monumental horror and injustice, that in some deep sense any other deliberation on the fate of Sholem Aleichem's literary posterity is dwarfed in comparison.

Such a bloody fate meant, as one of its smallest consequences, that its writers, especially those who were felt to be somehow "representative", would carry a weight they'd never dreamed of when they wrote: to serve as witnesses, as elegists, as touchstones to a murdered culture. Even - or perhaps especially - the stories that seem simple, quaint, kindhearted, become, in their own ways, martyrologies. This was, in its own way, an unfair, or at least, an undue burden, even when it came from the best and most unavoidable of motives. This is a somewhat roundabout way of saying that Fiddler on the Roof - and its reception - was serious business. This isn't quite the "Fiddler effect" that I think you meant (nor, for that matter, is it the only one we could talk about), but it's one that highlights the serious intent, and effort, of all of those who worked on the musical, and, in some way, the relationship to the material and the culture which, to them, it epitomized and represented.

Was it the original stories? Of course not - and Sholem Aleichem himself, when he created a theatrical adaptation of the Tevye stories, took pretty remarkable liberties (and took even bigger ones when he created a film scenario of Tevye). Sholem Aleichem understood that adaptation was a necessary part of literary life, as cultures moved on: in his will, he suggested his family read some of his stories in any language they preferred, not just Yiddish. I think, for what it's worth, that he would have understood - and saluted - the craft and effort and intent that went into the musical….and, given his own financial struggles, he certainly would have respected and appreciated its commercial success.

But ultimately, the biggest misconception I'd hoped to address is the one you've addressed in the question, and I've tried to get to here: that Sholem Aleichem was, indeed, a writer of great talent, of craft and effort who produced remarkable results. And if my book - or Fiddler, for that matter - get people to turn to a writer largely forgotten by the general reading public (which, alas, is the fate of most writers; Sholem Aleichem may not have gotten all the literary posterity we'd like, but he's done better than almost every other Yiddish writer in history, save Isaac Bashevis Singer), then I'll be happy.

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