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Review: The Worlds of Sholem Aleichem

Thursday, Nov 21, 2013 at 3:20pm

Sholem Aleichem is perhaps the most pre-eminent name in Yiddish literature, and among the immediate figures that come to mind in Jewish writing in general. Fiddler on the Roof, based on Sholem Aleichem's endeared Tevye the dairyman and the longest-running performance on Broadway, sealed the Yiddish writer's name in North American pop culture.

Dubbed the Jewish Mark Twain (Mark Twain would respond, calling himself the American Sholem Aleichem) and deemed "a worthy heir to Gogol," the iconic Yiddish author and his influence is explored in a new biography, The Worlds of Sholem Aleichem: The Remarkable Life and Afterlife of the Man Who Created Tevye by Jeremy Dauber.

Sholem Rabinovich was born in 1859 in Ukraine, at a time when the so-called Haskalah, the Jewish enlightenment, was growing and adversely altering the Yiddish-speaking world of Eastern Europe. The young Rabinovich aspired to be a writer, witnessed how a new body of literature and art was emerging in that "jargon" called Yiddish, and adopted the pen name Sholem Aleichem, a traditional greeting meaning "peace be upon you." He could have easily been one of the characters that shape his fiction, having come from an impoverished childhood, married into wealth, and lost everything.

Writing with a notion of "laughter through tears," Sholem Aleichem's works spoke to his Yiddish-speaking brethren, addressing the hardships and discrimination his people often faced in the old country, tales that came with a unique dash of humour, layered in critical thought and gems of wisdom. He was so popular that at one time he was writing simultaneous premieres for two competing Yiddish theatres in New York City. When he died in 1916, his funeral was one of the largest New York had ever seen. But the Sholem Aleichem story doesn't stop there. The biography looks at the amazing afterlife of Sholem Aleichem in English translation, and beyond.

The Worlds of Sholem Aleichem, hailed as the "first comprehensive biography" on the beloved author, is a finely-written work, illuminating a Yiddish-speaking world coloured in a certain joy, of course sorrow, and yet still touches so many Jewish North Americans. The book makes for a wonderful gift on the Hanukkah holiday.

This review was written by bookseller John C. The Worlds of Sholem Aleichem, which was released in October, can be found in our Judaica section in-store, or you can purchase it here on our website.

Categories: Reviews, Staff Pick, Authors, Saskatoon, Winnipeg

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The Worlds of Sholem Aleichem

- Jeremy Dauber

Hardcover $33.00
Reader Reward Price: $29.70

Part of the Jewish Encounters series

The first comprehensive biography of one of the most beloved authors of all time: the creator of Tevye the Dairyman, the collection of stories that inspired Fiddler on the Roof.
Novelist, playwright, journalist, essayist, and editor, Sholem Aleichem was one of the founding giants of modern Yiddish literature. The creator of a pantheon of characters who have been immortalized in books and plays, he provided readers throughout the world with a fascinating window into the world of Eastern European Jews as they began to confront the forces of cultural, political, and religious modernity that tore through the Russian Empire in the final decades of the nineteenth century.
But just as compelling as the fictional lives of Tevye, Golde, Menakhem-Mendl, and Motl was Sholem Aleichem's own life story. Born Sholem Rabinovich in Ukraine in 1859, he endured an impoverished childhood, married into fabulous wealth, and then lost it all through bad luck and worse business sense. Turning to his pen to support himself, he switched from writing in Russian and Hebrew to Yiddish, in order to create a living body of literature for the Jewish masses. He enjoyed spectacular success as both a writer and a performer of his work throughout Europe and the United States, and his death in 1916 was front-page news around the world; a New York Times editorial mourned the loss of "the Jewish Mark Twain." But  his greatest fame lay ahead of him, as the English-speaking world began to discover his work in translation and to introduce his characters to an audience that would extend beyond his wildest dreams. In Jeremy Dauber's magnificent biography, we encounter a Sholem Aleichem for the ages.

(With 16 pages of black-and-white illustrations)