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Sholem Aleichem, the most beloved classical Yiddish writer, was born Sholem Rabinovitz in 1859 in Pereyaslav, Ukraine. His father–a merchant–was interested in the Russian Haskalah (Jewish Enlightenment), and the young Sholem was exposed to modern modes of thinking in addition to traditional Judaism. Sholem attended the heder (Jewish school) in Voronkov, the town his family moved to when he was young, and in his teenage years he graduated with distinction from a Russian gymnasium.
Like his contemporaries Mendele Mokher-Sefarim and I.L. Peretz, Sholem Aleichem originally wrote in Hebrew, and he contributed to a number of Hebrew weeklies. Literature was the purview of maskilim (proponents of the Jewish Enlightenment), and for the maskilim, Hebrew was the appropriate language of Jewish high culture. It was the traditional language of Jewish scholarship, and it was considered more sophisticated than Yiddish–the language of the people. Indeed, when the 24-year old Sholem Rabinovitch published his first Yiddish story, “Tsvey Shteyner” (“Two Stones”), he used the pseudonym Sholem Aleichem to disguise himself from his father, who Sholem supposed would be disturbed by his choice of language.
But Sholem Aleichem found his voice in Yiddish. His writing, though far from unsophisticated, was about the masses and for the masses. “Sholem Aleichem” was more than just a pen name. Sholem Aleichem was Sholem Rabinovitch’s tragic-comic persona, a character who mediated the tales of the people to the people. The name itself is significant. “Sholem Aleichem” is a Hebrew greeting, meaning literally “Peace be upon you,” but a more appropriate translation might be: “What’s up?” Sholem Aleichem’s work was a dialogue with the people written in a verbal and cultural language that would have maximum resonance.
This literary attitude manifested itself in the structure of Sholem Aleichem’s work as well. Though Sholem Aleichem wrote novels and plays, he is perhaps best remembered for his fictional confessions, letters, and monologues, written in the voice of the simple religious Jew. As Harvard Yiddish scholar Ruth Wisse has written, “Just as Samuel Richardson and Daniel Defoe used ‘discovered’ diaries and letters, pseudobiography… to win the trust of new English readers by insisting their books delivered other people’s words, so too did Sholem Aleichem often present himself as the intermediary between his characters and his readers to attest to the actuality of his creations.”
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