Sholem Aleichem was one of the most beloved writers of Yiddish literature in the late 19th and early 20th century.
The Tevye Stories
A similar theme is evident in the earliest tale about Sholem Aleichem's most famous protagonist: Tevye the Dairyman, the basis for the show and film Fiddler on the Roof. The first Tevye story, "Tevye Strikes it Rich," was a monologue, published in 1894. In it, Tevye tells us how he earned enough money to set up a dairy. On his way home from a day working in the fields, he came across a woman and her daughter who are lost. After getting over the fear that they are demons, he escorts them home and is rewarded for his heroism. But his luck doesn't last long.
In the second Tevye story, "The Bubble Bursts," published in 1899, the bubble bursts. Tevye is brought into a doomed money-making scheme by none other than Menakhem-Mendl, who is a relative of Tevye's (by marriage twice removed).
Of course, all of this is ample material for comedy. But aside from his farcical plots, Sholem Aleichem also employed stylistic humor. In a classically rabbinic manner, Tevye lives his life intertextually, sprinkling his speeches with biblical verses. Oftentimes, Tevye mangles these verses, and though some believe Sholem Aleichem created Tevye this way to present him as an ignorant Jew, it's more likely that the humor is not in Tevye's naivete, but in our not knowing when he is purposefully misquoting and when he isn't.
Because of the humorous elements in his writing, Sholem Aleichem is often thought of as a comic writer, but there is an undeniable darkness to his work. The great critic Irving Howe wrote: "As I read story after story, I find that as the Yiddish proverb has it, 'a Jew's joy is not without fright,' even that great Jew who has in his stories brought us more joy than anyone else… a clock strikes 13, a hapless young man drags a corpse from place to place, a tailor is driven mad by the treachery of his perceptions, the order of shtetl life is undone even on Yom Kippur, Jewish children torment their teacher unto sickness. And on and on."
Sholem Aleichem connected with a vast chunk of world Jewry. He reached an unprecedented level of fame in his lifetime. Jews from all around the world and of all religious backgrounds read his work. He lived in many places as well. In 1906, Sholem Aleichem left Kiev after the pogroms there and went to live in Lemberg. Then he left for New York, where he hoped to make a living writing and staging plays. But New York was a financial failure for him, and he returned to Europe and was forced to do reading tours to support himself. Sholem Aleichem soon fell ill with tuberculosis, which would plague him for the last eight years of his life.
And yet these physical and financial difficulties were wholly incommensurate with his popularity. Sholem Aleichem's 50th birthday in 1909 was celebrated all around the world, and when he returned to New York in 1914, he was welcomed with a party at Carnegie Hall. As Howe put it, "Every Jew who could read Yiddish, whether he was orthodox or secular, conservative or radical, loved Sholem Aleichem, for he heard in his stories the charm and melody of a common shprakh, the language that bound all together."
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