Exploring ‘The Worlds of Sholem Aleichem’

Exploring ‘The Worlds of Sholem Aleichem’

Sholem Aleichem would have been pleased by Professor Jeremy Dauber’s work.

And that would have been true even before Dr. Dauber started work on his third book, “The Worlds of Sholem Aleichem: The Remarkable Life and Afterlife of the Man Who Created Tevye,” which was published last month.

As professor of Yiddish language, literature, and culture at Columbia University, Dauber’s professional work involves taking Yiddish literature seriously.

And that, as the early pages of Dr. Dauber’s smart, eminently readable biography makes clear, meant all the world to the man born as Sholem Aleichem Rabinovich.

Professor Jeremy Dauber

The question of which language to write in was not a simple one for Sholem Aleichem and his contemporaries. Yiddish was looked down upon as a “jargon,” inferior to refined Hebrew. But for Sholem Aleichem, the masses of Jews who spoke, understood, and read Yiddish consecrated the language; why write if not to be read? As Dr. Dauber shows, Sholem Aleichem was no less idealistic than his colleagues who wrote in Hebrew; he sought to enlighten the Jewish world with literature that rose to the highest standards of truth and beauty, the equivalent of Chekhov and Gogol, “able to do all the things a truly engaged and high-flying modern literature can do. That was a breakthrough.”

He even wrote a 50 page book condemning the most popular writer of Yiddish books, Nokhem Mayer Shaykevitch, who churned out dozens of potboiler romances each year under the pen name “Shomer” – books Sholem Aleichem indicted for failing to reflect Jewish life

The plot of Sholem Aleichem’s own life wouldn’t have measured up to his own standards of literary realism: romantic young love that overcomes obstacles, sudden wealth, financial ruin, literary fame, and one of New York City’s largest funeral processions at his death in 1914, and his characters adapted into a musical performed around the world.

Dr. Dauber discovered that Sholem Aleichem Aleichem’s life was as interesting as his stories when he first taught the writer’s works at Columbia; writing the biography was “a great way to tell both the story of a remarkable life, a world that he presented and encompassed, and the story of a how a certain kind of great Jewish literature worked, all in one package.”

“The Worlds of Sholem Aleichem” has the smooth writing we have come to expect from the NextBook Jewish Encounters book series, but it is weightier than most in heft and in scholarship. Dr. Dauber found, to his surprise, that he is the first to chronicle Sholem Aleichem’s life.

Dr. Dauber, 40, grew up in Teaneck; his parents now live in Englewood and he lives in Manhattan, near Columbia. He graduated from the Frisch School in Paramus and went to Harvard for his undergraduate degree. He first read Sholem Aleichem when he was a summer intern at the National Yiddish Book Center; he read more once he was back in college, where he studied under Dr. Ruth Wisse, who had just begun teaching at Harvard.

Dr. Dauber said he has read most of Sholem Aleichem’s writings. “He was tremendously prolific, both because he needed to make a living, and also because he loved to write,” he said. “His collected works runs to about 20 volumes, and that doesn’t cover all the material he wrote. It doesn’t include the myriads of letters he wrote to friends and others.

“He took on a whole bunch of different genres that were popular at the time. He was well-read in contemporary Russian and European literature. He would play with these genres, whether stories told from the perspective of local travelers, literary sketches, a poem in prose, an exchange of letters – he would take all of these genres and make them about his chosen theme, which was the Jewish community he loved and which was in transition.”

Dr. Dauber said he enjoyed discovering Sholem Aleichem’s “the human dimensions – both the positive – I love the way he was absolutely devoted to his family – and the negative – he was sometimes overbearing and patriarchal and would have mood swings.

“He was a human being.”

One of the things that surprised Dr. Dauber was “how much of his writing had to do with the ebbs and glows of capitalism. He’s a great writer about the economy; about business.”

Looking toward his next project, Dr. Dauber is interested in whether there is “a unique Jewish horror.”

He said that “a good number of Sholem Aleichem’s stories have horrific elements to them. They have the trappings of folk fantasy, a folktale that he gives a horrific or nervous twist. In the story translated as ‘The Enchanted Tailor,’ on the one hand it’s clear that everything that happens in the story has a rational explanation. But the story itself has a haunted feeling to it, that grows and grows.

“At the end, you’re not sure whether it’s wholly grounded in this world at all. There’s an atmosphere that floats over it. He’s good at that effect.”

On Saturday night, Dr. Dauber will speak in Englewood. He will screen the 1939 Yiddish film Tevye, adapting the same stories that became the basis for “Fiddler on the Roof.” (Here’s a fun factoid from the biography: There actually was a Tevye, who was the milkman in the village where Sholem Aleichem took his family to live every summer; they’d rent a different unfurnished house each time, and schlep their own furniture to fill it.)

Tevye has shaped the perception of Sholem Aleichem’s legacy.

“When he died, it’s probable that his reputation in the non-Jewish world would have rested on his stories about children,” Dr. Dauber said. “That’s what was beginning to be the most popular side of him. Later, the combination of Fiddler the vicissitudes of 20th century Jewish history made Fiddler such a strong representative of his work.

“The themes of modernity and tradition, of generational change, were important to Sholem Aleichem as well. It’s also the case that because of the Holocaust, the world understood that there was a world – of Yiddish speaking Jewry – that was no more.

“Fiddler was very much evoking that world.

“Sholem Aleichem understood that Tevye was one of his most important works. He was interested in creating his own adaptations of it. He even wrote a silent film scenario for it,” Dr. Dauber added.

Bottom line: Why should someone read Sholem Aleichem?

“I never want to give any reason to read Yiddish literature that I wouldn’t give to encourage you read any other literature,” Dr. Dauber said. “It helps open up the way we view the world, it teaches us things, it makes us think.

“Sholem Aleichem, as a great writer, does all of these things. Additionally, he provides wonderful perspectives on a moment in Jewish history, a time of transition.

“He was a world writer – but also a deeply Jewish writer.”

A night at the movies
What: Dr. Jeremy Dauber will talk, sign books, and present the 1939 Yiddish movie “Tevye” (with English subtitles)

When: Saturday night, November 9, 8 p.m.

Where: Congregation Ahavat Torah, 250 Broad St., Englewood

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