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Sholem Aleichem Created Tevye—and the Modern American Jewish Sense of Tradition

In an excerpt from Nextbook Press’s new biography, the Yiddish master’s funeral at Carnegie Hall begins to shape a legacy

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Sholem Aleichem wears the “Gorky Shirt” (YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, New York)
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Carnegie Hall was draped in black.

It was the thirtieth day after Sholem Aleichem’s death—his shloyshim, in traditional Jewish parlance—and twenty-five hundred people crowded into Carnegie Hall to pay tribute. The writer had stipulated in his will that a percentage of the family’s income from the sale of his works be donated to a fund for needy Hebrew and Yiddish writers, and the Sholem Aleichem People’s Fund would be the beneficiary of the memorial evening. (The cheaper seats went for a dime; eventually, demand dictated that the pricier ones be opened to the general public as well.) From the darkened stage, Sholem Aleichem’s portrait looked out at the audience from behind a row of distinguished speakers.

“Let my name be mentioned by them with laughter rather than not be mentioned at all,” the author dictated from beyond the grave, and the evening self-consciously attempted to emulate that sensibility of turning mourning into merriment. A lugubrious recitation of a mourner’s prayer by Yossele Rosenblatt and his choir early on notwithstanding, the noted Yiddish writer Sholem Asch—famous throughout the Yiddish world for his scandalous play God of Vengeance, soon to become a best-selling English writer—chided the audience that “we are taking his death too sadly…he was an apostle of joy, and it was his wish that we be joyful. If all the world were like Sholem Aleichem, there would be no sadness.” And as the great figures of modern Yiddish literature in America—Asch, the playwright Dovid Pinski, the humorist Moyshe Nadir, the poet Avrom Reyzen—read from Sholem Aleichem’s work, laughter rolled through the cavernous hall.

In his opening remarks, Judah Magnes reminded the audience of the deceased author’s testamentary with that, as he wrote, “the best monument for me will be if my works are read and if there be found among the better-to-do classes of our people Maecenases who will publish and distribute my works in Yiddish”—or, as the will specified, “in other languages.” Everyone knew the will also suggested that, in lieu of saying the mourner’s kaddish if his family was unable or unwilling, absolution would be granted if “they all come…and read this my will, and also select one of my stories, one of the really joyous ones, and read it aloud in whatever language they understand best.” Literature was the new generation’s religion; and, looking to posterity, Sholem Aleichem took care to accommodate not only changes in faith but changes in language, as he saw his children, and grandchildren, moving away from the Yiddish his world was composed in and of.

He had lived to see his work published widely in Russian translation, among other languages. English, however, with some few exceptions, had seen little of Sholem Aleichem between hard covers. But the translations of those early years, like the early memorial service, continued the process of creating a very particular version of his persona, and of his legacy.

His first appearance in English came courtesy of an unusual Englishwoman.

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Helena Frank was the granddaughter of the Marquis of Westminster; her father, a Christian convert, would open his house to Sholem Aleichem when he was visiting London. (Sholem Aleichem suggested that she embodied “the transmigrated soul of Mother Rachel,” Hannah, or Queen Esther; “a noble tender Jewish soul in a Christian body.”) Her 1912 anthology Yiddish Tales is a sampler of work by various authors; though Sholem Aleichem is only represented by five examples, Frank’s introduction would help set the tone for reading Sholem Aleichem (along with Yiddish literature in general) in English. Describing the tales as each having “its special echo from that strangely fascinating world so often quoted, so little understood…a world in the passing, but whose more precious elements, shining, for all those who care to see them, through every page of these unpretending tales…will surely live on,” she has them fall somewhere between symbolic keys and cultural curiosities rather than works of literature—presenting Eastern European Jewish life as a vanishing world decades before the outbreak of the Second World War.

And the trend would continue. Hannah Berman, a Dubliner who had received copies of Sholem Aleichem’s newspaper serials straight from the source, had translated Stempenyu in 10913 in London; seven years later, she published a translation of Sholem Aleichem’s stories with Knopf called Jewish Children. The New York Times, covering the book’s publication, linked the stories directly to the author’s posthumous celebrity: “Shalom Aleichem, the ‘Jewish Mark Twain,’ whose ‘Jewish Children’ has just been published by Alfred A. Knopf, is perhaps the best loved writer of his race. Thousands upon thousands of Jews mourned at his funeral, which was held in New York several years ago.” Choosing children’s stories certainly made sense: as we saw, Sholem Aleichem himself had chosen that segment of his oeuvre to present to a non-Jewish reading public. And Knopf tried to stir up crossover appeal by getting Dorothy Canfield Fisher, an early advocate of the Montessori movement in America and herself a prominent contemporary author of children’s books, to write the introduction. And here’s her argument for reading Sholem Aleichem:

“Like many Americans (probably the majority),” she wrote, “I had more notions, blurred and inaccurate though they might be, about life in Thibet [sic] than about life among Jews.” She clarified, though, that she meant what in Woody Allen’s famous locution were called “real Jews”: “When I say ‘Jews’ I mean those who have not diluted the ancient traditions of their race and religion; not the East Side, partially Americanized Jew, nor the sophisticated, intensively cultivated cosmopolitans…But the people into whose hearts Sholom Aleichem bade me look were not only new to me, but richly dowered with an unbroken tradition complex and ancient beyond belief for an upstart Anglo-Saxon.”

What was valuable about Sholem Aleichem’s stories, particularly for non-Jewish readers? They showed non-Jews what real Jews were like. And what made an authentic Jew? Tradition.

Sholem Aleichem, whose genius came precisely from artfully delineating tradition’s reaction to modernity’s stress and strain, might have begged to differ.

This essay was excerpted and adapted from The Worlds of Sholem Aleichem, out today from Nextbook Press.

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Sholem Aleichem Created Tevye—and the Modern American Jewish Sense of Tradition

In an excerpt from Nextbook Press’s new biography, the Yiddish master’s funeral at Carnegie Hall begins to shape a legacy

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