By Erin Mahone, Director of Cultural Arts and Jewish Education at the Weinstein JCC
The Weinstein JCC is a Community Partner, helping to make our production of Fiddler on the Roof possible.
There are few artists who have shaped mainstream America’s idea of the Jewish experience more than Shalom Aleichem – and most people have never even heard of him! His Yiddish stories of Tevye, the milkman, first published at the end of the 19th century would create the basis for one of the most iconic Broadway musicals and major motion pictures of the last 50 years – Fiddler on the Roof.
Aleichem – born Shalom Rabinowitz in 1859 – began his life in a small Ukrainian town which was the model for the fictitious town of Kasrilevke described in his works. His mother died of cholera when he was 13 years old. His father was a wealthy merchant and intellectual who read Hebrew literature and was interested in Haskalah, Jewish Enlightenment. He insisted Shalom be fluent in Hebrew and Russian, the norm for Jewish intelligentsia, and held a particular disdain for the Yiddish- a language used by Jews in central and eastern Europe before the Holocaust. It was originally a German dialect with words from Hebrew and several modern languages.
Upon his graduation in 1876 Shalom spent a brief period working as a tutor for a wealthy family. He then was elected as Crown Rabbi – a secular, administrative leader within the Jewish community. During this time Rabinowitz began his career as a writer. Shalom Rabinowitz’s first works were published in Hebrew in the late 1870’s – yet he soon began writing and publishing in Yiddish.
As his works became more popular and he published more frequently he dropped his given surname – Rabinowitz – and began calling himself “Shalom Aleichem” which in Hebrew means “Peace be unto you.” It was common for authors of the time to take pseudonyms as the stigma of Yiddish as a peasant’s language was far reaching. Though he continued to write on occasion in Hebrew and Russian, his Yiddish stories have endured and increased in popularity since his death in 1916. Much of Aleichem’s career was spent in fervent commitment to raising the quality and respectability of Yiddish literature.
In 1895 Aleichem published his first story chronicling the experiences of the humorous and zesty character, Tevye – the milkman. Autobiographical with splashes of the absurd the author injected his observations and experiences in shtetl life into the larger culture. Aleichem’s illustration of the Jewish experience in these stories remain some of the most enduring Jewish cultural imagery – adapted and translated into countless languages and performed from the U.S. to Israel to Japan – and beyond. His repertoire included literary criticism, monologues, children’s stories, holiday narratives, and the Kasrilevke tales – somehow capturing the voice of his people in such as way as had never been done before – or since.
Aleichem emigrated from Russia in 1905 at the start of the Russian Revolution. Anti-Jewish violence was rampant during the Revolution of 1905 – 1907 which were preceded by pogroms – an outbreak of mass violence directed against a minority religious, ethnic, or social group. Equating Jews with “revolution,” loyalist groups attacked Jews and riots in Odessa and Kiev claimed hundreds of Jewish victims.
In 1906 he arrived in New York City to a celebrity’s welcome referred to as the “Jewish Mark Twain” but this stardom soon dimmed when his criticism of the NYC Yiddish community offended the literary and theatre elite. For the next 8 years he traveled Europe performing his works until finally returning to New York in 1914 to write for a Yiddish newspaper.
Following the sudden death of his son Misha in 1915 Aleichem’s grief was insurmountable. Soon after in mid-1916 he fell ill and died on May 13th. Attracting hundreds of thousands of mourners, his funeral became an unparalleled demonstration of the scope and unification of New York’s Yiddish-speaking population—no longer rootless immigrants, but an organized community, joined in their sorrow for the loss of a great artist.
It was not until after his death that the scope and magnitude of Shalom Aleichem’s work was realized and multiplied. As we share the experience of Fiddler on the Roof together we can remember that these were the lives of regular people; and though, in some ways, they appear very different from us today Shalom Aleichem created universal characters with whom people all over the world have been relating for over 100 years. His life was filled with remarkable love for his heritage and it was through that love that these stories were born.