The Jewish Mark Twain

The writer who inspired Fiddler on the Roof shouldn’t be mistaken for a mere spinner of artless folktales. 

Yivo Institute

Dracula, Don Quixote, Robinson Crusoe: it takes a special kind of greatness for a literary character to achieve autonomy from his creator. Like those “folk songs” that are actually the products of a single pen (“This Land Is Your Land,” say), such figures come to seem as if they’d sprung directly from the popular imagination, effacing their originators altogether. Everyone has heard of Frankenstein; not many know who Mary Shelley is.

Such is the case with Tevye, the jocular giant of Yiddish literature. With his trio of marriageable daughters and his eternal little town of Anatevka, his largeness and simplicity, he seems to come to us directly from the pages of a folktale. You’d almost have to be a Yiddishist to recognize the name of his creator, Sholem Aleichem. Yet once he was a giant, too: the voice of Eastern European Jewry by universal acclamation; the creator, Jeremy Dauber tells us in his new biography, of modern Jewish literature as well as modern Jewish humor; the man to whom the author of Huckleberry Finn replied, upon being introduced to “the Jewish Mark Twain,” “please tell him that I am the American Sholem Aleichem.” His death in 1916 was the occasion of the largest public funeral New York had ever witnessed.

On the other hand, Sholem Aleichem was not exactly Sholem Aleichem (just as Mark Twain was not exactly Mark Twain). He was Sholem Rabinovich, born in Pereyaslav, near Kiev, in 1859. The pseudonym is a familiar greeting, roughly equivalent to “how do you do?”: friendly, haimish, demotic, just like the persona that it designates. As for Tevye—well, that’s a story too. Like every mythic figure, he’s been shaped and reshaped in the telling, adapted to the needs of successive artists and audiences. The icon who has circled the globe at the center of Fiddler on the Roof, the personification of shtetl nostalgia, at one with “tradition” and his arcadian community, is very different from the complex, ironic, ambivalent character that Sholem Aleichem built up, story by episodic story, over the course of more than 20 years, in intimate contact with his Yiddish-speaking readership.

That transformation, broadly speaking, is the subject of Wonder of Wonders. Alisa Solomon’s subtitle is, if anything, too modest. Her book is nothing less than a cultural history of American Jewry as refracted through its most celebrated artifact. Fiddler, which debuted in 1964, is placed within its moment. After a couple of decades of postwar assimilation during which Jews, like Catholics, won gradual mainstream acceptance, ethnic identity was beginning to reassert itself. The melting pot was being reimagined as a salad bowl, and the movement that Fiddler helped launch would eventuate, 13 years later, in Roots. Some potential backers worried that the show would prove to be “too Jewish.” Its Jewishness, in fact, turned out to be the key to its success.

But what exactly did that Jewishness consist of? If Fiddler marked the early days of multiculturalism, it also represented the climax of the process by which the Jews of Eastern Europe were rendered safe for their grandchildren, reduced to a set of reassuring stereotypes—poverty and piety, laughter and tears, candlesticks and chicken soup and “warmth”—that preserved them not so much in amber as in schmaltz. The paintings of Chagall, the photographs of Roman Vishniac (redacted to eliminate signs of prosperity or modernity), books like Life Is With People (1952) and, indeed, The World of Sholem Aleichem (1943): for the new suburbanizing Jews, those Unitarians with yarmulkes, such artifacts performed a complicated kind of psychic work. They gave them a past to adore, but also one that they could proudly leave behind.

“If I were a rich man,” sang Tevye to the citizens of Tenafly and Great Neck, who were comfortable beyond his wildest dreams. Fiddler on the Roof, as Solomon points out, both took up the theme of cultural adaptation and embodied it. Tevye is forced to adjust to three successive daughterly rebellions. Tzeitel insists on marrying the man she loves, not the one her father has chosen. Hodel follows a revolutionary to Siberia. Chava, delivering the coup de grâce, intermarries. At last, the family is expelled from Anatevka altogether. But of all the alterations the musical’s creators made to the source material—dropping the tales of two additional daughters, one of whom commits suicide out of a broken heart; ignoring Tevye’s dealings with the nouveau riche among his fellow Jews; playing down his negligence as a father—the most cunning has to do with the hero’s final destination. In the original, Tevye wanders off he knows not where, his narrative concluding on a note of fatalism and disorientation. In Fiddler, he and his remaining children head off for America. The show was proposing itself as an origin myth. The story that began onstage concluded with its audience. This is who we were, Fiddler told its spectators, and this is how we got to where we are. L’chaim!

There was nothing cynical, it should be said, about the enterprise. The show’s creators, Solomon explains, underwent the same “journey,” the same recovery of cultural memory and rediscovery of ethnic roots, that they hoped to induce in their audience. The key figure was Jerome Robbins, Fiddler’s director, choreographer, and presiding control freak and genius. In his youth, Robbins had run away in shame from what he’d seen as Jewish weakness, and had Christianized his own last name, by happy coincidence, from Rabinowitz. Preparing the show, he immersed himself in sources, did anthropological fieldwork at Hasidic weddings, got his father talking about his childhood in Russia, and called up recollections of his tiny, pious, Yiddish-speaking grandmother. Robbins was aware of the pitfalls of sentimentality, but the very tones in which he communed with himself, in the notes he kept on the process, betray its inescapability. “I absorbed it, drank it in,” he wrote of what he learned, “let it sink to a place deep within me, quietly building up a rich & glorious storehouse of cherished sacred and touching knowledge—all stored away—deep & away.” Recapturing his childhood intimations of a worthy heritage, he cannot help but be the little boy again. Fiddler was indeed a show for grandchildren, bespeaking a grandchild’s gilded view.

Intellectuals and experts barked at what they saw as a travesty both of Jewish life in the Old World and of the work of Sholem Aleichem, its greatest literary exponent. If “tradition” is the crux for Anatevka, for the critics it was authenticity. But authenticity, as Solomon wittily reveals, is a moving target. When the 2004 revival, the fourth on Broadway since the original production, dared to cast a Gentile, Alfred Molina, in the hallowed leading role, one reviewer referred to the show as Goyim on the Roof. Fiddler had been instrumental in creating a new form of Jewish identity for the post-assimilationist generation: the “cultural” Jew whose ethnic expression consisted of eating bagels, going to synagogue twice a year, and listening to Fiddler on the hi-fi. The tradition, now, was “Tradition” itself.

Sholem Aleichem’s mission was to fashion work that spoke of the people, to the people, in the language of the people.

But as both Solomon and Dauber relate, Sholem Aleichem had been recruited as a mascot for the Old Country from the moment that his work began to be translated into English, right around the time of his final arrival in New York, a couple of years before his death. If the Jews of 1964 were searching for a lost connection to their forebears, those of 50 years before wanted nothing more than to assert their differences from theirs. The Jews of the great immigration were trying to become American. Who better than Sholem Aleichem to stand for everything they’d left behind? Not only was he the most celebrated author that Yiddishland (as Dauber calls it) had produced; he was, by proud and conscious choice, a Folkschreiber, a writer of the people. His work, like Twain’s, possesses a transparency, an intimacy, a quality of casual speech, and a wry but unpretentious humor that have been all too easily mistaken for artlessness, as if he were a simple figure spinning tales of simple folk. And as with Twain, as Dauber shows, such condescension gets him badly wrong.

Dauber’s book has weaknesses. He doesn’t tell us much about Sholem Aleichem’s private life. It comes as a surprise to read, on page 242, that he had a complicated relationship with his six children, because we’ve hardly been aware of their existence. We learn how popular the writer was, but we never really get a sense of why. Proceeding year by year and work by work (and there was a huge amount of work—stories, novels, sketches, satires, essays, plays), Dauber runs his magnifying glass too closely to the surface to give us a coherent picture of the whole. Nor does Dauber have much to say about the “afterlife” of his subtitle—the fate of Sholem Aleichem’s work across the decades since his death.

But Dauber, a scholar of modern Jewish literature, is superb at situating the writer within his literary and historical context. Sholem Aleichem was the great chronicler of Jewish existence in the Pale of Settlement during the decades of its simultaneous efflorescence and dissolution. The Pale was the vast territorial ghetto to which the Russian empire confined its Jews, and in which it spasmodically oppressed, attacked, and immiserated them. (The region roughly corresponds to modern-day Ukraine, Moldova, Belarus, Lithuania, and a sizable chunk of Poland, including Warsaw—essentially the old Polish commonwealth, which Russia had absorbed in the 18th century.) By 1897, the area contained some 5 million Jews, nearly half the number on the planet. Almost all of them spoke Yiddish, and more than half of them were literate.

As the century came to a close, enormous changes in their lives were under way. The assassination of the tsar in 1881 (Dauber calls it the inaugural event of modern Jewish history) had ignited an unprecedented round of persecutions: the first major wave of pogroms; restrictions on movement, education, and ownership; expulsions from rural areas into towns and “townlets” (that is, shtetls, which were not exclusively Jewish). It had also touched off the mass emigration, mostly to America, that would come to number more than 2 million. At the same time, the empire was rapidly modernizing, and its Jews were modernizing with it. All the conflicts we imagine as peculiar to contemporary Jewish life were already besetting that “timeless” world. Religious practice was declining. Religious belief was fading. Children were forgetting “who they were,” and parents were letting them—or fighting them. New money was coming in, upsetting old arrangements and values. The siren call of Western modernity was wafting through the Pale, luring Jews to socialism, secularism, and other idolatries, not to mention the professions and the cities.

Sholem Aleichem with his wife and three of their children in 1889 (Yivo Institute)

Sholem Aleichem saw it all and wrote it all, in part because he lived it all. He was born in a town but raised in a shtetl. His father, Nochem, was a prosperous merchant who was reduced to poverty in Sholem’s early adolescence. Nochem was also both observant and a Maskil, a devotee of the Jewish Enlightenment, with its love of European culture. Sholem went to a cheder, religious primary school, but then to a secular high school, where he found his calling in the Russian masters and the Western classics. Then came something out of a fairy tale. Working as a tutor, Sholem fell in love with his charge, the daughter of a wealthy estate manager—though wealthy doesn’t start to cover it. The affair was exposed; the tutor was dismissed; the lady persisted; the lovers were eventually united. Less than two years later, her father suddenly dropped dead, leaving Sholem, at the age of 26, among the richest Jews in Eastern Europe.

By then he was already a writer; in fact, he was already “Sholem Aleichem.” Soon he undertook to use his fortune, as publisher and patron but above all as author, to shape the future of Yiddish literature. The notion that there even was such an entity was still in question. Yiddish was “jargon,” the mongrel idiom of the kitchen and the street, an unstandardized hash of German, Hebrew, Slavic, and whatever else Ashkenazi Jews had picked up during their millennium-long migration east from the Rhineland. When the Maskilim set out, around the middle of the 19th century, to create a modern Jewish literature, they turned to Hebrew, conceived of as a pure and classic tongue. On the other end of the spectrum, as secular writing began to circulate in Yiddishland, was the shund, or trash, of popular Yiddish fiction, melodramatic potboilers that bore no connection to their readers’ lives.

Sholem Aleichem’s mission was to fashion work that spoke of the people, to the people, in the language of the people. If Zionism, which was emerging around the same time, was a belated form of political nationalism, the Yiddish literary movement was a belated version of what other European peoples had already undertaken: the development of a high aesthetic tradition out of the materials of folk culture. Like Joyce, though with a lot less self-importance, Sholem Aleichem sought to forge the uncreated conscience of his race. Being a Folkschreiber did not mean purifying the dialect of the tribe, but drawing on the fullest range of its resources, incorporating all the forms of expression that the people had already built up during the unrecorded history of their everyday speech. Sholem Aleichem loved to play with sayings, was a connoisseur of idioms, and had a special relish for the virtuosic curses of the Jewish housewife. He often structured his stories like folktales, or like jokes. His favorite form was the monologue—that is what the Tevye stories are—and he liked to show his characters just swapping yarns.

But the heart of his achievement was his Yiddish itself. For many of his fellow writers, the challenge lay in fashioning a unitary literary idiom out of the language’s chaotic heterogeneity. Sholem Aleichem reveled in the chaos, leveraging it to characterize and differentiate his figures in a multitude of ways. He captured how the language was evolving as its speakers’ lives were convulsed by change; the diversity of Yiddish was chronological as well as geographic. He also adjusted the proportions of German or Slavic to reflect his characters’ backgrounds and attitudes. Yiddish is a language that’s persistently aware of being composed of other languages—and one of them is God’s. The play of liturgical and scriptural allusion and quotation, especially in contrast to the ground bass of Yiddish vernacular—“holy tongue” against “mother tongue”—is crucial to the way that Sholem Aleichem evokes the texture of his characters’ consciousness as Jews.

Tevye is Job with a punch line, a Kafka who has yet to lose his faith.

There is also his taste for the typical. Unlike other modernists, he eschewed the extremes of experience. His characters, while marvelously individuated, are always “one of those people”: who get above themselves, or run away from their own shadow, or are forever being tricked—tailors, teachers, petty merchants, little men. But his greatest character may be Sholem Aleichem, the author not only of the stories but, so often, in them. He is the listener, the interlocutor, the receptacle for other people’s tales. (It is he, for example, whom Tevye regales with his troubles.) Sholem Aleichem uses the devices of metafiction, the modernist repertoire of frames and masks, not to distance but to draw us closer, not to hide but greet. He was with the Jews of Russia every step of the historical way. The Tevye stories—nine all told from 1894 to 1916—unfold in real time. Tevye gets older; Sholem Aleichem gets older. The Pale undergoes, in the person of a common man, its cycles of hope and despair. Sholem Aleichem visits New York in 1906, and within a year he’s given birth to the second-most-beloved figure in his canon, an orphaned boy named Motl who will journey, in his eponymous novel, with his extended family and all his senses, from the shtetl to America—another instance of his creator’s extraordinary ability to perceive and give form to collective experience.

Motl comes from Kasrilevke, Sholem Aleichem’s Yoknapatawpha, the composite shtetl of his imagination. It isn’t Fiddler’s Anatevka. There’s not a lot of singing. The dominant note in Sholem Aleichem’s depiction of Eastern European Jewry is not modernization, or persecution, or even religion; it is poverty. And not the picturesque variety, either:

In Kasrilevke, there are experienced authorities on the subject of hunger, one might even say specialists. On the darkest night, simply by hearing your voice, they can tell if you are simply hungry and would like a bite to eat, or if you are really starving.

Poverty is not conducive to the virtues. In Kasrilevke there is envy, and spite, and hatred of the rich. There is strife, and theft, and every kind of domestic upheaval. In other words, there’s human nature.

But, above all, there are dreams.

A few householders, dreading bedbugs, had dragged their yellow bedclothes outside and were snoring away, dreaming sweet dreams: dreams of good profits at the fair, of large incomes, of profitable little shops, dreams of a bit of bed, of honorable income, or of honor itself. All sorts of dreams.

Sholem Aleichem’s favorite figure is the schlimazel, the dupe of chance and other men. Confined to his little world, mired in “the famous Kasrilevke mud,” the schlimazel dreams of dignity and fortune. Comes the railroad and the stock market, the legends of Rothschild and the rumors of Odessa, and he takes the fatal step of trying to enact those dreams, out in the uncharted realms of the new speculative economy. Third in Sholem Aleichem’s pantheon is a sap called Menachem-Mendel, hero of his own eponymous volume, forever managing to float his schemes just long enough for them to burst. At the other end of his letters (his stories are epistolary), back in Kasrilevke, waits the leaden reality of domestic life. Man and boy, Sholem Aleichem’s Jews aspire to the wider world, even, sometimes, to the world of the goyim—a bit of art, a bit of gelt, a bit of air, a bit of mental freedom—only to be remanded, sooner or later, into the custody of the cheder, the matchmaker, and the wife.

This is the Jewish humor that Sholem Aleichem exposed to the world—though surely he didn’t invent it, for so titanic a power, so instinctively possessed, can only be the product of a whole civilization. Its distinction, as is often said, consists in its being pointed at the self. Jewish humor arises in the gap between reality and dreams, reality and justice. It is a genuinely national phenomenon, for Jewish history is itself a kind of grim jest, an ironic drama of unending dispossession set against the notion of divine election. (“My Lord, my Lord!” goes the line in Woody Allen. “What hast thou done, lately?”) The purpose of Jewish humor is to give yourself some distance from your hopeless situation. By staking out a new rhetorical position, you triumph over the butt of the joke. It doesn’t matter, while you’re laughing, that the butt is you.

Yet usually, in Sholem Aleichem, it’s only the readers who get the point. By a myriad of means—he is a master ironist—he tells us what his heroes can’t allow themselves to know. Tevye’s greatness lies in being the exception. He’s a schlimazel who provides a running commentary on his own schlimazelhood. (“Not counting suppers, my wife and kids went hungry three times a day.”) He is Job with a punch line, a Kafka who has yet to lose his faith. Coming from Fiddler, you’re struck, above all, by his solitude. There is no shtetl here; Anatevka is merely the name of a place where some of the characters live. Tevye is one of those rural Jews, living in a tiny village out among the Gentiles. As he trundles through the forest on his rounds, leaving his daughters to their fateful devices, his only interlocutor is God. Tevye is famous—in the stories as well—for his compulsive need to quote the holy texts. (“You Bible a person half to death,” his wife rebukes him during yet another filial crisis, “and think you’ve solved the problem.”) But quotation is only the half of it. Like all Talmudic sages, Tevye shows his genius in the commentary: the Yiddish paraphrases or retorts that he invariably adds. (“ ‘The dead do not praise God’—and why should they?”) He doesn’t talk to the Lord. In his people’s grand tradition, he talks back to him. He exemplifies the reason his creator ends up giving for remaining a Jew: it’s better than being alone.

How many of Sholem Aleichem’s people would indeed remain Jews was an open question. The writer—who wasn’t observant, spoke Russian at home, and gave his children names like Emma and Misha, not Motl or Hodel or Tzeitel—was deeply ambivalent about the prospect of assimilation. In 1911, late in his career—a time, says Dauber, by which he’d come to feel the shtetl world was disappearing—he published a collection called The Railroad Stories (available with Tevye the Dairyman in a single English volume by Sholem Aleichem’s finest translator, Hillel Halkin). These are tales of Jews in motion, merchants being shunted, third-class, around the Pale, and they feature a kind of figure we might call the man-on-the-train.

The man-on-the-train, by and large, is no longer a schlimazel. He’s a Jew who is making modernity work. He’s a wise guy, an angle-player, maybe even a bit of an operator. He’s headed for Kiev, or just got back from Buenos Aires. He’s scamming the insurance company, or fleecing fellow passengers at cards. But he’s no longer sure, completely, who he is. In “On Account of a Hat,” a real-estate broker, waking from a nap in a station, accidentally grabs the cap of his bench mate, a Russian official. He had wanted to be treated like his neighbor (“It’s not such a bad life to be a Gentile”), and now he is. But as the conductor leads him to the first-class car (“This way please, Your Excellency!”), he cannot figure out what’s going on. He catches a glimpse of himself in a mirror—and thinks that he’s still in the station, dreaming. He has managed to assimilate, and now he cannot recognize himself.

In “Cnards,” another late story, the process comes full circle. Apostasy has invaded the town itself. All the young men are addicted to cards, figured as a kind of anti-orthodoxy. They play around the clock in a house they call the Chapel, smoking on the Sabbath, eating pork, and reading secular books. One day, they are visited by a pair of men in full Hasidic regalia, ostensibly collecting money for yeshivas. What are those strange cardboard squares?, the two want to know. (Cnards is their best attempt to render the reply.) They sit down at the table and proceed, it hardly need be said, to clean the locals out. Our final sight of them is on their way out of town on the train, clean-shaven and fashionably dressed, thumbing their noses at their victims. Now it’s not modernity that is the dress-up game; it is tradition. Just like when they put on Fiddler.