The Worlds of Sholem Aleichem: The Remarkable Life and Afterlife of the Man Who Created Tevye

The Worlds of Sholem Aleichem: The Remarkable Life and Afterlife of the Man Who Created Tevye

by Jeremy Dauber


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Part of the Jewish Encounters series

The first comprehensive biography of one of the most beloved authors of all time: the creator of Tevye the Dairyman, the collection of stories that inspired Fiddler on the Roof.
Novelist, playwright, journalist, essayist, and editor, Sholem Aleichem was one of the founding giants of modern Yiddish literature. The creator of a pantheon of characters who have been immortalized in books and plays, he provided readers throughout the world with a fascinating window into the world of Eastern European Jews as they began to confront the forces of cultural, political, and religious modernity that tore through the Russian Empire in the final decades of the nineteenth century.
But just as compelling as the fictional lives of Tevye, Golde, Menakhem-Mendl, and Motl was Sholem Aleichem’s own life story. Born Sholem Rabinovich in Ukraine in 1859, he endured an impoverished childhood, married into fabulous wealth, and then lost it all through bad luck and worse business sense. Turning to his pen to support himself, he switched from writing in Russian and Hebrew to Yiddish, in order to create a living body of literature for the Jewish masses. He enjoyed spectacular success as both a writer and a performer of his work throughout Europe and the United States, and his death in 1916 was front-page news around the world; a New York Times editorial mourned the loss of “the Jewish Mark Twain.” But  his greatest fame lay ahead of him, as the English-speaking world began to discover his work in translation and to introduce his characters to an audience that would extend beyond his wildest dreams. In Jeremy Dauber’s magnificent biography, we encounter a Sholem Aleichem for the ages.

(With 16 pages of black-and-white illustrations)

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780805242782
Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date: 10/08/2013
Pages: 464
Sales rank: 350,840
Product dimensions: 6.40(w) x 8.74(h) x 1.21(d)

About the Author

JEREMY DAUBER is a professor of Yiddish literature at Columbia University, where he also serves as director of its Institute for Israel and Jewish Studies and teaches in the American Studies program. His previous books include In the Demon’s Bedroom: Yiddish Literature and the Early Modern and Antonio’s Devils: Writers of the Jewish Enlightenment and the Birth of Modern Hebrew and Yiddish Literature. He lives in New York City.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter 1
In Which We Begin Near the Very End

The Bronx, late 1915.
Late at night, the man the world knows as Sholem Aleichem wanders the streets, remembering. He is fifty-six but, to our eyes, looks older: almost seven years of battling tuberculosis has taken its toll, and though he has had periods of good health, he has gotten sicker and sicker while in New York. The noise and chaos of the city have never agreed with him; he has never quite managed to find his footing in its booming Yiddish literary and cultural life—not now, and not when he was last here, almost a decade ago. He misses the warmth of the Italian Riviera; he misses his friends from Russia, separated not only by distance, but by war (the United States has yet to commence hostilities, but he has seen trainloads of refugees and sailed through mine-infested waters; he is well aware of the Great War). A still greater personal tragedy, the death of his oldest son, has just devastated the family, and he has recently composed his will.
Always an insomniac by nature, given to writing late into the night, he leaves his apartment at 968 Kelly Street, right off Westchester Avenue and a block from the 163rd Street subway stop, and walks the neighborhood, a little like his beloved Dickens used to do, spending his time in the past, trying to recall his life’s details for his autobiography.
From near the very beginning, he had known his life would make good copy. Twenty years earlier, he’d told his good friend, fellow writer, and sometime competitor Mordkhe Spektor that he would write a lengthy account of his first twenty years; “a man’s life [is] the finest novel,” he wrote him, “and mine is rich with episodes, characters and types.” But life—that rich, varied life—had gotten in the way, and he had put off recording it until 1908, when a grave illness provided him, as he put it, “the privilege of meeting his majesty, the Angel of Death, face to face.” Writing an autobiography and making a will were almost the same thing, he once said, and though he composed a few chapters on his sickbed in Italy, he pushed it off as his health improved, preferring, as he so often did, to concentrate on looking forward rather than back. He wrote a critic four years later that he felt so young, so vital, that he would never finish an autobiographical account; there would always be more to the story.
But other factors intervened, which we’ll return to in their proper time, and in three short but eventful years that vitality had waned: the work once titled Step by Step, with its sense of movement, energy, forward progress, was being serialized in the Yiddish press under the title From the Fair. Explaining the choice of name, especially the preposition, he wrote: “A man heading for a fair is full of hope. He has no idea what bargains he will find and what he will accomplish . . . don’t bother him, he has no time. But on the way back he knows what deals he has made and what he has accomplished. He’s no longer in a hurry . . . He can assess the results of his venture.”
Though he was still writing, he had, in his mind, already left the fair behind.

Table of Contents

Overture: In Which We Set the Stage
Act I. The Youth
1. In Which We Begin Near the Very End (1915–1859)
2. In Which Our Hero Is Born, Spends His Early Years, and Faces Personal Tragedy (1859–1872)
3. In Which Our Hero Gets—and Gives—an Education (1872–1877)
4. In Which Our Hero Suffers the Ecstasies and Agonies of Love (1877–1880)
5. In Which Our Hero Finds the Two Loves of His Life (1881–1884)
Act II. The Man of Business
6. In Which Our Hero Gains a Fortune, and an Enemy (1884–1887)
7. In Which Our Hero Publishes a Trial, and Endures the Trials of Publishing (1888)
8. In Which Our Hero, Writing About an Artist, Becomes One (1888)
9. In Which Our Hero Loves His People, Mourns His Father, and Dreams of Zion (1888–1890)
10. In Which Our Hero Loses His Fortune and Gains His First Great Character (1890–1894)
11. In Which Our Hero Meets a Dairyman (1894)
Act III. The Spokesman
12. In Which Our Hero Returns to Zion and Other Old Preoccupations (1895–1899)
13. In Which Our Hero Reads the Newspapers in Yiddish and
Becomes a Media Star (1899–1903)
14. In Which Our Hero Spends the Holidays with Us, Visits a Town He Has Created, and Fails to Get a Word in Edgewise
15. In Which Our Hero Confronts Pogroms and Politics
16. In Which Our Hero Gets Caught Up in Someone Else’s Solution (1902–1905)
17. In Which Our Hero Suffers a Revolution and Makes a Decision (1905)
Act IV. The Wanderer
18. In Which Our Hero Takes Longer Than He Thought (1905–1906)
19. In Which Our Hero Enters, and Exits, a New Stage (1906–1907)
20. In Which Our Hero Has Joyous Meetings and Tragic Partings, and Seeks a Buried Treasure (1907–1908)
21. In Which Our Hero Falls Ill (1908)
22. In Which Our Hero Rides the Rails, and Returns to the Stage (1909)
23. In Which Our Hero Looks Backward (1909–1911)
24. In Which Our Hero Fights Back Against Libels of a Frivolous and Tragic Nature, and Encounters His Alternate Selves (1911–1913)
25. In Which Our Hero Adapts (1913–1914)
Act V. The Old Man
26. In Which Our Hero Sees War and Warsaw (1914)
27. In Which Our Hero Makes His Farewells to His Vanished World, and Feels the Pain of Children (1914–1916)
28. In Which Our Hero’s Story Comes to an End, and a Beginning (1915–1916)
Epilogue: An Afterlife in Ten Scenes
Scene 1. New York/Washington, 1916
Scene 2. New York/London, 1912–1922
Scene 3. The Soviet Union, 1921–1929
Scene 4. New York, 1917–1939
Scene 5. Vilna, 1942
Scene 6. New York, 1943
Scene 7. New York, 1949–1959
Scene 8. New York, 1962–1964
Scene 9. Everywhere, 1964–2005
Scene 10. The Cloud, 2013
Bibliographical Notes

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The Worlds of Sholem Aleichem: The Remarkable Life and Afterlife of the Man Who Created Tevye 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
4bb More than 1 year ago
This book, written with intelligence, verve, and a deep knowledge of the man and his time, captivates the reader from its first sentence. Jeremy Dauber gives us not only the biography of this remarkable man,Sholem Aleichem,but also a picture of the world into which he was born and an understanding of how that world changed during his lifetime. I recommend this book to everyone, whether or not they have had any previous acquaintance with the works of Sholem Aleichem. It is a gem.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Jeremy Dauber has brought Sholem Aleichem to life! He has combined a fresh biography of Sholem Aleichem with an astute evaluation of his contribution to Jewish literature and drama and to world literature and drama.