Sholem Aleichem was born Sholem Naumovich Rabinovich to a Hasidic family in 1859, in what is known today as Pereyaslav Khmelnitsky. Growing up in the nearby shtetl of Voronko, life under the Russian monarchy was one of social and political upheaval. Despite this, his childhood was one suffused with happy-go-lucky experiences of village life, with both settings proving to have a huge impact on the aspiring young playwright later in life.
Peace Be With You
Sholem’s life from a young age was not an easy one: his father was a rich timber merchant at the time of his birth, however, a failed business affair would see the family reduced to poverty. Hoping to overcome their reduced circumstances, the family moved to Pereyaslav Khmelnitsky when Sholem was 13, where his mother died in a cholera epidemic.
He was quick to dive into writing, however, putting together a glossary of epithets as his first writing assignment. Not long after, at the age of just 15, he produced a Jewish version of Robinson Crusoe, which was also, incidentally, when he adopted his pen name Sholem Aleichem – the Jewish variant of the Hebrew expression “peace be with you”.
Graduation from school in 1876 turned into a job tutoring the daughter of a wealthy landowner for three years, which saw Sholem asking for Olga Loyev’s hand in marriage. Against the wishes of her father, they married on 12 May 1883. It was a UNI0N that would produce six children.
This, however, was subsequent to Sholem first making a name for himself as a writer. According to various sources, his father was quite an advocate of secular trends and encouraged him to read and learn Russian, which came in handy later on when he worked as a reporter for an Odesa newspaper, a Russian Jewish periodical in St Petersburg called Voskhod and was called upon to edit various texts by well-known writers Lev Tolstoy and Anton Chekov.
From Rags To Riches And Back Again
It was around this time Sholem stumbled upon an edition of the only Yiddish periodical in Russia at the time – Yudishes Folks-blat. Believing the Yiddish language to be one in great demand, he put pen to paper and soon had his first Yiddish novella in hand, one that fictionalised his romance with Olga, called Tsvey Shteyner (Two Gravestones).
Moving to Bila Tserkva the year he and Olga married, Sholem worked for a sugar magnate, completing his first full-length novel Natashe shortly thereafter. Just two years later, with the death of his father-in-law and Sholem the sole trustee of the estate, the young writer was to become a relatively rich man. A move to Kyiv was imminent. His hobby of dabbling in the stock market would soon prove costly, however, and by 1890 he was bankrupt. Abandoning their apartment in Kyiv, the family headed for Odesa – their new life was not the one of bourgeoisie luxuries to which they had become accustomed.
The Great Yehupets
These next few years took their toll. However, having helped elevate Yiddish into a literary language (an interesting ambition as he did not speak Yiddish: with his family he spoke Russian or Ukrainian and admired the works or various Russian writers, such as Ivan Turgenev), Sholem continued producing characters his readers loved. One of those was Tevye – a milkman supplying inhabitants of Boyre, a summer colony not far from the great “Yehupets” (Kyiv). By 1905, four of the nine stories to complete the Tevya series were written.
Finding it hard to continually come up with new ideas and stories, Sholem turned to the stage, hoping to open a Yiddish theatre in Odesa after the successful staging of one of his plays in Poland. As was the case with nearly any initiative at the time, the Russian authorities would not allow it; paranoid it would be used as a cover for revolutionary activity.
Pogroms in 1905 and the Russian Revolution signalled the exodus of Sholem and his family from Eastern Europe, with Olga and the children settling in Geneva, Switzerland. Sholem set sail for New York where he was greeted by the press as the “Jewish Mark Twain”. Unfortunately, his newfound celebrity status went to his head, and after two theatrical flops, he returned to Europe, making a living as a lecturer. He was very popular.
But it wasn’t to last: intent on making a name for himself in New York, the entire family, save two children – Misha, who was denied entrance into the US due to tuberculosis and his sister Emma who remained behind to care for him – relocated to Lower East Manhattan in 1914. Misha died one year later. Sholem too, having contracted the disease during a “book tour” through Eastern Europe years earlier, died on 13 May 1916 of tuberculosis and diabetes. But not before impressing upon the world his brilliance and the importance of Yiddish literature through his writings.
Sholem Aleichem Tidbits
· Upon hearing Sholem describe himself as “the Jewish Mark Twain”, Twain replied, “Please tell him I am the American Sholem Aleichem”
· The Broadway musical Fiddler on the Roof, based on Sholem’s Tevye the Milkman and Other Stories, opened in 1964 and was the longest-running musical theatre production for nearly 10 years
· Sholem had a mortal fear of the number 13. The number never appears in his manuscripts, numbering the page instead 12a. Ironically, he died on the 13th: his headstone carrying the date May 12a, 1916
· Sholem’s funeral was one of the largest at the time in the history of New York City with an estimated 100,000 in attendance
· One of Sholem’s sons, Norman Raeben became a painter and influential art teacher
· A monument to Sholem Aleichem was erected here in Kyiv in 1997
· A postage stamp and an anniversary coin bearing his face was issued in Ukraine in 2009 on the 150th anniversary of his birth.
by Lana Nicole