Sholem-Aleichem

All blessings are mixed blessings, as every Jew knows. The Enlightenment, modernism, and technology brought us liberation and fascism as well. The trains that transported us out of the shtetls later transported us into the camps, so though you might argue with the wise men of Kasrilevke…it’s easy to understand why they concluded: we were better off without the train. The refugees of Holeneshti who haven’t perished in the storm in pogroms and anti-Semitic purges, will wander forth, displaced, liberated by the catastrophe of change, shtetl dwellers becoming ghetto dwellers becoming artists, cosmopolitans, socialists, or Zionists, or frequently both. Once free, free to wander; once wandering, longing for home. The exilic dialectic spins on.
—  Tony Kushner, Forward to Sholem Aleichem’s Wandering Stars
If I Were A Rich Man
Original Cast Recording
If I Were A Rich Man

365 Showtunes DAY 49FIDDLER ON THE ROOF - If I Were a Rich Man

So today’s another birthday, but it’s a little more of a roundabout reason. Today, in 1859, is the birthday of Sholem Aleichem (at least, according to Old Style dates - if you look at New Style, his birthday is actually March 2nd). Regardless of which date, Sholem Aleichem wrote a collection of stories about Tevye the Dairyman, which eventually became the musical Fiddler on the Roof. So to celebrate Sholem Aleichem’s birthday - whether you want to celebrate it today or on March 2nd - here’s a song!

Bluff and humbug - these authentic American notions are not easily translated into another language. Bluffing is not just telling a fat lie, or lying just to tell a lie, or making up a tall tale, or telling something that could never be. No, America hates that. The American is too smart, too much of a businessman, to offer something so crude. No, when the American cocks his hat to the side, hooks both thumbs in his vest, and offers you a lie, it is smooth and cleverly plausible - and, most important, it pertains to the business at hand.
—  Sholem Aleichem, Wandering Stars (transl. by Aliza Shevrin)
Behind the creation of a masterpiece lies a history of aesthetic experimentation, innovation, and refinement built upon antecedence, tradition, and heritage, and this history and its apotheosis constitutes a meaning apart from the work’s expressive content. For instance, when a perfect novel irresistibly and entirely enfolds its audience within its stratagems and its artificial cosmos, it may describe fragmentation, devastation, entropy, and collapse (the perfect expression of the imperfect being one of art’s essential subjects); but in the mastery of form required to create it, the world also describes wholeness, completion, and community.
—  Tony Kushner, “Forward” to Sholem Aleichem’s Wandering Stars
#StoriesMW from Exhibit Interns Tirza, Ryan, and Jillie!

Who is the man behind the character behind “Fiddler on the Roof”? 

One of the most beloved Jewish stories is based on a series of works about Tevye the Dairyman by Sholem Aleichem.  Born 1859 in Ukraine, Sholem Rabinovitch eventually immigrated to New York and became one of the most prominent Jewish authors known for his unruly and whimsical commentary on late 19th century Jewish life. Aleichem embraced the energy of the Yiddish language and in 1894 created the feisty and loveable Tevye that we all know and love today.

Sholem Aleichem, JMM 1974.9.1

Playbill for “Fiddler on the Roof” with Zero Mostel presented by Harold Prince at the National Theatre, Washington, D.C, September 2, 1964. JMM 1990.103.25

Amalia Blank playing the part of Tevye’s daughter in the play Tevye the Dairyman, with her partner in the Jewish theater in Dnepropetrovsk, Ukraine, 1938.

“My favorite part [of working at the Jewish theater] was the role of a girl in the play of the Jewish poet and playwright, Perets Markish, Feast. It was a tragedy, set in Ukraine in the 1910s, during pogroms. There is no need to retell the content of the play. I would only say that I played the part of the Jewish girl who was forced to dance before she was killed by pogrom-makers. The director of that play decided to invite a ballet master who would work with me on that dance. I objected saying that his guidance would be no good here and asked to be allowed to dance the part myself. I didn’t even rehearse that dance, I improvised on the stage, when the tragic music started playing. I was a leading actress of the theater and played mostly tragic parts. I was happy that I didn’t have to play comic roles. I felt happy that spectators would forget about their problems thanks to my work.” —Amalia Blank

Sholom Aleichem knew intuitively that the boundary between comedy and tragedy is always a thin and wavering line– and for Jews, often nonexistent. Almost all of his best comic stories hover on the edge of disaster. All exemplify the truth of Saul Bellow’s remark that in Jewish writing “laughter and trembling are so curiously intermingled that it is not easy to determine the relations of the two.” Reading Sholom Aleichem is like wandering through a lovely meadow of laughter and suddenly coming to a precipice of doom… Sholom Aleichem takes us by the hand, we are both shaking with laughter, and he leads us… “And would you like to hear the rest of the story?” asks one of his narrators. “The rest isn’t so nice.” Assuredly not.
—  Irving Howe on Sholom Aleichem
Every star is a person’s soul. Wherever the soul goes, the person goes. That’s why we imagine the stars are falling. But stars don’t fall - they wander
—  Sholem Aleichem, Wandering Stars
Listen
‘Jewish Mark Twain’ Shines In 'Wandering Stars’ by Robert Siegel

When Ukrainian-born writer Sholem Rabinovich died in New York City in 1916, throngs gathered in three boroughs to greet his funeral cortege. Rabinovich, who went by the pen name Sholem Aleichem (“peace be with you”), was a humorist and a champion of the Yiddish language — in the words of his New York Times obituary, a “Jewish Mark Twain.”

Most people today are familiar with Aleichem’s stories about Tevye the Dairyman, which were adapted into the Broadway musical Fiddler on the Roof. But while the musical tends to sentimentalize Aleichem’s version of life in the shtetls of Eastern Europe, the author’s original work is often more complex.

In honor of the 150th anniversary of the author’s birth, translator Aliza Shevrin has published Wandering Stars, a new translation of Blundzhende Shtern, Aleichem’s story of two lovers in the Yiddish theater as they wander around Eastern Europe, London’s East End and Manhattan. Playwright Tony Kushner, who writes an introduction to the translation, says that readers may be surprised by the novel’s edginess.

“When you read Wandering Stars you’ll be shocked if you haven’t seen … before how violent the emotions are, how full of rage the comedy is,” says Kushner. “You can discern underneath that anger how much suffering there was, how much injustice and difficulty and loss there was in the lives of these people. … Comedy was very much a way of channeling that and surviving the difficulty of living.”

The decline of Yiddish has bathed Wandering Stars in the glow of nostalgia, but when Aleichem wrote the novel, it wasn’t about a culture that used to be; for him, the Yiddish world was alive — warts and all. And the Yiddish theater, says Aleichem’s granddaughter Bel Kaufman, was one one of her grandfather’s passions.

“He loved the theater,” says 97-year old Kaufman. “He used to say, 'If I was not a writer, I certainly would have been an actor.’ He used to read his stories to standing ovations.”

Kaufman says her grandfather would have been pleased to know that his work would be translated into English and performed in the U.S. — though, she adds, the musical doesn’t offer the most authentic representation of Grandfather’s worldview. “Sholem Aleichem hated the rich,” Kaufman says. “And here Tevye’s singing 'If I were a rich man.’ ”

Kaufman is the author of the 1965 novel Up the Down Staircase. She remembers her grandfather’s smile, his voice and the way he used to speak to her in Russian.

“When I was very little and we walked together, he told me that I helped him write. How? By holding on tightly to his hand. He told me the tighter I held his hand, the better he wrote,” Kaufman says.

Kaufman adds that her grandfather was a very successful writer — but not a commercially successful one.

“He had inherited a lot of money from his wife’s father and he lost it gambling on grain and sugar on the market. In fact, his stories of Menahem-Mendl, the Luftmensch, the man who is always running after a dollar and never quite making it, is very much like like [Aleichem’s] life,” she says.