Sholem-Aleichem

If I Were A Rich Man
  • If I Were A Rich Man
  • Original Cast Recording
  • Fiddler on the Roof [1964 OBC]
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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!

I skivved off my gym plans to see this last night; it was a bit like a 1.5 hr refresher for last years seminar on the shtetl, but with a lot more contemporary photographs and portraits and snippets from Sholem Aleichem’s work that i haven’t read. Having gone my whole life without watching Fiddler on the Roof [1] it wasn’t til watching this movie that I finally learned that Gwen Stefani was riffing off Fiddler On The Roof with Rich Girl.

But Sholem Aleichem! I’m so interested in what he did for Yiddish, I wish that there had been more of a discussion of language in the movie. He seems to have done for Yiddish what Pushkin did for Russian, except the timing was inevitably off. Russian literary language after Pushkin thrived, Yiddish literature died. [1] I was more into musicals with pretty girls, fancy dresses, illicit romance and torment and heartbreak. Camelot, West Side Story, My Fair Lady (dresses! Audrey Hepburn!).

And SPEAKING of illicit romance, before Sholem Aleichem there was a preview for Young Goethe in Love. Are you kidding? Costume drama, heaving bosoms, illicit romance with redheads, Romantic antics? I die. Totally sold. I would like to see it with Fuck Yeah Femmes if at all possible, and then confer.

(eta, I am writing this over lake Tahoe on my way to late Eat Read Love birthday celebration in palm springs. Expect pictures of poolside reading–both me and the Man. Excited!)

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Sholem Aleichem: Laughing in the Darkness (2011)

Bel Kaufman, Sholem Aleichem’s granddaughter, relates a story from Aleichem’s childhood in Joseph Dorman’s wonderful documentary Sholem Aleichem: Living in the Darkness, featuring some great people like Hillel Halkin and Ruth Wisse. Fantastic.

Sholem Aleichem's Grave

Do ligt a yid, a posheter,
Geshribn yidish-taytsh far vayber,
Un farn prostn folk hot erGeven
a humorist a shrayber.
Dos gantse lebn oysgelakht,
Geshlogn mit der velt kapores.

Di gantse velt hot gut gemakht,
Un er-oy vey-geven af tsores!
Engendering Audiences
Un davke demolt, ven der oylem hot
Gelakht, geklatsht un fleg zikh freyen,
Hot er gekrenkt-dos veyst nor gotBesod,
az keyner wl nit zen.

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Here lies a simple Jew,
who wrote yidish-taytsh for women,
and for the common peoplehe
was a humorist-writer.
He ridiculed all of life,
reviled the world.


The whole world made out very well,
and he-alas-had troubles.
And precisely when his audience
was laughing, applauding, and having a good time,
he was ailing-only God knows this-
In secret, so no one would see.

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