Ruth R. Wisse: A Mensch for All Seasons

Source: WSJ, 6-23-09

“Now let’s talk about something more cheerful. What’s up with the cholera epidemic in Odessa?”

This season marks 150 years since the birth of Sholem Aleichem, whose appeal to “something more cheerful” made him the most popular Yiddish writer at a time when more Jews spoke Yiddish than any other language. Known to modern audiences mostly through “Fiddler on the Roof” — the Americanized musical adaptation of his stories of Tevye the Dairyman — Sholem Aleichem cast the Jews as a people who would live through laughter — or die trying.

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Sholem Aleichem

He was born Sholem Rabinovitch in 1859 in the Ukrainian Jewish town of Pereyaslav, a middle child of a large family that doubled in size after his mother died and his father married the proverbial wicked stepmother. His first stab at turning hurt into humor was an alphabetized collection of her curses. Recognizing young Sholem’s talents, his father tried to give him a good general as well as a Jewish education. But he was forced to send his son out into the world at age 16 to seek his fortune. With penmanship as his only marketable skill, the young man got a lucky break when he was hired by a Jewish landowner looking for both a personal secretary and a tutor for his only daughter.

Sholem’s storybook romance with his student, Olga, in defiance of her father’s wishes, became the plot of his first attempt at romantic fiction. The fictionalized pair committed suicide, but the real-life couple married, had children, were soon reconciled with Olga’s family and inherited part of her father’s wealth. His new economic status allowed Sholem to live in Kiev, outside the Pale of Settlement to which most Jews in czarist Russia were confined, and to pursue the career of a writer. He speculated in the market and used his earnings to subsidize a Jewish literary renaissance in which he intended to play a leading role. But it is his subsequent failure in the financial arena that may have spurred his success in the world of letters.

By the time the byline “Sholem Aleichem” appeared in 1883, Fyodor Dostoevsky had published “The Brothers Karamazov,” Leo Tolstoy had serialized “Anna Karenina” and Ivan Turgenev had died. Although the Jewish society of Eastern Europe was more literate than its Gentile counterparts, it valued the written word as the mainstay of a religious, not a literary, civilization. Jewish writers had to overcome that society’s resistance to secular writing and to encourage a taste for fiction.

Experimentation was the norm, including in language, since most Jewish writers of that generation could and did compose in Hebrew, Yiddish and sometimes Russian. Sholem corresponded with his father in Hebrew and spoke Russian to his children.

In this polyglot, unstable and government-censored literature, pseudonyms were also the norm. Once Sholem moved decisively from Hebrew to Yiddish and began to develop his brand of literary humor, he morphed his proper name into a common term of greeting, the equivalent of “Hello there” or “How do you do?”

“Sholem Aleichem,” the phrase that welcomes angels into the home on Sabbath eve or salutes an old friend on the street, suggested that this was a writer for all occasions: one who drew so freely on Yiddish folk expressions that his writing would be called “the living essence of the folk itself.” In imitation of his art, many Jews began sounding like the monologists of his fiction.

Sholem Aleichem proved best at creating characters who spoke in their own voices — an anxious mother, a harried marketwoman, grown-ups revisiting their childhood, a bereaved parent, a pimp returning from Buenos Aires to find himself a home-town wife. His fiction seemed to hold together a people that was undergoing unnerving change, forever on the road, or moving to America. One of them, Menahem-Mendl, gone to the big city to seek his fortune, trades letters with Sheyne-Sheyndl, his homebound wife who refers to his failed get-rich schemes as “tales of the deaf man hearing the dumb man tell of the blind man seeing the cripple run.” Their epistolary exchanges encapsulate the tensions between small town and big city, tradition and modernity. Some critics saw Menahem-Mendl as a parody of capitalism, others found in him the irrepressible messianic hope of the Jewish people.

Other variations of resiliency abound in Sholem Aleichem’s work. Tevye the Dairyman was the first Jewish stand-up comic, entertaining the narrator with episodes from his life: The tag-line about cholera is his, as is a running commentary on the daily prayers, “Heal our wounds and make us whole — please concentrate on the healing because the wounds we already have. . . . ” Though Tevye is an isolated villager, the challenges he faces were so typical of those confronting the rest of Russian Jewry that he was taken for a Jewish Everyman. Tevye is powerless to stop his daughters from making their own decisions independently of his wishes, or the czar from driving him off his property, yet his humor persuades us that he can outlaugh his crises and outlast his critics.

Sholem Aleichem discovered in Yiddish and its speakers habits of faith that were transferable from religious into national identity. True, Tevye does not realize his dream of returning to the ancestral Land of Israel, but he and Sholem Aleichem form a place of milk (his dairy business) and honey (his humor).

Several commemorative projects now in the works — a documentary by the filmmaker Joseph Dorman and a literary biography by Jeremy Dauber — will reintroduce Sholem Aleichem to contemporary readers. Once classified as a humorist, he may have done more than any other modern thinker to shape the image of Jews. Thanks to him, there are those who think Yiddish is a comic language and expect Jews to die laughing.

Ms. Wisse is a professor of Yiddish and comparative literature at Harvard.

Printed in The Wall Street Journal, page D7

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