Columbia Professor Explores the Life and Afterlife of Tevye’s Creator, Sholem Aleichem

When the writer Sholem Alecheim died in 1916, his funeral was one of the largest public gatherings ever seen in New York City. As many as 200,000 people lined the streets of the Bronx, Manhattan and Queens to watch his funeral cortege pass by. A memorial service was held in Carnegie Hall the next day, where Sholem Aleichem was lionized as “the Jewish Mark Twain.”

Eve Glasberg
Photo courtesy of YIVO Institute
December 04, 2013

Given that he was one of the founding giants of modern Yiddish literature, it is surprising that Sholem Aleicheim has never been the subject of a comprehensive English-language biography until now. Enter Jeremy Dauber, the Atran Professor of Yiddish Language, Literature and Culture and director of Columbia’s Institute for Israel and Jewish Studies, whose book "The Worlds of Sholem Aleichem: The Remarkable Life and Afterlife of the Man Who Created Tevye," was published in October.

Indeed, today Sholem Aleichem is known primarily for "Tevye’s Daughters," a collection of short stories that inspired the Broadway musical "Fiddler on the Roof," the creation of which is also the subject of a new book by Journalism School professor Alisa Solomon. But that’s a fraction of his prodigious literary output of plays, novels and short stories, which captured the tragicomic complexities of Jewish life on both a personal, gut-wrenching level and as played out on the world stage as Eastern European Jews confronted the forces of cultural, political and religious modernity that swept through the Russian empire in the late 19th century.

Unlike his most famous character, the iconic milkman from a Russian shtetl, Sholem Aleichem “was a true intellectual sophisticate who lived a rich cultural, complex life,” said Dauber. “Aleichem’s own life story is as compelling as that of any of his characters.”

Even his choice of names was imaginative. Born Sholem Rabinovich in the Ukraine in 1859, he took the name Sholem Aleichem—a Hebrew greeting meaning “peace be to you.” He survived cycles of wealth and poverty, tuberculosis, a pogrom and, ultimately, exile. He began writing in Yiddish in 1883, and stories continued to pour out of him until his death at age 57, shortly after emigrating to New York. Befitting a writer, Sholem Aleichem wrote his own epitaph, which included a request that no monuments be erected in his memory, because he preferred his writings to be his only monument.

In teaching courses in American Studies, Dauber says, “I could see that Sholem Aleichem presented an opportunity for me to view him through the lens of how his Yiddish life became an American afterlife, how his literary legacy also became the story of how Eastern European Jewish life was remembered in America in the 20th and 21st centuries.”

Dauber, the product of a modern Orthodox upbringing, first encountered Yiddish during a summer college internship at the National Yiddish Book Center in Amherst, Mass. He studied Yiddish literature at Harvard under legendary professor Ruth Wisse and then at Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar.

He arrived in 2000 at Columbia, which has the oldest Yiddish studies program in the United States, begun in 1952. Since then, Dauber has taught classes ranging from Yiddish and Russian literature to a Yiddish studies seminar on the Singer family – Isaac Bashevis as well as his brother, Israel Joshua, and sister, Esther Kreitman, all accomplished writers. He’s also taught classes on humor in Jewish literature from the Bible through Seinfeld and Columbia’s first course on the American graphic novel, which he co-teaches with Paul Levitz, the former publisher of DC Comics.

“Columbia’s location in New York City makes it the natural place to study the history of one of the most fertile cultural media of the last century,” Dauber says, referring to comics, “as well as the story of the American Jewish writers, artists and readers who made that media’s success possible.”

In his next book, Dauber probes yet another facet of Jewish humor. Over the centuries, philosophers such as Socrates, Plato and Schopenhauer and, later, Jews like Henri Bergson and Sigmund Freud, have tried to answer ancient questions such as: Why do people laugh? What is comedy? “When you put the theories next to the Jewish jokes over the course of literary history, you find some very interesting continuities and discontinuities,” he said. Dauber will compare their theories with examples of Jewish humor through the ages, including the long line of American Jewish comedians: Mel Brooks, Sid Caesar, Woody Allen and their heirs, Judd Apatow, Seth Rogen and Andy Samberg.

They all “express classic Jewish themes of alienation and outsiderdom,” he said. “And, of course, Jon Stewart, who, like Sholem Aleichem, has a sense of his own critical, satirical passion that comes out of a love for his community. In the end, what all of these guys seem to be saying is, ‘I can’t believe what I’m seeing!’ You have to laugh because otherwise you’d tear your hair out.”