Sholem Aleichem on Stage and Screen

I came across this photo of Sholem Aleichem (Solomon Rabinovich, 1859-1916) months ago and held on to it ’til now because I was kind of awestruck by how contemporary he looks. It’s not just this photo, I’ve come across dozens of pictures of him that evince the same quality. Appearances are superficial, and yet it may be that he embodies something eternal that others have wished to emulate. I guarantee the vast majority of those who are even aware of the writer have no idea what he looked like. But I’m equally confident that a certain percentage of young artists, seeing this photo, would want to look precisely like this. When I was 19? Absolutely.

What also strikes me, however, is how unlike one’s expectations Sholem Aleichem’s appearance is. It’s silly and even stupid of me, I know, but I imagine I was picturing someone who looked more like his characters. He has been called the “Yiddish Mark Twain“, but Samuel Clemens actually wore a Mark Twain COSTUME. He wouldn’t have been a lesser writer if he hadn’t have done, but I am speaking of what I have come to expect as an American, which is ballyhoo. Sholem Aleichem wasn’t above show biz, in fact, like Twain, he even worked the lecture circuit, and he does have that catchy pen name, which means, “peace be upon you” (basically “how ya doin’?” but nicer.) But it would be a bridge too far to expect the man to go around dressed in a Russian peasant blouse and a Jaxon cap.

I feel like an interloper presuming to write about Sholem Aleichem here, having numerous friends who are scholars and interpreters of his writing (I just saw actor David Mandelbaum give a hilarious recital of one of his stories in a friend’s show at the New Yiddish Rep, only a week ago. More on that to follow). But I’m from a completely different culture — the Mark Twain culture, in fact. So I find myself self-conscious and fearful about getting things wrong. But then again there would be no hope for the world at all if people of different backgrounds couldn’t express appreciation for what they admire in one another. And lord knows, this won’t be as stink-o as those countless thousand well-meaning yet bumbling goyim productions of Fiddler on the Roof. Still, at least a portion of this post will likely be considered too elementary for most scholars, and probably most Jews.

While Yiddish has been around since the Middle Ages, it experienced a kind of Renaissance in the 19th century, which saw an explosion of Yiddish theatre, literature, and journalism. It essentially became the lingua franca of the diaspora among European Jewry, mixing elements of High German and Hebrew (and its offshoot Aramaic), with loanwords from the various localities where it was spoken, usually Slavic (Russian, Polish, etc). As a consequence of these multiple influences, Yiddish is endowed with incredible beauty, flexibility and utility. American English has been enriched by countless Yiddish borrowings injected by Jewish comedians, actors, and other public figures, who’ve resorted to their Mother tongue when they could find no equivalent in English. The language was at its peak in the early 20th century. Then half the people who spoke it were killed in the Holocaust. Afterwards, those who survived tended to adopt the majority languages of whatever countries they lived in (in the case of Israel, modern Hebrew).

Though he also wrote in Russian and Hebrew, Sholem Aleichem is considered one of the great masters of Yiddish, and certainly one of its principal modern advocates. Raised in a Ukrainian shtetl, he worked as a teacher and rabbi in his younger years before beginning to make a name for himself as a writer in the early 1880s. He wrote numerous stage plays, novels, memoirs, and above all, short stories about Tevye the Dairyman and his daughters and their lives in the shtetl. He was based in Kyiv for many years, until the pogroms of 1905 prompted him to move his family to Geneva, and finally to New York City, where he lived for only a few months before the TB he had been suffering from for years finally killed him.

Mercifully, he did not live to see the bloodiest years of the 20th century. His writing is a record of the time before that time of revolution, tyranny, and genocide. It is therefore without the existential grimness and despair that characterizes much post-war writing. It is not without sorrow, but it is also funny. In his will he asked that at his burial someone should read one of his “merrier” stories. One can see why there would be deep nostalgia for that kind of a Jewish voice in the wake of the Holocaust. In 1949 an English language translation of Tevye’s Daughters: Collected Stories of Sholem Aleichem, consisting of tales he had written between 1894-1914, was published. By now, many American Jews didn’t speak Yiddish any more, so this was a crucial juncture in the progress of the author’s popularity. And while there had been some earlier Yiddish stage and screen adaptations of the writings, a 1959 English language television production called The World of Sholem Aleichem raised awareness yet again. Written by Arnold Perl, this production boasted the unbelievable all star cast of Zero Mostel, Gertrude Berg, Morris Carnovsky, Sam Levene, Nancy Walker, Charlotte Rae, Lee Grant, and Jack Gilford! Even better news — it’s available to watch on Youtube!

In 1964 came the most widely known adaptation of Sholem Aleichem’s writings, the Broadway show Fiddler on the Roof. The original production featured Zero Mostel (in perhaps his greatest role, as Tevye), Beatrice Arthur, Austin Pendleton, and Burt Convy (yes! Burt Convy!). The 1971 movie version made the (I think) disastrous decision of replacing the magical Mostel with the relatively lackluster Topol, leaving a sort of hole at the center of what might have been a modern movie classic. Nevertheless, the screen version has no doubt reached millions more people than live productions of the musical ever could (as often as it is produced, and it is produced a lot). If you want a celebration of the show, the plot, the songs, go elsewhere! You’ll find that stuff on a thousand other web sites! Still better, watch the show! (I will use this paragraph however to boast that I got to meet the show’s lyricist Sheldon Harnick a couple of times. He is still with us, and going to be 100 years old next year. He still has a shot at living longer than Irving Berlin!)

Now…Broadway is a style, a popular style, which has its own aesthetic laws, and a certain way of reaching the masses. Inevitably as time went on, purists grew frustrated with a somewhat sanitized and simplified take on the writings of an author they revered. In 2018 my friends Allen Lewis Rickman, Yelena Shumlenson and Shane Baker present a show called Tevya Served Raw, an evening of adaptations taken directly from the Sholem Aleichem stories. National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene has also presented his work of course. In 2009 they produced Sholem Aleichem: Laughter Through TearsShpiel! Shpiel! Shpiel! In 2018 they had the biggest success in their history with a Yiddish version of Fiddler on the Roof, directed by none other than Joel Grey.

Yiddishkeit seems to be having a second Renaissance, which I wrote a little about here. That piece was five years ago though. A more recent manifestation is the 2020 movie An American Pickle. And in that spirit, and in light of the photo above, may I say that if Sholem Aleichem were to be preserved in a pickle barrel, awakened a century later only to find himself walking around contemporary Williamsburg (though ironically, the hipster parts, not the Hasidic ones), he might be the only person to notice anything strange.

For more on American show biz history, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous.