Professor Jeremy Dauber on Sholem Aleichem

Read more of Betty Rollin’s interview about Sholem Aleichem with Professor Jeremy Dauber, who teaches Yiddish literature at Columbia University:

Professor Jeremy Dauber

I’m writing a book about Sholem Aleichem, and I’m looking at these clips of “Fiddler on the Roof” on YouTube. We have “Fiddler on the Roof” in Hindi, and we have “Fiddler on the Roof” in Japanese, so clearly the stories that Sholem Aleichem told, even translated, have this universal appeal, and I think a lot of it has to do with the way his stories talk about the appeal of tradition and the struggle with maintaining tradition in a rapidly changing world. Sholem Aleichem’s world at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th was an incredible, transformative world—there were revolutions and there were wars and there was modernity—and we’re in one, too. These lessons of cultural transformation and maintaining tradition are ones we’re trying to find our own guide-lights to. We’re looking for an author who can show us what to hold on to as everything around us is in flux.

Sholem Aleichem was trying to figure out which traditions mattered. It wasn’t observance of the traditional ritual in which he and many of his readers grew up. Then what did it mean to have a Jewish identity and to have a specific ethnic-religious-cultural identity if you were going to change the way you dressed, the way you looked, what language you spoke in? What did that mean? For Sholem Aleichem it was hard to figure that out. He tried on all sorts of identities, whether it was a socialist identity that involved universal action, whether it was a Zionist identity, whether it was the identity of an Americanist—he came to America. But ultimately it seems there was a kind of sensibility that he clung to and maintained in all his works and maybe that was his answer—that tradition was talking about tradition and trying to figure one’s place in it, which I think is a very Jewish response.

There’s an old joke that these two individuals were engaged in an argument about their synagogue’s practice, whether to stand up or sit down at a particular moment. One said the tradition is we sit, the other said the tradition is we stand, and so they went to the oldest member of the synagogue, who was in a hospital bed, and said we’d like to ask you. One said I think it’s to sit. He said I don’t think that’s the tradition. And the other said I think it’s to stand, and he said I don’t think that’s the tradition either. Well, all we do is sit around and argue about whether we sit or stand. And he said, “That’s the tradition.” So I think for Sholem Aleichem, whose greatest character Tevye is a person who argues with God constantly about the disillusionments about life as opposed to the promises that were made, that argument is what maintains transformation of personal tragedy, of communal tragedy into comedy, which leads to strength. That is what is the continuity. He himself had a very complicated relationship to his own personal tradition and observance and familial tradition, but ultimately he was firmly moored in Jewish history and culture and thinking about and questioning that culture, and that’s what makes a very resonant writer for people who want the traditional grasp but aren’t willing to take it simply as it is.

I think all world literatures have one or two great writers who truly punch above their weight, who deserve to be admitted into the canon of the universally admired great writers, and Sholem Aleichem is that writer for Yiddish literature—perhaps Isaac Bashevis Singer as well, but Sholem Aleichem is undoubtedly of the first rank, and I think he is a remarkable writer on the category of language. He had a grasp of the multiple dialects and registers of a rapidly transforming Jewish community and played them like a virtuoso on the violin, which is the subject of one of his novels. He also had a mastery of theme and of moment. He was able to take what was going on in the world around him and to turn it into compelling literature that was not simply topical but also universal. So when you combine a linguistic master and someone who writes importantly, timely, and universally, you can’t ask for more than that.

He was what we would call a deeply committed, if not personally observant Jew. He certainly did not scrupulously maintain to all of the religious observances of the world in which he grew up, and his family didn’t either. But he was entirely comfortable with those practices, having grown up in that world, and knew them intimately and used them in his writing and cared very deeply about the people who did them. The earlier generations of modern Jewish writing were often populated by people who turned their back on these traditions. They broke away from them in the name of modernity and as a result had to take a really hostile position to them. Sholem Aleichem’s literary grandfather, Mendele the Book Peddler, was an example of someone who was more angry. Sholen Aleichem had a kind of fondness, even as he had the distance to observe, and that allowed, again, for this combination of engagement and distance that makes for the best observers and the best writers.

At the end of one of the Tevye stories, Tevye says to Sholem Aleichem, let’s talk about something cheerful: Have you hear the news about the latest cholera epidemic? It’s that kind of mordant humor that characterizes some of Sholem Aleichem’s great work. That idea of saying we have been the subject of so many tragedies, personal tragedies—there were a lot of personal tragedies in Sholem Aleichem’s life—national tragedies, or even universal, and yet if we are able to sit back and comment on them, that shows us that we have the strength to survive. By controlling it, by putting it into a box and talking about it, we can have mastery over it. Sholem Aleichem is often characterized as someone who achieves laughter through tears, and I think that’s not all he does, but that’s a lot of what he does, especially in his great works. “Motl the Cantor’s Son” has a chapter that says, “Hooray, I’m an orphan!” The idea is let’s learn how to control this, how to turn it into some sort of optimism.

I think the circumstances of Jews historically as an embattled minority have often created a kind of strength through the comedy of disempowerment: You think you are doing something terrible to me, but if I can laugh at you, then you haven’t really won, and there is some truth to that, and there’s some of that this is the best that one can do, and that knowledge is also in the comedy, saying we know laughing at you is perhaps a bitter substitute for being able to live comfortably and securely in peace and quiet, but  it’s what we have, as well as faith, and Sholem Aleichem was a great man of faith, and I don’t mean that in a traditional religious sense necessarily. Sholem Aleichem was someone who had been born into fairly well-off circumstances, and then had grinding poverty, and then married the daughter of one of the wealthiest Jews in Eastern Europe, and then lost his money in the stock market, and then became a successful and celebrated writer and then was forced to leave his circumstances and then found success and on and on and on. And so it’s not surprising that he writes stories of people who say the wheel has turned and things have been terrible again, but that means the wheel can turn one more time. And it’s not a surprise that America as an ideal offered such possibilities for Sholem Aleichem, even when it disappointed him in its details, because it was a place of reinvention, of transformation, and that spoke very deeply to what Sholem Aleichem thought was possible. It was a place of faith in that way.

I think he became popular because he was someone at the readership of his time who was reflecting on and making sense of all of the things that were going on in the world. It was a very hectic and chaotic time. There were wars, there were revolutions, there were new social movements. The traditional life of hundreds of years was being made in the most transformative ways, and Sholem Aleichem wrote characters who seemed familiar and made sense of all of this transformation, but did so in a brilliant and sophisticated way. I think that now as we have been distanced in time and place from the particular context of those writings, we cling more to the universal. One of Sholem Aleichem’s great characters, Menachem Mendl, is someone who is always trying to make it rich, and then fails miserably and then tries again, and I think in our contemporary circumstances a story of economic boom and bust is not unfamiliar to us, and we can find some perhaps bitter comic truth, but comic truth in Menachem Mendl’s efforts.

It was quite common in the early days of modern Yiddish writing, in the late 19th century, to adopt pen names. Some of that had to do simply with the literary style of the time. Some of it had to do with the kind of ambivalence certain Yiddish writers had towards writing in Yiddish. At the point when Sholem Aleichem was writing, many Jewish intellectuals felts that to write in Yiddish, the language of the common folk, was not what a cultured intellectual did. You wrote in Hebrew or you wrote in Russian, but you didn’t write in Yiddish. To be fair, Sholem Aleichem didn’t feel that nearly as strongly as many of his other compatriots, but it was not an uncommon device. At the beginnings of his literary career he adopted numerous literary pseudonyms, but Sholem Aleichem stuck. His first name was Sholem Rabinovitch, and he liked this “how do you do” name. Sholem Aleichem means, of course, “how do you do” in Yiddish, and he truly became to his audience at least this person, a Sholem Aleichem, a folksy “how do you do” narrator, which was quite different from the individual he actually was. Here was a man who corresponded with Gogol. Here was a man who lived in the fanciest areas, who had great wealth. He was not like the simple tailors who were the protagonists of his stories, and he certainly was not like Tevye. That confusion became present in the minds of a number of his readers at the time. Now we are able to distance those people a little bit more.

One of Sholem Aleichem’s main characters, Tevye, is a quintessential God-arguer, is someone who takes the promises of the Jewish classical textual tradition, of the Jewish prayer book, the Jewish Bible, and says, “All of these promises have been made to us, and look at the way we are now, look at our lives. How can these things be reconciled?” While the stories are all about the posing of this challenge, it is important to point out that Tevye, and perhaps Sholem Aleichem, but certainly Tevye was a man of great faith. Tevye takes the promises made in the Jewish holy books about Israel and juxtaposes them with the contemporary Jewish life, and he says, “How can we reconcile these two ideas?” And yet there is a great optimism in Tevye, in Sholem Aleichem, and it’s an optimism that is based on faith, and on a faith ultimately in a God that protects and looks after and turns the wheel back towards optimism. The last lines in Tevye’s stories is, to Sholem Aleichem, “Go tell everyone that the God of Israel still lives.” A great success has happened, his daughter, Chava, has returned to him, and that shows that there is the possibility of joy and redemption in what was once lost, and that is a religious faith, even if it’s not in the traditionally observant forms of his parents and his grandparents.

Sholem Aleichem argues through his characters, and at one episode Teyve is praying, and he keeps interrupting his own prayers with Yiddish asides, and the gist of those asides is, “You’ve promised us all of these things, you’ve promised us material comfort, you’ve promised us security, and look where we are now. How can you say you fulfill our prayers when this is the world we live in?” That challenge would have been felt very keenly by Sholem Aleichem’s audience. I think Sholem Aleichem was exquisitely attuned to a changing audience. This was an audience who was encountering modern trends and modern ideas. They were beginning to read modern literature, and they knew that the world was full of challenges, and they were posing them themselves. So instead they have a character speaking who is posing these challenges for them. One of the great innovations of Sholem Aleichem’s Tevye, as scholars say, is that while most novels of generational conflict, and here we have Tevye and his daughters in conflict, are told from the perspective of the younger generation, here we have the older generation who is grappling, who is trying to change, and this was what was going on all over the world. All of these people have grown up in this environment, and they are seeing that things are going on and they are trying to figure it out. So I don’t think Sholem Aleichem’s audience would have seen it as disrespectful as much as helpful for expressing their own half-formed ideas, their own complicated thoughts, and maybe shameful thoughts, but at a time when those thoughts fit into a long pattern of Jewish conversation. To pose the questions is not, in the Jewish tradition, nearly as much of a problem. In fact, I would say that often asking the questions is an important part of coming to a greater faith, and Tevye ultimately maintains his faith, and that, I think, is Sholem Aleichem’s optimism and his own traditional sensibility.

“Fiddler on the Roof” was a success because it spoke to, at first, an American Jewish community, and then the world trying to figure out the place of tradition in a rapidly changing world. I think in its original incarnation it was also a time when people were thinking very much about a vanished Eastern European Jewry, and “Fiddler” helped in many people’s minds to recreate that world, and overall the reason it’s become such an iconic production is because of this issue of tradition and change. How do we hold on to what we hold dear at a time when everything is becoming different? It’s from the perspective of that older generation; it’s not the perspective of the younger person breaking away. It’s the older person saying “the world is changing, and can I move with it?” And that’s the question, to one extent or another, we all feel ourselves facing: how far will I go and when can I not go any further? That’s the hard question.

Sholem Aleichem was a master of the Yiddish language, and his work, to be truly appreciated, like any great linguistic master, has to be read in the original, so I certainly encourage everyone to go out and learn Yiddish so they can read Sholem Aleichem. It’s a true gift. There are many Yiddish speakers in the world now. There will continue to be. But this current revival of interest in Yiddish culture is a positive phenomenon sparked by people who have read the masters of Yiddish and have said there is a lot to teach all of us in these works. I hope people will continue to discover Sholem Aleichem, because he has a lot to say to everybody.