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Sholem Aleichem, The Yiddish Mark Twain

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The following guest post by Susan Garfinkel, a research specialist in the Researcher and Reference Services Division, is offered in celebration of Jewish American Heritage Month.

Sholem Aleichem at his writing desk, Saint Petersburg, 1904. YIVO Archives
Sholem Aleichem at his writing desk, Saint Petersburg, 1904. YIVO Institute for Jewish Research.

As additional collections are digitized, those of us who keep an eye on the Library’s Today in History feature are on the lookout for anniversary dates we can highlight in new entries. Having found one example both literary and historic, I offered to start by sharing it with you here, for Jewish American Heritage Month. The story begins with a funeral.

When beloved Yiddish humorist and author Sholem Aleichem died on May 13, 1916, at his home in the Bronx, the collective outpouring of grief was immediate. Two days later on the 15th, a Monday, as many as 250,000 people, mainly Jewish immigrants, filled the streets, sidewalks, and rooftops of New York for his funeral procession—until then, the largest in New York City ever recorded. Over the course of the day, a cortege made its way from the Bronx through Harlem to the Lower East Side, and then across the Williamsburg Bridge into Brooklyn, to the Mt. Nebo (now Mt. Carmel) Cemetery, passing countless windows draped in black and stopping five times for memorial services spaced along the way. The author’s will was read aloud for the first time that afternoon, soon printed in the New York Times as “a fine example of the traditional ethical will,” and entered into the Congressional Record by Congressman William S. Bennet of the Twenty-third District shortly thereafter. What one scholar has called a “national pageant” worked to symbolize but also to instill unity across the many segments of the expansive American Jewish community that was sometimes at odds over matters ranging from religious orthodoxy to political orientation to cultural aesthetics. When it came to Sholem Aleichem, though—the vox populi, the folkschrayber, of the greater Jewish Pale of Settlement—everyone could genuinely share in their mourning. As one B. Finkel reported for the Yiddish newspaper Varheyt: “It was a Jewish funeral in the fullest sense of the word—both in its character and in the social composition of those who accompanied it…. The levaye looked like the ingathering of the exiles, like a meeting-place for the children of the entire Diaspora.” (Translated from Yiddish in Kellman, 296)

Sholem Aleichem’s funeral procession, May 15, 1916. Zikhren-album Tsu Shloshim Nokh der Pṭire fun Sholem-Aleykhem (New York: Sholem-Aleykhem Folks-Fond, 2016). Yiddish Book Center.
Sholem Aleichem’s funeral procession, May 15, 1916. Zikhren-album Tsu Shloshim Nokh der Pṭire fun Sholem-Aleykhem (New York: Sholem-Aleykhem Folks-Fond, 2016). Yiddish Book Center.

Solomon Rabinowitz, the man behind the pseudonym, had come to New York City from Europe in 1914, via Copenhagen, to escape the dangers of the First World War. Originally born in Pereyaslav, Ukraine, in 1859, Rabinowitz grew up in a shtetl (village) called Voronkov that would later serve as a model for his fiction; fell in love with and later married Olga Loyev, the daughter of a prosperous landowner, who he had been hired to tutor; and for a time was able to finance his burgeoning literary career by investing in the thriving Kiev stock market. Though Rabinowitz first sought to write in Russian and in Hebrew, it was in Yiddish where he found his literary success. At first, the pseudonym Sholem Aleichem was intended as a cover for his Yiddish-language experiments, but the writer’s humorous persona struck a chord, and stuck. Rabinowitz’s goal, as Sholem Aleichem, became to advance and develop a literature in common Yiddish—that is, the language Jews actually spoke—which rose above the pulp-fiction reputation (and sometime reality) most Yiddish-language writing then enjoyed. To this end, as Sholem Aleichem, Rabinowitz established an annual Yiddish literary journal, Di Yidishe Folks-Bibliotek (A Jewish Popular Library) first published in 1888—though only two volumes appeared before he lost his wife’s inheritance to the market and had to flee Kiev to escape his creditors.

Sholem is a standard male first name and a variant of Solomon, but the phrase “Sholem Aleichem” in Yiddish (as in Hebrew) is actually a common greeting that means both hello and goodbye, literally “peace be unto you” and idiomatically “how do you do.” To use it as a person’s name is a joke along the lines of Abbot and Costello: “Hello, what’s your name?” “Hello.” “Um, hello—What’s your name??” “Hello—how do you do!” Rabinowitz’s adoption of this common phrase for his pseudonym sets the stage for the vernacular humor of his writing, steeped in the everyday experience of Eastern European Jews caught between tradition and modernity, and within a complex set of political, socio-cultural and economic conditions that kept daily life precarious for millions. During the 1890s Sholem Aleichem struggled financially but wrote prolifically and found a voice especially in the serialized writings that made him so familiar to his audience of Jewish readers in Europe and beyond. It was in this decade that he first created such monumental (and semi-autobiographical) recurring characters as Menakhem-Mendel who, while off on business, engages in hilarious epistolary exchanges with his wife, Sheyne-Sheyndel; and Tevye, the dairyman with many daughters, who philosophizes on life and (mis)interprets the bible in direct dialogue with the author.

Harold Prince Presents Zero Mostel in Fiddler on the Roof, poster, 1964.
Harold Prince Presents Zero Mostel in Fiddler on the Roof, poster, 1964.

As it turns out, 1914 to ‘16 marked the author’s second stint in America. Sholem Aleichem had spent parts of 1906 through ‘07 in New York City as well, working to bring his stories to the American Yiddish stage in the hopes of gaining some financial stability. Several plays were mounted by such Second Avenue impresarios as Jacob Adler and Boris Thomashefsky, but they did not find an audience. The failure of Sholem Aleichem’s work to take hold on the New York stage may speak to the times, or to the differences between European and American Jewish sensibilities in an era of intensive migration. The failure is especially ironic, however, since most Americans today will know of Sholem Aleichem because of Fiddler on the Roof, the Broadway musical (1964) and follow-on movie (1971) based on his stories of Tevye. More on that in a moment.

What drew me to this literary blog post were the comparisons to Mark Twain one finds everywhere, back in the publications of those first decades of the twentieth century and in scholarship thereafter. Yiddish Mark Twain to speak! The Jewish Mark Twain: Sholem Aleichem is Coming to America! As biographer Jeremy Dauber recounts as one example, when Sholem Aleichem first arrived in America to great acclaim, the Yiddish language Morgen-Zhurnal ran a huge front page photo of “‘The Jewish Mark Twain’ crowned with a wreath.” An article found on our website, in the New York Tribune’s Sunday magazine dated May 21, 1916, is quintessential, and was the one that initially caught my eye. Titled simply “Sholem Aleichem!” and appearing a week after the author’s death, it muses on how Sholem Aleichem’s failing health—he suffered from tuberculosis and died of kidney disease—along with his consistent financial woes had remained largely hidden from public view, as well as on the balancing act of humor and sorrow, of humor and high literature, both. Author Samuel A. B. Frommer had tried to interview Sholem Aleichem just a short time prior, with limited success. “What shall I tell you?” asked the author. “I am a Yiddish writer. They say that I am a humorist; that I make others laugh, and—I weep,” he replied, adding: “Tell me. Can a Yiddish writer make a living in this country?”

The piece also summarizes Sholem Aleichem’s literary achievements, and discusses the comparison to Mark Twain like so many others published before and since. It includes an intriguing anecdote that sparked my further investigation. Frommer writes:

The East Side has learned, during the last few days, what occurred during a meeting between Sholem Aleichem and Mark Twain. “So you are the Yiddish Mark Twain,” remarked the author of “Huckleberry Finn.” Then, with a smile, Samuel Clemens continued, “I suppose I might be called the American Sholem Aleichem.”

How gracious of them both. Based on headlines, the initial comparison to Mark Twain dates back at least to Sholem Aleichem’s first New York visit in 1906, but this was the first I had seen of an actual meeting between the two.

“Russia Too Sad for Humorist,” The Daybook (Chicago), April 16, 1915. Chronicling America.
“Russia Too Sad for Humorist,” The Daybook (Chicago), April 16, 1915. Chronicling America.

Indeed, the authors Sholem Aleichem and Mark Twain do have characteristics in common: both are humorists writing under pseudonyms based on everyday expressions whose pseudonymous personas grew to be larger than life; both take on vernacular subjects and styles of language unusual for the time in literary circles—Sholem Aleichem wrote in Yiddish (literally “Jewish”), while Mark Twain published novels steeped in vernacular American dialect; both published extensively in serial form; both enjoyed a literary celebrity that extended to their image and as well as their texts; both authored bildungsroman-style adventure stories tinged with dark undertones and dead parents: Twain in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Sholem Aleichem in Motl Payse dem Khazns (Motl the Cantor’s Son). In fact, it turns out that sometimes Sholem Aleichem is referred to as the Yiddish Mark Twain, and sometimes as the Jewish one—the distinction has strong cultural implications, but perhaps that’s precisely the problem of ambiguity in translation. I find both appellations in our Chronicling America digitized newspaper collections, and tend to favor Yiddish in recognition of the potency of language, just as Sholem Aleichem did.

Apparently, it was at one of the large, public events soon after his first New York arrival that Sholem Aleichem did meet Mark Twain in person—at least as recounted decades later by his daughter Marie Waife-Goldberg in her My Father, Sholem Aleichem of 1968:

[A celebratory banquet] was followed by a reception at the Educational Alliance, the Jewish community center the German Jews maintained on the East Side… A most distinguished guest at the reception was Mark Twain. It was Justice [Samuel] Greenbaum who introduced my father to the great American Humorist as the “Jewish Mark Twain,” to which Mark Twain graciously replied, “Please tell him that I am the American Sholom Aleichem.” (Waife-Goldberg, 187)

The acknowledgment that Sholem Aleichem would not have understood Twain’s English does ring true, though I also know he was good at languages. I was intrigued to discover, though, that Bel Kauffman—Sholem Aleichem’s granddaughter, Waife-Goldberg’s niece, and an accomplished literary author in her own right (Up the Down Staircase)—considers the story apocryphal, as recounted in an oral history for the Yiddish Book Center she recorded in 2014. I can find no original mention of this meeting, or Twain’s presence at the event, in English language newspapers, and I have no immediate way to search those in Yiddish with our reading rooms currently closed. There are always more sources to tap, but this may simply be a case where the legend takes on a life of its own, just as both Sholem Aleichem and Mark Twain would so masterfully do in their lifetimes—so that the truth of it is in its implications, not its veracity. “It’s striking, just how the life of each individual gets dissolved into symbols,” wrote one early analyst in 1924 (Erik, 152).  For what it’s worth, Dauber, as author of the first complete modern biography of Sholem Aleichem, does recount the meeting in his book.

I also found that in 1963, five years before Waife-Goldberg’s memoir appeared, a then-emerging poet Edward Field published a narrative poem titled “Mark Twain and Sholem Aleichem” as part of his first collection. In it, Field posits a different sort of meeting. The two men, seemingly old friends, “went one day to Coney Island,” where:

Sitting together on the sand among food wrappers and lost coins
They went through that famous dialogue
Like the vaudeville routine, After-you-Gaston:
“They tell me you are called the Yiddish Mark Twain.”
“Nu? The way I heard it you are the American Sholem Aleichem.”
And in this way passed a pleasant day admiring each other,
The voice of the old world and the voice of the new.

Field’s poem continues, setting the pair among “shapeless mothers and brutal fathers” giving “lessons in life,” to “yellow, brown, white and black children,” evoking an updated version of the violent undercurrents grounding the difficult but survivable worlds they had each painted with their words. The two men decide to go swimming, though Sholem Aleichem is not dressed for it, and “pretty soon,” Fields tells us, “they were both floundering in the sea.” Both men, Field concludes, had tried to make the world a better place and had “gently” faced their failures. “If humor and love had failed, what next?” he asks. Living in the moment it seems, or moving forward. “They were both drowning and enjoying it now… Splashing about in the sea like crazy monks.” While I have yet to confirm from other sources if Sholem Aleichem and Twain ever met at a reception in 1906—and what they said, and what they meant, if exchanging any compliments or pleasantries—I am intrigued that the world was intrigued by them. I am happy, as well, to picture them here together in Field’s fictive poem space, defying their time frame, plunging into the water and ruining their clothes. (Field, 150-51)

Among the items digitized on the Library’s website is a collection of Yiddish playscripts originally submitted for copyright some hundred years ago. One of those is Tevye der Milkhiger: A Familynbild in Finf Stsenes, which translates to Tevieh the Dairyman: A Drama in Five Scenes in English. On our website the digital interface is old, the scans are hard to read, and it looks like the original typed on a Yiddish typewriter might be the carbon copy. This play was submitted for copyright in 1919, three years after its stated author Sholem Aleichem had died. Transliteration conventions aside, Tevieh is of course Tevye, the protagonist of Fiddler on the Roof, the colorful Jewish villager who has only daughters that he needs to marry off. Tevye’s story began life, in fact, as a series of short episodes written by Sholem Aleichem over the course of more than twenty years that together create the larger narrative. The story was not produced as a play in Sholem Aleichem’s lifetime. What are we seeing here?

First pages of "Tevye der Milkhiger: A Familyenbild in Finf Stsenes fun Sholem-Aleykhem (Tevieh the Dairyman: A Drama in Five Scenes by Sholem Aleichem)", 1919.
First pages of Tevye der Milkhiger: A Familyenbild in Finf Stsenes fun Sholem-Aleykhem (Tevieh the Dairyman: A Drama in Five Scenes by Sholem Aleichem), 1919.

Had I done my research in the right order, it turns out I would have saved myself some time. But I wondered if I could find the original copyright record for this play, which with my limited Yiddish I can tell says nothing about the author beyond the words “Sholem Aleichem” on its title page. Copyright record books from 1919 are available as scans through Google Books, and after some searching and consulting with a colleague, we found the record.  From it, we learn that Olga Rabinowitz, the author’s widow, was the one who secured copyright protection for this unpublished dramatic adaptation. So this is his work! I next tried out the Copyright Office’s proof of concept Virtual Card Catalog, and with some browsing was able to find the actual copyright card itself, pictured here:

Copyright catalog card for “Tevieh der Milchiger,” an unpublished dramatic composition, dated April 3, 1919, indicating that the copyright was claimed by Olga Rabinowitz, Sholem Aleichem’s widow. Copyright Virtual Card Catalog.
Copyright catalog card for Tevieh der Milchiger, an unpublished dramatic composition, dated April 3, 1919. Copyright Virtual Card Catalog.

Of course, it was only then that I remembered to check the finding aid we have for our collection of Yiddish playscripts, known as the Lawrence Marwick Collection of Copyright Yiddish Plays. There I learned, again, that Olga had submitted the copyright claim (p. 134) but also that the dramatization was written by Sholem Aleichem in Switzerland, February 1914, and revised in New York, 1916, soon before his death. I also learned that the script formed the basis of the other film of Tevye, completed in Yiddish in 1939, directed by Maurice Schwartz, with music by Sholem Secunda, and now listed on the National Film Registry here at the Library of Congress as a candidate for long term preservation. There is something both poignant and satisfying knowing that it was Sholem Aleichem himself who dramatized his work, and who possibly even typed the pages we have at the Library. And that it was Olga, who three years later, filed for copyright before the play was first produced by Schwartz, in 1919, at the Irving Place Theater, a full twenty years before he made the movie.

The popularity, the nostalgia, and the staying power of Fiddler on the Roof is a story for another day, and one well worth reading about in Alisa Solomon’s Wonder of Wonders: A Cultural History of Fiddler on the Roof. Suffice it to say that neither the broad appeal nor the fantastic success of the production was expected by its mostly-Jewish creators. Yes, Fiddler on the Roof, our musical Tevye, is also earmarked for long-term preservation due to its listing on the National Recording Registry for the original Broadway cast recording, of 1964. What’s important to realize is that the generations that adored Sholem Aleichem but didn’t necessarily shower him with revenue were the immigrants themselves, not the children and grandchildren newly suburbanized, curious about their past, perhaps cut off from family and background or traumatized by the losses of people and places, of families, in the wake of the Second World War. Fiddler spoke to the second and the third generation, helping them to visualize, to hear, and to feel a world long gone. But in terms of nostalgia, think also about my interest in that copyright catalog card. What does it tell me and why did I want to see it, to share the actual image of the original with you here?

One final treasure I found on our website seems to tie these strands together, to memorialize Sholem Aleichem for the past but also for the future. I’m not sure if Mark Twain ever wrote a lullaby, but Sholem Aleichem did. “Shlof Mayn Kind” (“Sleep My Child”) with lyrics by Sholem Aleichem and music by Dovid Kovanovsky tells the story of a sad mother singing to her child. Someday you will understand my tears, she sings. Your father is far away in America, and you are still small. They say that America is a paradise for the Jews—that they eat challah every day. He will send us twenty dollars and his photo, and he will bring us there. Until then, sleep, it is good. (One version of translated lyrics is found on the last page of 1920 sheet music on our website, another version here.) Part of the National Jukebox project, an early recording from 1916 sung by Jakov M. Medvedieff in Yiddish with a simple orchestral accompaniment, somehow conveys the poignancy of the sentiment, and of the moment of Sholem Aleichem’s passing that same year, across a century. Lullabies can be endings, but also beginnings. Please do listen:

Though not precisely an immigrant, Sholem Aleichem was of an immigrant generation—a major cosmopolitan figure in a cosmopolitan culture that was grappling with how to balance tradition and modernity, trying to understand where to go next and how to embrace what comes. In his writing, he recognizes both the sorrow and the joy of the present time, of the everyday. He reminds his readers to smile, and sometimes to laugh—with affection or at the ultimate absurdity of it all—and to be ready to pivot on a dime even if you’re turning in slow motion. If, by the time that Fiddler came along and since then, there has been room for some full-fledged nostalgia within the ethos of assimilated progress that life in America brought to the Jewish world, Sholem Aleichem still reminds us that the collective past is really ours to cherish, warts and all. Always remember and never forget—and though that’s not always pretty, do also remember to laugh, and to love what you are part of.


Sholem Aleichem’s will was written in 1915 following the sudden death of his eldest son, and published in the New York Times the day after his funeral. In it, he asked to be buried not among aristocrats, but commoners, “among the very people itself.” For his gravestone, he wrote a rhymed Yiddish epitaph, that says in part: “Here lies a plain and simple Jew / Who wrote in plain and simple prose… And while his grateful readers laughed… He wept in secret and alone.” He also asks that no monument be erected to his memory, stating “The best monument for me will be if my works are read.”

Most notably, Sholem Aleichem envisions family and friends continuing to celebrate his life and art with humor. If, on the anniversary of his death, his sons do not wish to engage in traditional prayers, he offers a specific alternative:

[T]hey can be absolved from this duty only if they all come together with my daughters and my grandchildren and with good friends, and read this my will, and also select one of my stories, one of the really joyous ones, and read it aloud in whatever language they understand best.

These instructions began a tradition that continues to this day. In 2010, for example, the New York Times reported an annual gathering of more than two hundred, including family, friends, authors, and actors, as well as the author’s grandchildren, Sherwin and Bel Kauffman, both in their nineties. “Let my name be mentioned by them with laughter,” wrote Sholem Aleichem in his will, “rather than not be mentioned at all.”

Further Resources

Dauber, Jeremy Asher. The Worlds of Shalom Aleichem: The Remarkable Life and Afterlife of the Man Who Created Tevye. New York: Nextbook ; Schocken, 2013.

Dorman, Joseph. Sholem Aleichem: Laughing in the Darkness: A Film. Riverside Films : New Video : Docuramafilms, 2013.

Erik, Maks. “Sholem Aleichem and Mark Twain: Notes on the Eighth Anniversary of Sholem Aleichem’s Death (1924).” In The Mark Twain Anthology: Great Writers on His Life and Works, edited by Shelley Fisher Fishkin, translated by Zachary Baker, 151-157. New York: The Library of America, 2010.

Field, Edward. “Mark Twain and Sholem Aleichem.” In Critical Essays on Mark Twain, 1910-1980, edited by Louis J. Budd, 150-51. Boston: G.K. Hall, 1983.

Kellman, Ellen D. “Sholem Aleichem’s Funeral (New York, 1916): The Making of a National Pageant.” YIVO Annual of Jewish Social Science, 1991, 277-304.

Miron, Dan. The Image of the Shtetl and Other Studies of Modern Jewish Literary Imagination. Syracuse, N.Y: Syracuse University Press, 2000.

——-. “The Literary Image of the Shtetl.” Jewish Social Studies 1, no. 3 (1995): 1-43.

——-. “Sholem Aleichem.” The Yivo Encyclopedia of Jews in Eastern Europe.

Sholem Aleichem. Tevye the Dairyman: And Motl the Cantor’s Son. Translated by Aliza Shevrin. Penguin Classics. New York, N.Y: Penguin Group, 2009.

Solomon, Alisa. Wonder of Wonders: A Cultural History of Fiddler on the Roof. New York: Metropolitan Books, 2013.

Waife-Goldberg, Marie. My Father, Sholom Aleichem. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1968.

Comments (2)

  1. I was very happy to learn about Sholem Aleichem, the Yiddish Mark Twain! This essay by Dr. Susan Garfinkel reminds me, as a historian of science myself, that historians and the public shape the history. Mark Twain is indeed known to everyone–not only to the people in the United States, but also to those people in the world. It is our duty as historians to write about contributions of great minds that can be lost if historians don’t remind the public. The Library of Congress holds rare and extremely valuable collections such as items on Sholem Aleichem and making available to everyone in the world through the digitization. For the public to know the existence of these important collections, however, they should be highlighted by historians and archivists such as Dr. Garfinkel. This essay is a Wonderful example! — T. Steen

  2. When did Sholem Aleichem start being published in English translation? Was he known to the English-speaking world during his lifetime or only posthumously? I’m curious as to if he had any influence on other major writers who were his contemporaries – great writers who couldn’t read Yiddish but who could read a translation.

    It’s well-known that Constance Garnett, by translating all the great Russians into eloquent and vigorous English, had a huge impact on the course on English literature – since everyone from Joyce to Woolf to Hemingway was finally able to read and be influenced by the Russian classics, including Chekhov’s short stories, via Garnett’s beloved translations.

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