Columbia University Yiddish literature Professor Jeremy Dauber addressed a packed theater Thursday about his newly-published book, The Worlds of Sholem Aleichem: The Remarkable Life and Afterlife of the Man Who Created Tevye. Dauber’s talk was made possible by the Bernard Wexler Fund for Jewish History, which supports an annual lecture at the DCJCC Literary Festival, and was co-sponsored by the Joseph and Rebecca Meyerhoff Center and Program for Jewish Studies at the University of Maryland, the Program in Judaic Studies at The George Washington University and Yiddish of Greater Washington.
Known in some circles as “the Jewish Mark Twain,” a contemporary of his, Sholem Aleichem, born Sholem Rabinovich in 1859 in what is now the Ukraine, had a literary career that spanned from short stories to novels to plays. Although considered a theatrical failure by the end of his life, his funeral in 1916 was one of the largest ever attended in New York (somewhere between 30 and 250,000 mourners), and of course his Tevye stories live on through the Broadway musical-turned-film adaptation, Fiddler on the Roof.
Dauber centered his talk on 13 points to know about Aleichem the man, ranging in his interest in the Jewish Enlightenment (the Haskalah), socialism and zionism; to his “boom and bust” personality, particularly when it came to business investments; his devotion to family; and more.
Sholem Aleichem has had a long and personal influence over my life, long before I knew it was him, and I was a little girl reacting to Neva Small, who played Chava in the popular 1971 movie. Moved by the daughter who most encapsulated my family’s Jewish experience, I named my childhood cat after her and now write about Jewish interfaith issues in a blog entitled Chava’s Footsteps. Ironically, of all the progressive movement that Aleichem espoused, he stopped short of accepting interfaith marriage. In fact, in the original story, unlike the adaptations, Chava leaves her Gentile husband and returns to her faith and family. Dauber opined that this was Aliechem’s way of giving Tevye, who was often steeped in tragedy, a happy ending after all.
Dauber spoke with an earnest excitement about his work, which made this literary legend, dead for nearly 100 years, feel both alive and more relatably human. In the Q&A session, the professor speculated that Aleichem would have appreciated his work living on in new mediums like Broadway and movies, especially considering that he was a “new media” sorta guy himself, getting published in the expanding Yiddish press and exploring the burgeoning silent film industry. And by the way, yes, Tevye was based on at least one real person, one of whom ultimately banked on his fame when travelers would come to try his dairy products. 😛