Like many American Jews, my first encounter with Sholem Aleichem was when I saw “Fiddler on the Roof” as a movie starring Chaim Topol as Tevye the dairyman. By the time Topol was snapping his fingers and singing and dancing down Anatevka’s dusty roads, I had already worn a groove in the Zero Mostel recording of the Broadway version. I don’t remember when “Fiddler on the Roof” wasn’t a part of my Jewish identity.
Much later I learned that Tevye’s creator was a vaunted writer of Yiddish literature, second in popularity and influence only to Isaac Bashevis Singer. And now, on the 100th anniversary of his death, Sholem Aleichem, a man once hailed as the “Jewish Mark Twain,” is getting his due through a new website—sholemaleichem.org. The website is the unique collaboration of Citizen Film, a San Francisco-based multimedia documentary company, and Columbia University’s Institute for Israel and Jewish Studies. Contributions to the site also come from the Yiddish Book Center, Columbia University’s Center for Teaching and Learning, The Covenant Foundation and Riverside Films.
Born Sholem Naumovich Rabinovich in the Pale of Settlement in Russia in 1850, Aleichem adopted his symbolic pen name at 15. (The name means “hello” or “how do you do” in both Yiddish and Hebrew.) At the height of his literary prowess, more than half a million people read Aleichem’s stories as installments in various Yiddish newspapers. Leo Tolstoy and Anton Chekhov were among his admirers. Jeremy Dauber, a Columbia professor who directs the Institute for Israel and Jewish Studies, as well as the Sholem Aleichem website, notes that, “Aleichem was very much a man of his time, but spoke to contemporary issues the way many great writers do.”
Josh Lambert, the academic director of the Amherst-based Yiddish Book Center, further asserts that Aleichem “worked hard to professionalize Yiddish literary culture and make it every bit as sophisticated as the Russian, Central European or American literary cultures of his time.”
In the end, the Sholem Aleichem website was a labor of love for everyone involved. Aleichem’s descendants approached Sam Ball, co-founder of Citizen Film, to help them commemorate Aleichem. The project was a natural for the company, which partners with civic, cultural and academic institutions to create documentary media. In addition to the website, Citizen Film has also done projects with the Jewish Museum in New York and the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco.
Ball, the website’s director and producer, knew the 100th anniversary of Aleichem’s yahrtzeit was an auspicious time to launch the website. “Google any important author of that period and you’ll see web resources,” says Ball. “There was a hole in the cultural marketplace, and it’s important that we remember Sholem Aleichem as both a literary and cultural figure. What we know about Sholem Aleichem is learned through the prism of his afterlife and the adaptations of his work. But he is also so pleasurable to read. He’s accessible on one level and difficult on another level. That’s what gives this project so many layers.”
Dauber, who published a well-received biography of Sholem Aleichem in 2013 with the descriptive subtitle, “The Remarkable Life and Afterlife of the Man Who Created Tevye,” observes that Aleichem was “present in many ways at a moment that was foundational in all sorts of aspects of Jewish culture. He watched the shtetl deal with forces of modernity.” Aleichem eventually immigrated to the United States in the early 1900s and was a keen observer of the American-Jewish experience. He was also an ardent Zionist who explored what it meant to be a Jew in the Jewish homeland.
According to Dauber, although Tevye remains “the character that has the most purchase because of ‘Fiddler on the Roof,’ he also contains everything that Sholem Aleichem has to say about modern Jewish identity. The themes of those stories are very resonant today. One of the things I’m happy about is that the website, with its combination of visual and textual material, really gives a picture of Sholem Aleichem as a person and as a writer who lived in the world, rather than the imagined figure who people confuse with his characters. [The website] gives him the due he deserves as one of the great writers, not just of Yiddish, but of the modern period.”
When Sholem Aleichem died in 1916 in New York City, 100,000 people attended his funeral, the largest public funeral in the city up to that time. In the wake of his death, Aleichem left behind an ethical will that stipulated that his work “be read aloud in whatever language you speak” every year on his yahrtzeit. That call to remember Aleichem’s work aurally has been incorporated into the new website. And the ethical will itself is also published on the site.
“When we were approached by [Aleichem’s] family to do this website,” Dauber says, “we realized this was a remarkable educational opportunity for my students, as well as for the public to have this [resource] available. People will be surprised that these 100-year-old texts have so much to say to them.”