Sholem Naumovich Rabinovich was born in 1858 in a shtetl in a remote part of Russia that eventually became Ukraine, and when he grew he eventually became Sholem Aleichem the most celebrated Yiddish writer of all time. His father was a wealthy merchant who managed to go bankrupt make the family penniless, which was something Sholem would repeat often in his adult life, and he eventually had to be rescued from his irate creditors by an unamused Mother-In-Law who would never speak to him again.
These were interesting times where these Eastern European Jews were starting to break away from the thousand-year-old tradition of somewhat isolated living in schetels and moving out to the modern outside world. Whilst it may have led to Sholem’s financial undoing, it did give him a sense of purpose as after he finished a day gambling on the stock exchange in the city, he would start writing. And what he chose to write about were stories of the old way of life that he had sharply observed for years, and that were now slowly disappearing. When they were published in Yiddish newspapers they found a very avid readership and his fame spread like wild fire not just throughout the Continent but overseas too.
At the beginning of the next century, broke yet again, leaving their six children behind, Sholem and his wife sailed to the US. He was welcomed as a great folk hero and mobbed by crowds when he arrived, which gave him great hope. However, the Jews he found in America had already transitioned to a new way of life, and his first attempts at playwriting were so entrenched in the old life, that they failed miserably and he quickly scurried back to Russia deeply disappointed.
His second foray to the US was when the WW1 broke out and he was forced to flee Europe…. his work had gained so much in popularity by now, that when he died quite soon after, some 200,000 people turned out in New York for the biggest funeral the city had ever seen. Interestingly enough the crowds contained not just his readers, but every other major Yiddish writer who acknowledged him as the finest of their number.
Joseph Dorman’s riveting documentary bears witness not just to the effect of Sholem Aleichem’s writings when he was alive, but to the vast and indeterminate consequences it has had on Jewish culture ever since. Sholem Aleichem’s most populists stories about Tevye the Milkman were made into the multi-Tony award winning Broadway Show and Oscar winning movie ‘Fiddler On the Roof’.
It’s a fascinating story, and told well, particulary by Sholem Aleichem’s very lively grand-daughter who I swore looked my age, but is actually 101!