Who Was Sholem Aleichem?

Sholem Aleichem portrait

Sholem Aleichem: novelist, essayist, playwright and one of the great writers of the late-19th and early-20thcenturies. Born Sholem Naumovich Rabinovich, he created rich characters that stand out because of their humanity and their universal appeal. He was read and admired by Tolstoy and Chekhov, and by hundreds of thousands of newspaper readers who pored over his weekly installments. Published serially in the burgeoning mass medium of Yiddish newsprint, Sholem Aleichem had a close relationship with his readers, similar in many ways to popular bloggers and their readers today.

His protagonists are lovable, fallible people from a traditional world, running headlong towards the brink of modernity. In his day, Sholem Aleichem was often called “The Jewish Mark Twain.” Like Twain, he was skilled at writing dialogue in many different voices. His Motl, Menakhem Mendel, Sheyne Sheyndel, Tevye and a panoply of other characters still pop off the page today.

Sholem Aleichem wrote primarily about Eastern European Jews, and is perhaps best known for Tevye the Dairyman, upon which Broadway’s Fiddler on the Roof, one of the most popular shows of all time, is based. The theme song of Fiddler on the Roof  is now so universal, it has been performed in Japanese, Hungarian, Hindi and even by sock puppets viewed by thousands of people on YouTube. There’s a reason that Tevye—particularly in his later incarnation as a musical theater star—is so beloved by audiences from Broadway to Tokyo. That reason has to do with the brilliance and heart that Sholem Aleichem lavished on his creation, forging a character that tells us something about what it means to live, to love, to struggle, and to change.